Al Pope, October 16, 2006
Lies, damn lies, and freedom of speech
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Last week, the French National Assembly voted 106-19 in favour of a bill to recognize the Turkish slaughter of Armenians during and after World War I as genocide, and to make denial of that genocide punishable by a fine of up to 45,000 Euros. The bill doesnít become law unless passed by the senate, but itís already got Turkey very nervous about its ongoing bid to enter the European Community.
During World War I, the Ottoman Empire embarked on a program of what we have since come to know as ďethnic cleansingĒ against its Armenian subjects. Turkish soldiers burned entire towns and villages, slaughtering at least three hundred thousand people. They then began a ďresettlement programĒ, in which Armenians were forced to march in their tens of thousands to starvation camps in the Syrian desert.
The Turkish government doesnít entirely deny that these events took place. The Ottomans even went so far as to indict three of their own commanders for crimes against the Armenians Ė though the indictment is a blatant whitewash for the Young Turks, who largely perpetrated the atrocities. What they do say is, and what is almost always said in these cases, is that the slaughter was mutual, that the Armenians were allied with Russia against the Ottomans, and that war crimes were committed against Turks in about equal proportion to those committed by Turks. No one but the Turkish government seems inclined to endorse this view of events.
On the surface of it, it would appear that thereís ample precedent for a law banning denial of a genocide. France, Canada, and dozens of other countries have laws against denial of the Nazi Holocaust, even though Holocaust deniers cast themselves simply as historians whose view of the events of World War Two differ from historical orthodoxy.
Paradoxically, laws against holocaust denial exist almost exclusively in countries which also enjoy the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech. What makes this one particular slaughter, the Nazi Holocaust, so sacrosanct that democracies are willing to abandon one of their first principals to protect the official history? Itís perfectly legal to dispute the number of witches burned alive by the Christians, the number of aboriginal victims of the Indian Wars, the number of Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin.
In France you may legally make the claim that French troops never murdered Algerian civilians, that Joan of Arc never died at the stake, that there was no Reign of Terror, no Robespierre, no Guillotine, no Napoleon. It would be ridiculous, but it would not be against the law. Itís perfectly legal for the United States to reject sound studies showing that their war in Iraq is responsible for 600,000 deaths, and here in Canada even the prime minister may claim that it is no crime for war planes to target apartment buildings and ambulances.
But there is a difference, and the Holocaust is a special case. There is a good reason why almost every country that was involved in World War II has banned Holocaust denial. Itís not to spare the feelings of the survivors, or to maintain the former Axis powers in a permanent state of guilt. Holocaust denial is banned because of the motives of the deniers, which are without exception purely vicious, and have nothing to do with history.
There is no reasonable historical dispute about the existence of the Nazi death camps, about their utter barbarity, or about the fact that millions died there. Holocaust denial is not history, itís hate. Its perpetrators arenít historians, theyíre neo-Nazis and anti-Semites with an axe to grind. They deliberately twist history in order to enlist new recruits into violent ultra-right-wing groups. To stop them, legislators around the world have taken the extraordinary step of banning the publication of Nazi lies.
Does France have a strong anti-Armenian movement that uses genocide denial to advance its cause? Do right-wing extremists congregate around the belief that an international Armenian conspiracy suppresses historical truth in order to advance its program of world domination? Is Europe plagued by outbreaks of neo-Young-Turk Skinhead violence? No. What France has is half a million Armenian voters, and an election year coming up. Afraid of the voting power of that block, the deputies of the National Assembly are willing to criminalize dissent.
Nazism is a tenacious and dangerous political movement which has never gone away, and Holocaust denial is one of its tools. We place this limit on the right of freedom of speech to protect our society against the persistent menace of Nazism. Itís a questionable tactic, and may simply play into the Nazisí hand, permitting them to masquerade as free-speech advocates. At any rate, itís a law to be watched constantly for signs of abuse, and not a policy to be expanded to fit every case, however horrific the context.
Itís not to correct history that we round up the Holocaust deniers, itís to protect ourselves today. In the absence of a comparable threat, thereís no excuse for governments interfering in the business of historians. The world is full of liars. War criminals in particular are always liars, because they have to be. What the French deputies have failed to recognize is that in a free society you canít ban lies. All you can do is tell the truth and try to make it stick.