James Q. Wilson, the eminent social scientist, has done a useful bit of cloning. He has taken Buford O. Furrow Jr., the neo-Nazi who is charged with killing a Filipino letter carrier and shooting up a Los Angeles Jewish center, and given him two fictitious brothers. Buford killed the letter carrier because of his race. Alfred did it because he had taken out life insurance on his victim, and Charles killed the guy to show that he's tough. Which crime is worst?

The answer, President Clinton and others tell us, is the one committed by Buford. It is a hate crime and as such it is directed not just at a single individual but an entire group -- in this case, Asian Americans. Speaking at the White House just last week, the president once again called on Congress to pass the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which, besides stiffening penalties and getting the Feds involved, would demonstrate to the world how much we abominate bigotry. He cited Bosnia and Kosovo. We can show them how to deal with hate.

It seems to me, though, that we would be teaching these countries what they already seem to know -- that the worth of an individual is dependent on the group to which he belongs. This is what the proposed law endorses. It sets a higher value on the lives or safety of certain people than on others. The various Furrows of Wilson's fertile imagination all killed their victim. But it is only the hate killing that would warrant a special penalty and trigger the interest of the federal government. In all these cases, though, the victim lay dead in the street.

As Wilson points out, the intent of the bill is to punish motive. This is not the same as intent, and gets into questions of what's in the perpetrator's head. Did he beat someone up because he dated his girlfriend, took his parking space or because he was black? Are the welts on the victim's face any different in either case? And what happens if, in the course of seizing a parking space, you simultaneously lose your temper and your tongue and denounce your victim in some bigoted way? Should you get a stiffer sentence?

Wilson, an opponent of hate-crime legislation, wrote his piece for National Review, a conservative magazine. But hate crime legislation is one of those areas in which conservatives are liberal and liberals are just plain out of their minds. In an effort to send a "We Care" statement to gays, blacks and other minorities, liberals are plunging into the sort of mind reading that they so abhor in other areas. Sure, some conservatives oppose these laws because they would apply to gays, but they are right in insisting that penalizing motive is a dangerous precedent -- an awesome power to give the government.

We are all affected by crime. It's hard to argue that a murder in the park has less effect on the people who use it than a hate crime committed in another part of the city has on, say, blacks or Jews. A couple of burglaries in my neighborhood have more impact on me than does the desecration of a synagogue across town. Both have their effect, and while the latter is certainly ugly and reprehensible, I can't see why it is a worse crime than the other. Both are covered by relevant state or federal laws. If these laws need to be strengthened, then strengthen them. But don't value the life or limb of some people more than others.

It would be one thing if there was any evidence that hate crime laws actually reduced hate crimes. No such proof exists. California already has a hate crime law, but it did not stop the real Buford Furrow Jr. from allegedly shooting up a Jewish center and later murdering a mailman. Illinois also has a hate crime law, but it didn't stop Benjamin Smith from killing two persons and wounding nine others last July. He picked his victims on the basis of their race or religion -- and then killed himself. What's more, no one can prove that hate crimes are on the increase. Crime statistics suggest otherwise.

Wilson is right. His Furrows are all dangerous men. Their victims are dead no matter what the reason. Their crimes should be punished, not also the thoughts that precipitated them. By punishing a criminal not just for what he did but for the reason he did it, we are, in effect, validating his thinking. He took a shot at an individual to hit a group. It's bad aim, but we tell him he's right on target.