Freedom of Speech?

January 27, 2012

On January 23, 2012, I along with Armenians all around the world rejoiced at the news that the French government had passed the “Armenian Genocide Bill” criminalizing denial of The Armenian Genocide committed by The Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago.  The legislation provides “penalties of up to a year in prison and fines of 45,000 euros, or about $58,000, for the negation of genocides recognized under French law, including the Armenian Genocide”.

As an Armenian, the very depths of me were filled with gratitude and happiness that such a powerful voice on the global scale has acknowledged the systematic injustices of epically violent proportions imposed on a relatively helpless culture.  As a descendant of survivors, I am elated and proud that such an influential democratic entity has recognized the impact that The Armenian Genocide has had not only on the generation that was annihilated but on all the generations following, including mine; realizing that it acted as an instigator and example for nation states in the years to come.  We were not the first people to be victims of genocide; however, could our story of vicious persecution not have acted as a blueprint for others throughout history?

“Our strength lies in our intensive attacks and our barbarity…After all, who today remembers the genocide of the Armenians?” Could this not have been the fuel that Hitler threw on a supremacist fire that ignited the monstrous flames of the Holocaust? Perhaps if Turkey was internationally condemned, another attempt of “ethnic cleansing” would not have been considered by The Bosnian Serb Army in 1995 or in Rwanda or in Darfur.  Until it is internationally understood that countries must acknowledge humanitarian crimes throughout their history, there is no substantial reason for past monstrosities  not to exist in the present or the future.

However, as the prideful, overjoyed Armenian in me relished in the rare  light of justice and righteousness, the voice of the American citizen within me consistently whispered in my ear..

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.

As my own mind reluctantly played devil’s advocate, it was hard to suppress inclinations that perhaps this magnificent law could be an infringement of one of the most natural birth rights of any person born within the confines of a current day democracy.  As an advocate of democracy, am I to ignore my Bill of Rights only when it pertains to the benefit of my people, but proudly site it for all other scenarios? Would I not be a hypocrite if I didn’t question how a democratic government can place a gag order regarding aspects of history? In a hypothetical situation, where I am not an Armenian, I am certain that I would consider it a violation of my rights if I was punished by law for stating disagreement about a historical event.  If the U.S. took a leaf out of its ally’s book and passed the same bill regarding The Holocaust, I would be imprisoned for potentially standing on a street corner and spreading word that the past annihilation of the Jews by the Nazi Regime is fictional propaganda. Does the 1st amendment not protect my right to do that if I so desired?

Curiosity got the best of me as I intently researched the facts surrounding the legislation and I eventually found my answer. The national Bill of Rights of France is called “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen”.  In article 11 of this document is text which incites a right very similar to that of the first amendment of the Unite States,

“The free communication of thoughts and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man: any citizen thus may speak, write, print freely, save [if it is necessary] to respond to the abuse of this liberty, in the cases determined by the law”.

Initially, upon reading this poetic declaration of liberty, I remained confused as to how a country with a national document consisting of this law could pass a bill criminalizing an expression of denial.  However, as I continued to research I learned that France, as well as many other nations around the world, has imposed restrictions on article 11 as follows…

“French law prohibits public speech or writings that incite to racial or religious hatred, as well as those that deny certain historical crimes against humanity, such as The Holocaust and The Armenian Genocide…”

There are many different points of view as to what cultural or historical events lead to France adopting such a just restriction as opposed to The United States; two key allied leaders within the democratic world.  Could it be that France, being in Europe, felt the events of Holocaust were too close to home, experiencing on its skin aftershock waves of the internationally detrimental event? Or it could be the fact that the French government realizes how such historical events can affect the psyche and mental stability of the cultural generation directly affected; as well as, the successive generations. The impact that recognition versus denial can potentially have on the psychological health of  survivors and their offspring? Humanitarianism vs. Practicality?

Veronika Berberyan, an Armenian Genocide Survivor recalled during an interview, “…  My grandfather fell on his knees and began to pray. A Turkish soldier then swung an axe and beheaded him. The soldiers then started to play football with the head of my grandfather…”

Tiruhi Khorozyan is another Armenian Genocide survivor.  Being interviewed ninety years latter to bearing eye witness to the massacres of her people,when asked if she could ever find it in her heart to forgive the Turks she replied, “I would hardly be ready to forgive the Turks ever. Perhaps the young people will forgive them, because they didn’t see all that, but not me. I cannot forgive them ever, I can’t”.

As an Armenian woman, does this affect my psyche today? Do I take offense? Am I hurt by the fact that the country I live in, a country that waves the flag of justice and freedom, denies the brutal crimes inflicted on my ancestors? Yes, most definitely.

In the United States of America one restriction on freedom of speech is perjury.  It is punishable to lie under oath.  Knowing this, should it not also be punishable by law to lie about a historical fact of an existence of a  Genocide?

In response to Tiruhi Khorozyan, when she implies, “Perhaps the young people will forgive them, because they didn’t see all that, but not me”, I would like to ensure her that I speak for myself and a number of other Armenians when I say that the act of forgiving is a potential response to the act of apologizing.  Forgiving is a reaction to an acknowledgment of a mistake or wrong doing.  Turkey has not yet apologized for what its predecessors did to Tiruhi and the rest of my ancestors.  Us “young people”, we will never forgive until the Armenian Genocide is recognized and acknowledged, until Turkey is condemned for purging history for over a century. Until then, I will not forgive and I will continue relentlessly participating in the waging war against historical DENIAL.

For Immediate Release
Media Contact: Elen Asatryan
Email / Tel: (818) 500-1918
Armenian National Committee of America Western Region
168 N. Belmont, Suite 200, Glendale, CA 91206 * Tel. (818) 500-1918 | | @anca_dc
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