Denying the historical veracity or authenticity of a genocide is wicked, untruthful, and immoral. It is a post-mortem affront to those many people who perished, to their descendants, and to the collective memory of humanity. It is truly one of the basest intellectual acts an individual can commit. However, the act of genocide denial, written or verbal, must never be made an illegal, criminal act.
Recently, France stirred up controversy, especially with Turkey, when their lower house of parliament passed a law that would criminalize any denial of the Armenian Genocide and sentence anyone convicted to one-year imprisonment and a fine of $60,000. The upper house will review the law this month, amidst a diplomatic spat with Turkey, who froze military ties with France after the bill initially proceeded. Turkey has threatened further action if the bill makes it to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's desk.
The genocide of the Armenians by the Turks from 1915-1923 in the dying years of the Ottoman Empire cost the lives of over 1.5 million people, and can be deemed the first near-total holocaust of a people by Turkish soldiers. It was evil and brutal murder of a people in cold blood, one that wiped a thriving community off the face of the earth. Of this there can be no doubt. Yet, many Turks have long vigorously denied this historically accurate version of events; now France, for a plethora of reasons, seeks to make this denial illegal.
This is an utterly unacceptable attack on freedom of speech.
The actual law, which has yet to be signed into law by Sarkozy, was passed by the French lower house of parliament in late December. It provoked a sharp diplomatic response from Turkey, who withdrew its ambassador from Paris in protest of what it views as an unjustified attack on Turkish state history. This could have long-term diplomatic consequences.
Reasons as to why France decided to pass this unnecessary and unenforceable law at this current juncture are mixed. Ostensibly, this law would combat genocide denial, however it seems the bill may be a short-term vote-winning measure designed to sway over key voters from the Armenian community in upcoming presidential elections. This is also not the first time Sarkozy has used history for electoral gain.
Freedom of expression is sacrosanct. It must extend to opinions mainstream society would never want to hear or consider. Indeed, it extends over opinions that many of us find distasteful, even repulsive. However, freedom of speech covers the rights of all people, of all strife and stripe, of all races and creeds, of all backgrounds, to be able to express their beliefs in security and safety. This French law, purportedly enacted to protect the historical memory of the Armenian genocide, actually hurts it, by giving the deniers a platform from which to proselytize these very falsehoods to a wider audience.
Eventually, history will render its judgement on this era without help of this ineffective legislation. France needs to ensure that freedom of speech is protected, that no event is too large to be considered exempt, and that those who want to speak should be allowed to do so, no matter what they choose to say. It is both dangerous and foolish to let the will of the majority of the community dictate the legal codifying of opinions, no matter how noble the intention.
In the 18th century, at a time of great strife and turmoil, and of new ideas versus old ones, Voltaire, the great French philosopher, wrote: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The French Republic, whose very foundations lie upon such enlightenment, should not forget the precepts of this mantra. Equally, we in turn must not forget that the strength of our long held freedoms lies in our ability to counter such ill-founded genocide denials, not suppress them with suffocating laws.
Weigh in: In a time when people across the world are still fighting for freedom of speech, is it right to erode our own so willingly at home?
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