A jail term for dissenting ideas

By Richard Cohen Published:

By Richard Cohen

Last winter, on a cold and black night, I went to hear the Holocaust denier David Irving speak at the University of Colorado. I arrived early to get a good seat and soon after me came five huge young men, all of them looking like skinheads. I glared at them and they glared at me and for a moment I feared there and then I was going to meet my maker, but it turned out that when Irving himself started to speak, the skinheads of my fertile imagination rose as one, unfurled an Israeli flag and announced themselves as Jewish protesters -- a near case of me being a casualty of friendly fire.

Had it not been for those protesters, a handful of the just plain curious, and me, Irving could have held his lecture in a nearby broom closet. He is a man of justifiably small following, a claque of bigots so addled by the virus of Jew-hatred that they cannot see the evidence before their own eyes. The many pictures of the Holocaust, the films, the artifacts, the testimony of victims and perpetrators alike is to them proof of a different kind: the ability of Jews to hoodwink the world. It never happened. The Holocaust is a lie.

Now Irving has admitted the lie is his. There were gas chambers at Auschwitz, he now admits. The Jews there did not die of disease, but were murdered outright and then fed into the ovens. This confession of truth was extracted by a dilemma. Irving was facing jail time in Austria for the crime of denying the Holocaust. His penitence got him very little. A judge hit him with a three-year sentence.

A little delicious satisfaction is allowed. Irving is a liar. He is an anti-Semite. He has squandered his considerable gifts at dreary research for the glad rags of demagoguery. He had a Web page. He gave lectures. He sued and was sued. He picked the pockets of the gullible. Years ago, he mistook justifiable criticism by some Jews as an attack by an entire people. This is the odd talent of the anti-Semite: to see all by seeing one.

Still, it is troubling to fight fire with fire -- a fascist mentality with fascist laws. At the very heart of totalitarianism is an absolute fear of dissent. Dissenting ideas are not allowed. Anti-Semitism is an idea. It is a bad one, an odious one, but it is one all the same. The current Austrian government enforces a law against Holocaust denial but it is the descendant of a government that once enforced the laws of the Holocaust itself. True, the law is an attempt to ensure that the old days do not return, but it is always a bad idea to leave such legislation on the books. It is a precedent others can abuse.

Article 48 of Germanys pre-Nazi Weimar constitution allowed the president to rule by decree in times of emergency. The law was abused in the Weimar era and then, of course, by Hitler. It got him on his feet as a dictator. The remarkable thing about bad laws is their plasticity: anyone can bend them to their needs.

Germany, France and other European countries also have laws regarding Holocaust denial. These are some of the same countries who hold Turkey in sneering contempt for its law forbidding any insult to Turkishness -- specifically references to the massacre of Armenians during World War I and the more recent trouble with the Kurds. To many Europeans, this is proof of Turkeys alien ways and a reason it should not be admitted into the European Union. It does not occur to many Europeans that Turkey is merely protecting its version of history as Austria and the others protect theirs. Truth, of course, matters -- but what also matters, critically if not paramountly, is the effort to impose it by government fiat.

It is easy enough to dismiss Irving and say he doesnt matter. Without his governmental tormentors, that would certainly be the case. But what makes him dangerous is not his ideas, but the official, censorious, response to them. He is muscled up solely by virtue of the forces arrayed against him. These governments, particularly Austria, have transformed the imbecilic into something exotically taboo. By banning these ideas, the various European governments accord them a certain respect: See, why are they afraid of us? It must be because what we say is true.

Let Irving howl his idiocy in freedom. He doesnt deserve to be jailed. He deserves to be ignored.

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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