LONDON — In Europe, five years into the 21st century, two writers face trial and imprisonment for something they said or wrote. Both could be incarcerated, not for physically harming another person or for damaging property, but for uttering words that European states deem offensive.
Yet only one has been defended by the international literati, who have described the attempt to curtail his freedom of speech as an act of "anachronistic brutality." The other writer's plight has been ignored; worse, many liberals have supported the campaign to punish him for expressing outrageous views.
As such, the two cases cast a harsh light on the debate about free speech in Europe: They suggest we Europeans have a partial, picky attitude to freedom of expression, and thus do not understand the real meaning of this fundamental liberty.
The writers are Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish novelist, and David Irving, a British historian.
They could not be more different. Mr. Pamuk is an internationally acclaimed author whose work has been translated into more than 20 languages. He is currently being charged in Turkey for "denigrating Turkishness." His "crime," for which he faces up to three years behind bars, was to question Ankara's official line on the mass killing of Armenians by Turks during World War I and to call for a more upfront analysis of those terrible events.
Mr. Irving, by contrast, is a historian who denies the truth of the Nazi Holocaust. His words are vile and deeply offensive. He once claimed that "more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz."
He is currently in prison in Vienna, Austria, where he was arrested in November for two speeches he made in that country more than 15 years ago in which he allegedly said there were no gas chambers in Auschwitz. Holocaust denial is a crime in Austria, and if Irving is found guilty at his trial in February he could be jailed for up to 10 years.
Pamuk's plight has become a cause célèbre; Irving's has not. European politicians and writers have descended on Ankara to protest the trial of Pamuk and to chastise Turkey for behaving like a "dictatorial regime." Irving, meanwhile, has been left to languish in his Viennese cell. No well-known liberal voice has demanded that he be freed. Rather, as one news report put it, the arrest of Irving in Austria - "a country still coming to grips with its Nazi-ruled past" - has won the state "praise worldwide."
At first glance, these different responses might appear sensible. Pamuk's words are worth hearing; Irving's are not. Pamuk is a great novelist; Irving was described by a judge in a libel trial here in London in 2000 as "an anti-Semite and an active Holocaust denier." Who needs to hear his weasel words?
And yet, if we truly believe in freedom of speech, then we must defend Irving as vigorously as we defend Pamuk.
This is not about what either author said - it is about whether they should have the right to say it, and we the right to hear it. Freedom of speech cannot mean freedom for views we find acceptable but not for views we find abhorrent. It must mean freedom for all speech - the freedom to think, say, and write what we please, and the freedom of everyone else to challenge, pick apart, and, if necessary, trash our arguments.
Indeed, the true test of one's commitment to free speech is whether we can defend those with whom we disagree, even those we despise. As the US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, if you believe in free thought then you must defend freedom not only for "those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate."
If we were to have freedom of speech in Europe for novelists we admire but not for historians we despise, then we would not have freedom of speech at all. We would only have privileged speech, officially sanctioned speech, the right to say and hear certain things but not others. If free speech is to mean anything in modern Europe, then Irving must have it as well as Pamuk.
This is not to say that Irving should be left alone to spread his poisonous rubbish about the Holocaust. On the contrary: It is only by having open and free debate that views such as his can be effectively challenged and dismantled. Suppressing such views only allows them to fester, or worse, grants them the moral authority of martyrdom. We need free speech precisely to deal with the likes of David Irving.
Let us stop seeing free speech as dangerous, and view it instead as a positive, something that allows us to clarify ideas and which enriches public debate. Both Austria and Turkey should be challenged for denigrating this essential freedom.
• Brendan O'Neill is deputy editor of spiked (www.spiked-online.com).