At one time, a hangman's noose may have symbolized the majesty of the state for most people, since hanging was how most people were executed, in English-speaking countries at least, before the advent of the electric chair. In the United States, it has always had a separate meaning, because the noose was also the preferred instrument of extra-legal executions, i.e. lynchings. Deep into the 20th century, the noose acquired a more exclusive meaning as fewer people were lynched across the country, and nearly all of those who were were black. In 2006, the display of a noose in Jena LA is seen by many as an exculpatory provocation for the beating by blacks of a white youth. The case of the Jena Six has become a cause celebre in liberal circles because the assailants faced the disproportionate charge of attempted murder, whereas, had the racial roles been reversed, so the presumption goes, six white thugs would not have been so charged for pummeling a black youth. Now we have a movement afoot to have any display of a noose treated as a hate crime. This was reportedly taken to an absurd extreme during the recent Halloween season, when someone had to take down an effigy of a hanging scarecrow because someone else took it as a symbol of lynching. This article summarizes several recent cases, each of which you can appraise as you please.
It seems sometimes as if radical representatives of ethnic minorities think that the only real power they have is to forbid certain words or symbols. Whether it's the "N-word" or the Indian sports mascot, or now the noose, some sort of satisfaction comes from telling the majority, the people with the power, that on certain occasions they cannot have their way, cannot boast of their vaunted freedom. These cultural struggles are always assertions of power. The reasons for any such commandment fail to sustain scrutiny. The ban on the N-word is hypocritical as long as some groups can use it freely (of course, that's part of the appeal of forbidding it). Indian mascots can't be meant as insults because the teams would otherwise be insulting themselves (but of course it doesn't matter what anyone thinks except those with the power to forbid). The noose is a more subtle matter. In Jena, it seems fairly obvious that the noose was meant as an insult to blacks. In the case at Columbia University, where a noose was hung over a professor's office door, the professor's race does seem relevant. But if anyone means to insist that a noose is always and only a symbol of lynching, or that its display is always and only an attempt to intimidate blacks, we must disagree. History tells us the truth in this case. The terror of the noose as a symbol of cruel punishment or mob rule is shared by everyone, which is why we hang scarecrows in some places at Halloween time. Nor were all lynchings hangings; victims were often tied to trees of iron rails and riddled with bullets, and some were simply burned at the stake. Honesty demands that we resist any attempt to put the noose under any sort of cultural embargo, and that we investigate the circumstances of any display of nooses before we draw conclusions about people's intentions. Otherwise, a sort of intellectual lynching will have arguably taken place.