Eternal Damnation of the Spotless Mind
The New Republic
Published: January 13, 2009
I write this in remembrance of the renowned Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, murdered two years ago, on Jan. 19, 2007, for his comments on the slaughter of up to 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman forces during WWI … in horror that the police officers guarding the 17-year-old murder suspect, Ogun Samast, saw fit to take a video in which he proudly held the Turkish flag as they recorded their brief association with him for posterity … in solidarity with the brave group of 200 Turkish writers and intellectuals who recently signed an online petition apologizing for the massacre, risking their freedom to keep pressure on the Turkish government.
Outrages like Dink’s murder will continue. They will continue as long as Turkey, fearing the loss of prestige and alarmed by the possibility that it will be obliged to pay reparations to survivors and their descendants, continues to deny that the Armenian genocide took place. This struggle will continue as long as there are no laws in place penalizing genocide denial — and these laws are needed not only in Turkey, but around the world.
Critics may say, “It is not for the law to write history.” That is absurd. History has been written a hundred times over. The facts have been established, and new laws will protect them from being altered.
In 1929, the British statesman and author Winston Churchill wrote that the Armenians were victims of genocide, an organized enterprise of systematic annihilation. The Turks themselves have admitted it. In 1918, in the aftermath of WWI, Mustafa Kemal — soon to be granted the honorific “Ataturk” — recognized the massacres perpetrated by the Young Turk government.
The laws already in place in many countries regarding Holocaust denial do not touch historians — for them the question of whether the slaughter of the Jews was or was not genocide is no longer at issue. What is at stake is preventing the erasure of such crimes from our society’s memory.
Take France’s Gayssot law, which criminalized the denial of crimes against humanity, and which as yet has been applied only to denial of the Jewish Holocaust. This is a law that reins in the fringe and extremist politicians who engage in lightly cloaked anti-Semitism and who may be tempted to advocate Holocaust denial. This is a law that prevents masquerades like that of historian David Irving’s trial in London in 2000.
Irving brought a libel case against Deborah Lipstadt, author of “Denying the Holocaust,” who had labeled him a spokesman for Holocaust deniers. Though the judge ruled in notably strong language that Irving was indeed a Holocaust denier, in the absence of laws penalizing this offense, Irving walked free. Meanwhile, the tabloid journalists and talking heads muddied the issues and ultimately drew more attention to Irving’s work, which may well have been his intention all along.Critics will say, “Where will the law stop?” since technically we could also extend this law to include the denial of the crimes that took place during the colonial era, the publication of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, even the sin of blasphemy. Must we forbid the expression of opinions that do not mirror our own? This is a trap, for two reasons.