TOPICS : The folly of jailing genocide deniers

Garin K Hovannisian

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 year-long holiday to prison.

The measure would join a series of European laws that have criminalised 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 tumour on freedom of expression,” which proved that you can mix metaphors and talk nonsense in the span of five nouns. A government that punishes lies... Genocide denial might be a tumour on truth, memory, or even human dignity, but it’s not even a pimple on the freedom of expression. It’s an exercise of that freedom, which 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. 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 one idea, “Ottomanisation,” on the rubble of human rights. 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. Don’t silence deniers, expose them. 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.