- 'More women died in the back seat of
Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber
- Is this line more offensive to Jews than
an editorial cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad with a turban bomb
is to Muslims?
- Apparently it is, because the editorial
cartoonists are still free, whereas the man who made this statement - British
author David Irving - was sentenced this week to three years in an Austrian
jail for violating a law that says it is a crime if a person "denies,
grossly trivializes, approves or seeks to justify the National Socialist
genocide or other National Socialist crimes against humanity."
- That Irving has been, and probably still
is, a Holocaust denier is indisputable. In 1994, I interviewed him for
a book on Holocaust denial, and he told me that no more than half a million
Jews died during World War II, and most of those because of disease and
starvation. In 2000, Irving lost his libel suit in Britain against an author,
and the judge in the case called him "an active Holocaust denier
anti-Semitic and racist." And in April 2005, I attended a lecture
he gave in Costa Mesa at an event sponsored by the Institute for Historical
Review, the leading voice of Holocaust denial in the U.S. There he joked
about the Chappaquiddick line and, holding his right arm up, boasted: "This
hand has shaken more hands that shook Hitler's hand than anyone else in
- The important question here is not whether
Irving is a Holocaust denier (he is), or whether he offends people with
what he says (he does), but why anyone, anywhere should be imprisoned for
expressing dissenting views or saying offensive things. Today, you may
be imprisoned or fined for dissenting from the accepted Holocaust history
in the following countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech
Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, New Zealand, Poland, Romania,
Slovakia and Switzerland.
- Given their disastrous history of being
too lenient with fringe political ideologues, it is perhaps understandable
that countries such as Germany and Austria have sought to crack down on
rabble-rousers whose "hate speech" can and has led to violence
and pogroms. In some cases, the slippery slope has only a few paces between
calling the Holocaust a "Zionist lie" and the neo-Nazi desecration
of Jewish property.
- And as we have witnessed repeatedly,
Europeans have a different history and culture of free speech than we do
in this country. In Germany, for example, the "Auschwitz lie"
law makes it a crime to "defame the memory of the dead." In Britain,
libel law requires the defendant to prove that he or she did not libel
the plaintiff - unlike U.S. law, which puts the onus on the plaintiff -
and the British recently debated the merits of banning religious hate speech.
In France, it is illegal to challenge the existence of the "crimes
against humanity" as they were defined by the military tribunal at
Nuremberg; another law, on the books until just a few weeks ago, required
that France's colonial history (which was not always "humane")
had to be taught in a "positive" light.
- In traditionally liberal Canada, there
are "anti-hate" laws against spreading "false news."
In late 1992, Irving went to Canada to receive the George Orwell Award
from a conservative free-speech organization, whereupon he was arrested
and deported on the grounds that his German court conviction for denying
the Holocaust made him a likely candidate for future hate-speech violations.
- Even in the land of Thomas Jefferson
and the 1st Amendment, freedom of speech does not always ring. On Feb.
3, 1995, Irving was invited by the Berkeley Coalition for Free Speech to
lecture at UC Berkeley. More than 300 protesters prevented Irving and the
113 ticket holders from entering. (That, however, is quite different from
passing a law that bars him from speaking.)
- Austria's treatment of Irving as a political
dissident should offend both the people who defend the rights of political
cartoonists to express their opinion of Islamic terrorists and the civil
libertarians who leaped to the defense of University of Colorado professor
Ward Churchill when he exercised his right to call the victims of 9/11
"little Eichmanns." Why doesn't it? Why aren't freedom lovers
everywhere offended by Irving's court conviction?
- Freedom is a principle that must be applied
indiscriminately. We have to defend Irving in order to defend ourselves.
Once the laws are in place to jail dissidents of Holocaust history, what's
to stop such laws from being applied to dissenters of religious or political
histories, or to skepticism of any sort that deviates from the accepted
- No one should be required to facilitate
the expression of Holocaust denial, but neither should there be what Supreme
Court Justice Louis Brandeis called the "silence coerced by law -
the argument of force in its worst form."
- The point was poignantly made in Robert
Bolt's play, "A Man for All Seasons," in which William Roper
and Sir Thomas More debate the relative balance between evil and freedom:
- Roper: So now you'd give the devil benefit
- More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great
road through the law to get after the devil?
- Roper: I'd cut down every law in England
to do that.
- More: Oh? And when the law was down -
and the devil turned round on you - where would you hide? Yes, I'd give
the devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.
- Call David Irving the devil if you like;
the principle of free speech gives you the right to do so. But we must
give the devil his due. Let Irving go, for our own safety's sake.
- Dr. Michael Shermer is the publisher
of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American and the
author of "Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened
and Why Do They Say It?"