I have hesitated to join in the discussion of David Irving, the infamous Holocaust denier who was just sentenced to a 3 year prison term in Austria. I have very mixed feelings on this since I am close to an absolutist on free speech, yet there is something deeply troubling about Holocaust denial which feels like a different issue.
Alexandra has an excellent collation of the various arguments being put forth around the issue. She writes:
David Irving, the infamous and discredited British historian, languishes in an Austrian jail, having been sentenced to three years. Just writing that sentence makes me feel happy. The next sentence is much harder to write. He should be released.
Irving’s views are repulsive and wrong. He is a deeply offensive crank, and a litigious one, who has tried to use the libel laws to silence his critics. Five years ago, he sued the American historian, Deborah Lipstadt, after she described him as a Holocaust denier, and lost. In a withering 333-page judgment, Mr Justice Charles Gray described him as an anti-Semite, a racist and a neo-Nazi sympathiser who had “persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence”.
The arguments for criminalizing Holocaust Denial are important; Sigmund, Carl and Alfred writes:
The denial of the Holocaust is a license for the other truths and atrocities to be denied. It is a fact that those most anxious to deny the Holocaust are themselves guilty of either participating in atrocities, encouraging atrocities, funding atrocities or turning a blind eye to atrocities. That is why Holocaust denial is so important to them.
Deny the truth of one Holocaust and you open the door to deny the truth of others.
David Irving was sentenced to three years in prison for yelling 'FIRE!' in a crowded theater. [Emphasis mine-SW] He was sentenced for denying a truth that cost millions of innocent lives, now forgotten and unacknowledged. He was sentenced to prison because his denial of the truth and horror of that time is a kind of equivalent of blaming the rape victim for the assault.
David Irving is the poster boy for Iranian and Arab holocaust denial. They are societies for whom denial of the truth is a necessary tonic, so that they might deny their own culpability.
Dr. Sanity takes the opposite tack:
Personally, I prefer to let reality be the final court for people like Irving and anyone who believes in what he says. As SC&A say, there are consequences to denying the truth--the real world sees to that-- [Emphasis mine-SW] and some of those consequences are far more costly than a short stay in a prison cell.
Most of the posts I have read come down on one side or the other, with the majority siding with Dr. Sanity's view. Neo-neocon tries to bridge the gap; she describes the genesis of Holocaust denial laws and points out that Europe's experience of the Nazi genocide was of a different order of magnitude than ours and perhaps they have more compelling reasons to criminalize such speech. (Europe also has much less of a tradition of free speech and they seem to be fairly comfortable with free speech limits, in the guise of sensitivity, but that is for another day.) Neo says:
... the sad truth is that the damage has already been done. The horse is out of the barn, the cat is out of the bag, Humpty Dumpty has fallen off his wall and all the king's horses and all the king's men and all the jailers in Austria will not undo the influence of the European anti-Semitism that has been tainting the Arab world for much of this century.
So it seems to me that the only remedy is free speech in the theater of ideas. We must believe in the ability of truth to ultimately triumph, and in our ability to wage war against those who would preach hate and follow through on it with destruction. If Irving and his ilk have influenced Iran, the damage is long done, and the remedies lie elsewhere--unfortunately.
I am now going to muddy the waters and introduce another aspect of this. I mentioned child abuse in my title for a reason, since it is the closest we can come in America to a model of the Holocaust and Holocaust denial. When a young child is abused, they are almost always warned not to tell anyone and further, that if they do tell, no one will believe them. Children, especially in the days before we taught our children in grade school about such things, had no choice but to believe their powerful abuser. The worst of the abusers would tell the child that what they were doing was an expression of love for which the child should be grateful, or was a result of the child's behavior. "I am doing this to you because I love you so much" or "I am beating you because you were bad" or "I am having sex with you because you seduced me." No one would question the evil of such adult behavior; the difficult question arises when we look at the long term damage from the abuse and the denial of the abuse.
Memory is among our most plastic of all cognitive functions. If you tell a group of people at the scene of an accident that you saw a man wearing a red coat running from the scene, a week later a significant number of witnesses will be found to have "remembered" a man in a red coat running from the scene; if, in fact, there was a man in a red coat and you authoritatively say there wasn't, a significant number of people will "forget" having seen the man. In a similar, though more insidious way, if a parent tells a child he or she was never abused, they are faced with an impossible task:
Who will they believe? Can they believe their own perceptions and memories, which necessitates doubting the love of the most important person in their world? Or do they deny their own minds, believe their parent, and preserve them as a loving protector?
There is no way a child can negotiate this chasm and the result is an adult who can never trust her own perceptions and memory and can never truly feel loved. The insult never ends. If they confront their parent as an adult, those who are lucky enough to receive confirmation can then, after years of psychological work, sort out their confused feelings and thoughts; those who receive denial as adults are left never knowing who they are or what to believe. Are they the poor abused victim who has every right to feel rage and sorrow or the bad child who deserves contempt for believing such horrible nonsense?
What this means is that Dr. Sanity's and Neo's hope that reality and truth will be the final arbiter may have to be qualified. If the Holocaust Deniers write the textbooks, the Holocaust will one day be found to have never happened.
As for Irving, we do not send adult abusers to jail unless there is proof they actually performed such abuse. On the other hand, we now register sex offenders who are likely to abuse again, and in some cases will extend their prison sentences in order to protect innocents. Would we or should we do the same to those who would facilitate child abuse? I do not know the answer to that question but it seems to me it comes closest to the heart of Holocaust Denial. As many have pointed out, Holocaust denial is being used by those who wish to complete the job the Nazis started. They are using it to justify their genocidal aspirations and facilitate their ongoing efforts to recreate the Nazi program, this time using Nuclear weapons instead of gas chambers.
I do not think this makes the problem simpler but one fact should help. Apparently David Irving was warned that if he ever again set foot in Austria he would be charged and jailed. In his supreme arrogance he went back to Austria to spread his venom among his followers. While we might argue that his speech should not be criminalized, perhaps we can take some comfort from the fact that, in reality, it is his arrogance and stupidity that are being punished.