The folly of jailing genocide deniers
Democracy's test: Do we tolerate a view that it is thoroughly repulsive?
LOS ANGELES — Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can incarcerate you. Thus spake the National Assembly of France last month, when it voted to fine deniers of Turkey's 1915 genocide of Armenians up to 45,000 euros or send them on a maximum yearlong holiday to prison.
The measure would join a series of European laws that have criminalized denial of the Jewish Holocaust.
Although it has dim hope of clearing the Senate and President Jacques Chirac, the bill reminds us that France's Socialist Party – and many European elites – believe truth is decreed, not discovered.
The news drove Armenian communities into raptures. In Armenia's capital, Yerevan, college students besieged the French Embassy in ecstasy. In Los Angeles, their counterparts hurried to chat rooms and blogs to register Hollywood's admiration of François Hollande, the bill's chief advocate.
Hilda Tchoboian, president of the European Armenian Federation, welcomed this "historic step," noting that "the hydra of denial is a tumor on freedom of expression," which proved that you can mix metaphors and talk nonsense in the span of five nouns.
Genocide denial might be a tumor on truth, memory, or even human dignity, but it's not even a pimple on the freedom of expression. It's an exercise – however false or disgusting – of that freedom, which Ms. Tchoboian wants to ration.
A government that has the power to punish lies also has the power to punish truth (consider Turkey's law that punishes those who denigrate "Turkishness") and, really, to punish anything it pleases.
This was the terrible lesson of the 20th century, fleshed out in millions upon millions of carcasses across Joseph Stalin's gulags, Adolf Hitler's concentration camps, Pol Pot's killing fields, and Mao Zedong's torture chambers.
Indeed, this was the lesson of the Armenian genocide, which was perpetrated by a regime that tried to build one people, one religion, and – most important – one idea, "Ottomanization," on the rubble of human rights.
That lesson, sadly, is lost on some French parliamentarians and the Armenian diaspora, whose notion of politics ends where the genocide begins. "If we have to muscle their view to death then that's just what we'll do!" the Armenians seem to say, not realizing that this is precisely what the Young Turks said about them.
Facing charges of insulting Turkishness for acknowledging the Armenian genocide, Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer and 2006 Nobel Laureate, declared at his trial this year, "What I said is not an insult. It is the truth. But what if it is wrong? Right or wrong, do people not have the right to express their ideas peacefully?"
That's the key clause: right or wrong. Genocide deniers insult us. Yet in any decent society, their rights are the most vital, precisely because they are the most difficult to respect. Here's the test of true democracy: Do we tolerate another's view when it is thoroughly repulsive? France has failed the test.
It is easier to shut deniers up than to make them stop believing. In a perilous reversal of its intended effect, this law would give to deniers two advantages they crave: exemption from the debate and the position of the oppressed. The deniers will gain not only immunity from our persistent challenges, but an underdog's advantage in "speaking truth to power" when power is against them. Denial isn't just a river in Egypt; it's soon to be an underground fashion in Paris.
Censorship has long been the tool of people who are threatened by the facts – who can't win a debate on equal terms.
Censors have sought to gain through power what they lack in argument: the truth. France has just exerted its power in Armenia's name. And Armenians rejoiced. But it will not strengthen our people and it will not redeem the reality of the 1.5 million who were massacred beginning in 1915.
Like that of the Holocaust, the cause of bringing greater recognition to the Armenian genocide is best served through total freedom of speech, in which historians can argue the deniers into silence. We should long for a society where those who deny documented crimes against humanity will not be fined or jailed, but worse, be exposed, humiliated, and condemned to oblivion.
Winston Churchill said, "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." History is less kind to people who try to rewrite it.
In its most recent move, the French National Assembly has deprived history of its final redemption. It has revealed to the world that Armenians would rather stifle debate than win it once and for all.
• Garin K. Hovannisian is the editor of UCLA's journal of opinion and culture, www.BruinStandard.com.