Garin K. Hovannisian: The folly of jailing genocide deniers





[Garin K. Hovannisian is the editor of UCLA's journal of opinion and culture.]

Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can incarcerate you. Thus spake the National Assembly of France last month, when it voted to fine deniers of Turkey's 1915 genocide of Armenians up to 45,000 euros or send them on a maximum yearlong holiday to prison.

The measure would join a series of European laws that have criminalized denial of the Jewish Holocaust.

Although it has dim hope of clearing the Senate and President Jacques Chirac, the bill reminds us that France's Socialist Party - and many European elites - believe truth is decreed, not discovered.

The news drove Armenian communities into raptures. In Armenia's capital, Yerevan, college students besieged the French Embassy in ecstasy. In Los Angeles, their counterparts hurried to chat rooms and blogs to register Hollywood's admiration of François Hollande, the bill's chief advocate.

Hilda Tchoboian, president of the European Armenian Federation, welcomed this "historic step," noting that "the hydra of denial is a tumor on freedom of expression," which proved that you can mix metaphors and talk nonsense in the span of five nouns.

Genocide denial might be a tumor on truth, memory, or even human dignity, but it's not even a pimple on the freedom of expression. It's an exercise - however false or disgusting - of that freedom, which Ms. Tchoboian wants to ration.

A government that has the power to punish lies also has the power to punish truth (consider Turkey's law that punishes those who denigrate "Turkishness") and, really, to punish anything it pleases.

This was the terrible lesson of the 20th century, fleshed out in millions upon millions of carcasses across Joseph Stalin's gulags, Adolf Hitler's concentration camps, Pol Pot's killing fields, and Mao Zedong's torture chambers....


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