Location: Indianapolis, Indiana, United States

I'm just trying to develop an online body of work (even if the work is throwaway nonsense) to advance my writing career.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Nazi Way We Want It

Generally speaking, I try to curtail the reactionary and strident emotion known as outrage. Its supply seems overly abundant and the general impression I get from outraged people is "you should be outraged by what outrages me and if you're not, I'm outraged." We see bumper stickers saying "If You're Not Outraged, You're Not Paying Attention", read articles by outraged pundits who demand outrage from the Muslim community, the Jewish community, the Christian community or any group misnamed a "community" and prone to outrage.

So I try not to get outraged because I feel too many people employ it as a strategical measure to manipulate or advance political and social agendas. Now and then, however, something strikes a nerve. And this week's incident in Austria was just such an example.

In case you're unaware, a British historian--if you'd call him that--was sentenced to three years imprisonment for publicly claiming the Holocaust never happened. The sentence is nearly as stupid as his opinion and less defensible on purely ethical grounds. The idea a person could go to jail for expressing an uninformed, even sinister, viewpoint seems almost comic and surely would work well as parody if it weren't true. But it is true. And as far as I know, Austria has yet to be castigated for its preposterous law which forbids public "diminishing, denying or justifying" of the Holocaust.

Denying and justifying are at least relatively clear terms. Denying the Holocaust means claiming it never happened; justifying it means claiming there were valid reasons for the action. But what constitutes "diminishing"? If a person suggested the Soviet purges of the late 1930s or Pol Pot's reign of terror in Cambodia were actually worse than the Holocaust, would that be "diminishing"? What about saying it "wasn't so bad"? Or referring to it as a "real pain in the neck"? A "complete debacle"? What about "terribly unfortunate"? All of these cast the Holocaust in a negative light but fail to convey the scope and horror it wrought. Would these descriptions be illegal in Austria?

David Irving, the 67 year old British historian and soon-to-be Austrian jailbird, made his public statements denying the Holocaust in 1989, which means for seventeen years the Austrian government has been pursuing this matter. For ten Euros, tell me who's crazier? The man who said there was "not one shred of evidence" the Nazis carried out the Holocaust, or the government who spent almost two decades trying to jail him for such statements? Your tax Euros at work, Austria.

Another gem in the story involves Mr. Irving's recent retraction, saying his earlier claims had been mistaken. The prosecutor in the case dismissed this as insincere, saying Irving was just trying to avoid imprisonment (well, wouldn't you?) But let's consider this for a moment. If you can go to jail for a bad opinion, why shouldn't you be absolved of the crime if you recant? If you were on trial for murder but somehow brought the victim back from the dead, you'd be freed, wouldn't you? It wouldn't matter if you had never liked the person, which presumably you didn't if you went as far as homicide. The prosecutor couldn't secure a conviction by saying, "Oh, he's just resurrecting this person to get out of jail."

The Holocaust and assorted horrors of World War II are still taken very seriously in many parts of Europe, and perhaps they should be. But laws restricting speech that is merely offensive, rather than overtly violent or threatening, resemble Nazism more than they create distance and dissociation from it, particularly when such laws punish not by fine or censure, but by outright prison time. And it was Austria, not Germany, that produced Hitler in the first place. I'm from Indiana, home of Reverend Jim Jones, responsible for more than 900 deaths from forced suicides in South America in the late 1970s. I'm ashamed of him, all right, but there's no law in Indiana forbidding public diminishing, denying or justifying the Jonestown Massacre. And let's hope there never is.

Source: The Indianapolis Star, February 20, 2006


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