February 2007

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Holocaust denier David Irving
News and Opinion

Hitting Hate Speech Too Hard

-- Bruce S. Ticker

As civil liberties champions often suggest, the best response to despicable speech is more speech.

Austrian authorities responded to David Irving’s free speech with a court order and a three-year trip to prison. When a newly-minted congressman announced he would be sworn into office with his hand on a Koran, a Jewish radio-show host and a Christian congressman ganged up on him. An athletic and potentially inebriated young man karate-kicked a 8-foot-tall Menorah to the ground in St. James Long Island, and police dubbed the offense a hate crime.

All three offenders face recrimination in large measure because of what they think. Both Irving and the Menorah-loathing Long Islander acted inexcusably, and the use of the Koran is at best unusual, but how do their attitudes harm us? Our feelings might be hurt, but we can manage. Besides, how can any of these three actions control our feelings?

Irving conveyed his trivialization of the Holocaust, Congressman Keith Ellison exercised his minority religious belief, and a young man committed a criminal offense to act out his possible attitudes toward the Jewish people. Should Irving and the Karate Kid go to jail for their views? Should Ellison be denied his rights because he does not adhere to a spiritual system which is more comfortable for most Americans?

There is no question that the vandal who kicked the menorah to the ground in the pre-dawn hours of December 17th should be prosecuted for his destruction of the Hanukkah symbol. St. James police arrested 20-year-old Andrew Cucciniello on Saturday, January 6th, and charged him with criminal mischief as a hate crime. The New York Post reported that this offense, classified as a felony, carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years.

Obviously, sentences that result from relatively slight property damage usually range from probation and fines to light prison terms. If convicted, should Cucciniello be sentenced to years in jail because of the suspected motive? Should he face extra time in prison for what he was thinking?

Categorizing an offense as a hate crime is important for statistical purposes and for maintaining a record of crimes rooted in bigotry. However, society as a whole is impaired if an offender’s sentence is influenced by his prejudices. Any of us are at risk of facing a harsher sentence for our views and beliefs.

What’s imperative is that police routinely investigate bias-related crimes to the best of their ability. Yes, Hitler persecuted Jews solely because they were Jews, but his goons and many Germans got away with burning synagogues and assaulting because the rule of law no longer prevailed.

It is not what a person thinks of me that counts, but rather, what they do to me. If I can employ harsh penalties to control someone else’s thoughts, they can control my views with tough penalties.

The New York Times reported that prosecutors accused British historian David Irving of participating in a series of lectures in Austria seventeen years ago and claiming that gas chambers did not exist at the Auschwitz death camp. Denial of the Holocaust is a crime in Austria, Germany, and other European countries. Irving was arrested in November 2005 during a return trip to Austria and spent thirteen months in prison before an appeals court released him from prison, allowing him to serve out his time on probation at home.

Austria does not need to go so far. What we should be concerned with is the prevention of a World War III or keeping others from once again persecuting Jews. So far, the citizens of Austrians have behaved themselves and supported Jewish causes.

Congressman Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, was painted to be a criminal by U.S. Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr., a Virginia Republican, and radio show host Dennis Prager after they engaged in an interfaith campaign that undermined the wisdom of conducting interfaith campaigns. Prager and Goode, respectively Jew and Gentile, portrayed Ellison’s swearing-in style as part of a Muslim conspiracy.

Prior to Ellison’s swearing in, Prager fumed, “Ellison’s doing so will embolden Islamic extremists and make new ones, as Islamists, rightly or wrongly, see the first sign of the realization of their greatest goal - the Islamicization of America.” Claiming that the Bible is the only relevant religious text in America, he added in a report to the New York Times, “If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don’t serve in Congress.”

Goode followed up with a letter to constituents upset with Ellison, warning Americans to “wake up” or else there would “likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran. I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.”

The use of any religious material at a congressional swearing-in raises questions about the separation of church and state, but that’s grist for another debate. If a Bible is allowed to be used, what is different about a Koran? Both are religious texts, and the legitimacy of either book is a matter of opinion.

Ellison has a right to be sworn in with a Koran. While many modern-day terrorists are Muslims, Islam is still not synonymous with terrorism, and unless it is proven to be one and the same, then Muslims must and should be treated equally.

Fortunately, Prager backed off from his original remarks, and Goode and Ellison shook hands when Congress opened for the current session. Unfortunately, I spotted a sign on a Manhattan subway declaring that assaulting a transit employee is punishable by up to seven years in prison - the same max for damaging a Menorah. Germany’s justice minister, Brigitte Zypries, now wants all 27 member states of the European Union to punish Holocaust deniers with stiff prison terms. That’s as of Thursday, January 11th. Sigh.

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