After the killings of George Tiller and Stephen Tyrone Johns, there's discussion over at the Times about the tangled morality and ethics of permitting hateful speech.
Back in 1996 or so, I spent the better part of a year educating myself about the nature of Holocaust denial. Some of the more technical-sounding arguments that "the Holocaust never happened" sound credible to those who simply don't know how and why they are fraudulent. The young-earthers, or the Intelligent Design crowd, bank on this as well: they count on their audience not attempting to seek out a second opinion.
For a while, countering the Holocaust deniers was a piecemeal thing — you did it whenever one of them popped up on a web forum, or in a USENET group. After a while, enough people grew tired of reiterating the same arguments over and over again, and thus places like Nizkor were formed, where all of the most common lies (and their refutations, and the evidence used to refute them), could be archived. I used to wonder what it was about the deniers that caused them to blatantly ignore the weight of the evidence; now I know that changing their minds is not as important as showing other people, in a public forum, that they are wrong.
This isn't something you can pass a law to make happen, or even pay someone to make happen. This is something you have to do yourself. The point is not to win the argument and shut the other guy up, although that may happen as a by-product of what you're doing. The point is to keep free speech alive as a source of speaking careful truth to easy lies.
None of this should be construed as a sign that people like James von Brunn should not be prosecuted for his actions. His actions are being countered right now with action. His words, and the words of others like him, should be countered in their own way as well, and not simply assumed that they carry no weight. In the ears of the disaffected they can all too easily take on the gravity of grim truth. Those who casually believe in the lies need to be gently, but firmly, shown how the lies were put together and allowed to take them apart with their own hands.
I know, sadly, more than a few people who believe a dilute version of the same vitrolic that von Brunn was dishing out. None of them had ever heard of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the plagiarized forgery that gave a modern, almost intellectually respectable veneer to the bloody art of scapegoating. Maybe you know one of them; I leave it to you if they would be receptive to a more scholarly dissection of the Protocols' genesis, or maybe Will Eisner's outstanding comic version, which appeared a couple of years ago at Comic-Con as a major exhibit. You choose, but either way, the duty will always fall to each one of us in turn to fight the deniers. This is not anyone else's job.
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