Simon Hardy Butler
Simon Hardy Butler
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A Holocaust-denial conundrum

Sentencing Holocaust deniers to prison doesn't actually change their minds

In the great Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange, the incarcerated youth Alex undergoes a treatment that aims to curtail his violent instincts by making him nauseated every time he tries to engage in belligerent or sexual behavior. The problem is, he still thinks and feels the way he does; he is just prevented artificially from acting on his thoughts. He becomes a clockwork orange.

I’ve been thinking about this film in relation to the recent news that an 87-year-old woman named Ursula Haverbeck was convicted in Germany of Holocaust denial, which has resulted in a prison sentence. The stringent laws in this country relating to its Nazi-era past are well-intended, but for me they’re quite problematic … and not for any reason pertaining to free speech.

They bother me because the punishments for such crimes don’t change the perpetrators’ beliefs. They won’t stop denying the Holocaust took place because they’re jailed. They won’t cease being anti-Semitic if they’re put away.

It’s a rare person who changes his or her ways at any age. Folks who argue that the Holocaust never happened are so saturated with hate that no amount of prison time will mitigate their ideologies. And the threat of heading to the clink isn’t likely to dissuade an individual from entertaining those notions. As the saying goes, never try to teach a pig to sing: It wastes your time, and it annoys the pig.

This pig won’t be anything but annoyed.

Is there any reason to think that a handful of months in the lockup will incite more than a moment of regretful reflection from this person? I don’t think so. In fact, it might just have the opposite effect; she could become resentful, and even worse, be made a martyr by the neo-Nazi contingent currently spread among the global population. Jailing a woman at her advanced age, they’ll argue, is wrong. The birth of a standard-bearer for the defense against legal tyranny could be upon us.

Bigotry is entrenched in humans’ sensibilities. Extricating it is tough, though education goes a long way toward achieving that end. When someone grows up, however, with the concept that a certain culture is innately evil and that the prejudice perpetuated against its adherents is invented, it’s extremely difficult to convince that individual of the fallacy of such credos. Deprogrammers who have worked with those brainwashed by religious cults may share this experience. The shackles of indoctrination are tight and restrictive. They can only be removed via patience and tenaciousness.

That may not be so effective with Haverbeck, though I wonder if trying could at least help. Exposure to the Holocaust’s horrific evidence—the newsreels, the photos, the documentation by the Nazis of the atrocities they committed, and the interviews with countless survivors and witnesses—would, in my opinion, be a sufficient remedy for her anti-Semitic ailment. Perhaps it won’t spur her to recant, but it would certainly be more productive than keeping her in the slammer. The question here is: What’s the real goal? To ensure that she transforms into a good person who renounces her anti-Semitic behavior? Or to punish her so that she thinks twice before broadcasting such ideas again? Is she being made into a clockwork orange? And if so, what good will that do?

Criticizing a government’s policy is easy. Finding viable alternative solutions that will mitigate the infractions is a lot harder. My feeling is that jail time in these cases should be replaced by a concerted educational effort tailored to the malfeasants’ ages, which would be a more powerful tool in stemming this activity. For one can only do so much as a clockwork orange.

One can do a heckuva lot more as a real person.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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