This is a guest post by Emily Cutts.
Denial is something almost everyone will face. For most of us it won’t be a matter of prison or freedom, it will be something banal like; “I haven’t gained weight, these pants just shrunk in the wash.” For some though, denial won’t be about something minial. It will be about something big, something awful–like genocide. This is the case for a Minnesota lawyer currently in prison in Rwanda.
A Brief History
Peter Erlinder, a William Mitchell constitutional law professor, was arrested May 28 for promoting genocide ideology. As an attorney, Erlinder was known for taking unsavory cases and in 2003 he became lead attorney for one of the four main people on trial for genocide in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
His client was convicted to life in prison for genocide but was acquitted for conspiring to committee genocide before the 1994 assassination of then President Juvénal Habyarimana. During the trial Erlinder took aim at now President Paul Kagame. In April Erlinder and two other attorneys filed suit against Kagame alleging that he was behind the genocide. Erlinder went to Rwanda to defend presidential candidate and Hutu, Victoire Ingabire, who is charged with promoting genocide ideology.
But What Does This Mean For Jews?
As a people we have been on the receiving end of an extreme amount of hatred and cruelty. Our grandparents (and for some parents) have lived through the Holocaust, and even more did not. When a person denies that such atrocities have happened it is hard to be rational and rage free.
Upon first glance this is a case when rage should bubble up and rationality would fly out the window. This could be a time to think, “good, this man should be given the full prison sentence for his crime.” But Erlinder’s case warrants a second glance. The Star Tribune reported:
“As I understand it, I don’t think he’s really denying that there was a genocide,” said William Mitchell professor emeritus Kenneth Kirwin, who has known Erlinder for decades. “I think he is more concerned with who was more at fault, or more responsible.”
This could change everything, at least for me.
When I first read the headlines I thought that he deserved what was coming to him. He knew the laws of the country and still had the nerve to enter and expect that he would no suffer consequences. But upon further research my ideas have greatly changed.
As Jews we believe in social justice and helping those in need, so we could say that what Erlinder is doing is a mitzvah. I might even go so far as to site a poem written by Pastor Martin Niemöller:
“THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
THEN THEY CAME for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
If no one is willing to stand up for those who may be wrong we are all in trouble, because eventually we all will be wrong. Maybe I am making an outlandish claim trying to say that what Erlinder is doing isn’t wrong but I might not be. All the facts in the case are not yet known and what Kirwin said about Erlinder could be true.
The Big Question(s)
As Jews what do we do when some denies the Holocaust? As Jews what do we do when someone denies genocide? I can only think of one answer between the two questions and that is that we shouldn’t ignore these people’s denials. But if we don’t ignore their denials what is our next step?
Is the proper punishment 25 years in prison like Rwanda or three months to five years like in Germany? And if these are the proper punishments does this mean the person’s opinion will change in prison?
Erlinder’s case leads only to more questions than answers for me. Where do you weigh in?
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
I strongly believe that “the proper punishment” for denying genocide is no punishment at all.
We should not ignore such denials, but the response should be not prison sentences but public debate.
This is an old argument for free speech (for my money best articulated 150 years ago by J.S. Mill in On Liberty), but I’ll make it here anyway. The best way to fight a loathsome lie is the truth. The truth not only doesn’t need criminal penalties to prop it up, but is actually hurt by that. When the truth is government dogma and contradicting it carries a prison sentence, many people stop seeing it as the truth and see it only as official dogma.
When you ban the lie, it still spreads. Germany has banned speech defending Nazi ideology, but neo-Nazi groups thrive there. You cannot abolish an idea by force of law — even a really loathsome false idea. The banned lie spreads in the dark without being confronted by an enthusiastic passionate defense of the truth. The kind of defense that a government official wielding a gavel simply cannot make.
Don’t ban lies. Debate them openly.
P.S. To clarify — I’m defending only the freedom of “hate speech” that is not inciting to immediate violence. Incitement to immediate violence, when followed by immediate violence, should be seen as conspiracy to commit a violent crime.
A lawyer defending a client has a job to do for his client. Rwanda is jailing Erlinder for doing his best for his client at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). During the trials, he found UN and US government documents that show the current Rwandan government dominated by Tutsis from Uganda having taken part in the atrocities and of 1994. The government is afraid of this truth being out. So they jail a lawyer for doing his job.
Rwanda is pursuing his second Client Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza that he went to defend in Rwanda because she poses a real threat to winning at the polls in the August elections in Rwanda. They accuse her of genocide denial because she also admits that the current government officials have a lot to answer for on the atrocities they committed against their own citizens. Mind you, she is adamant that the Tutsi genocide of 1994 took place. But what do you expect from a government that jails Tutsi political opponents, sole survivors in their families of the genocide for a crime none other than genocide denial. This is the case of Deo Mushayidi and many other Tutsis. Erlinder is in Jail in Rwanda because the government of Rwanda does not tolerate disagreement. They have a lot to hide and Erlinder discovered and told inconvenient truths.
To compare the Rwandan genocide to the genocide of the Jews is comparing apples and oranges. The dynamics are totally different. NO organized groups of Jews had murdered any Germans. The rebellion by Paul Kagame in 1990 to 1994 made of Tutsis had murdered thousands of innocent civilians and sent another million to refugee camps.
The Tutsi army credited with stopping the genocide is known to have systematically killed thousands of innocent civilians that they rounded up in meetings of by bus loads and killed. That is the inconvenient truth that they don’t want to face.