DID THE OTTOMAN TURKS commit genocide against the Armenians in 1915?
Careful -- in some places you can be arrested if you give the wrong answer to that question. Under Article 305 of the Turkish Penal Code, for example, those who promote recognition of "the genocide of the Armenians" are subject to prosecution, while Article 301 makes the denigration of "Turkishness" a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk , winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature , is among those who have been charged under Article 301. His offense was to tell a Swiss interviewer that "30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares to talk about it." (The charges against Pamuk were eventually dropped, but other prosecutions are ongoing.)
Yet if acknowledging the Armenian genocide is a crime in Turkey, gainsaying it could soon be a crime in France. Last week the French National Assembly voted to approve a bill under which anyone denying the 1915 genocide could be sentenced to a year's imprisonment and a 45,000-euro ($56,000) fine. That matches the penalty under French law for denying the Nazi Holocaust .
The French legislation is meant to uphold the truth -- the Armenian genocide, like the Holocaust, is a fact of history -- while the point of the Turkish law is to debase it. Both, however, are intolerable assaults on liberty. Beliefs should not be criminalized, no matter how repugnant or absurd. As I wrote when David Irving was convicted of Holocaust denial in Austria earlier this year, free societies do not throw people in prison for giving offensive speeches or spouting historical lies.
We Americans should know this better than anyone. The right to speak one's mind is supposed to be a core article of our civic faith. Yet the would-be censors are busy here, too.
At Columbia University two weeks ago, a forum on immigration was to feature a speech by Jim Gilchrist of the Minutemen, a group that monitors the US-Mexico border for illegal immigrants. But moments after Gilchrist began speaking, protesters led by members of the International Socialist Organization stormed the stage, overturning tables, unfurling banners, and yelling insults. After 15 minutes of pandemonium, campus police shut down the program .
In Seattle, two teachers are suing the affluent Lakeside prep school for illegal racial discrimination and the creation of a hostile work environment. "Among the plaintiffs' complaints," reports the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "was Lakeside's invitation to conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza to speak as part of a distinguished lecture series." But D'Souza, a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a veteran of the Reagan White House, never gave the lecture: Faculty members opposed to his views howled when he was invited, and the school's headmaster, bowing to the censors, rescinded the invitation.
Asked about the campaign against him, D'Souza had said: "I am coming to speak on one day. If they think what I am saying is so awful, they have the rest of the year to refute it." But that isn't enough for the enemies of free speech. They insist not only that speakers with politically incorrect opinions be shunned, but that anyone offering them a platform be punished as well.
Then there is "Grist," an environmental webzine whose staff writer David Roberts recently proposed that global warming skeptics be put on trial like Nazi war criminals.
"When we've finally gotten serious about global warming . . . we should have war crimes trials for these bastards -- some sort of climate Nuremberg," Roberts wrote. Negative publicity led him to recant, but he is far from the only one invoking the Holocaust as a way to silence global warming heretics.
Environmental writer Mark Lynas, for example, puts dissent on climate change "in a similar moral category to Holocaust denial -- except that this time the Holocaust is yet to come, and we still have time to avoid it. Those who try to ensure we don't will one day have to answer for their crimes." This totalitarian view is taking root everywhere, making skepticism on climate change taboo and subjecting anyone reckless enough to question the global-warming dogma to mockery and demonization. Former vice president Al Gore lumps "global warming deniers," some of whom are eminent scientists, with the "15 percent of the population (who) believe the moon landing was actually staged in a movie lot in Arizona" and those who "still believe the earth is flat."
The silencers are at work in the marketplace of ideas, using hook or crook to smother opinions they dislike. The lust to censor is as powerful as ever. If only liberty's defenders were equally vigilant.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)