CNet News Briefs
Monday, October 20, 1997

Don't give him the satisfaction

The case against Zundel's Web site only feeds his need for attention

by Mitchel Brown, mitchell@yahoo.ca

Like they say, it's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

Take this "Zündelsite", for instance. This week, lawyers for the Canadian Human Rights Commission argued in front of a tribunal that notorious Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel is responsible for a California-based site that espouses his views. They also hope to prove that the site's contents break Canada's laws against hate speech, thereby allowing them to seek a cease and desist order which would shut down the site.

So I tuned in to see what all the hubbub is about. I figured an hour or so surfing around the Zündelsite would give me the material I needed to make an informed decision on the veracity of his views, not to mention an easy column.

I caved in five minutes. Not from disgust or horror, mind you; if I had stayed on the site any longer, I would've ruptured something vital from laughing too hard.

I mean, is this guy for real? He's portraying himself as a persecuted scholar who's only trying to seek the truth, and he's saying the Holocaust was "a cleverly used ploy to keep the German war time generation and their descendants in perpetual political, emotional, spiritual, and financial bondage?"

Leaving aside the fact that our Teutonic brothers and sisters have recovered quite nicely from that dark period in their history, are we really supposed to greet any self-styled historian who talks like this with anything less than our full and complete ridicule?

Unfortunately, ridicule is not enough for some people. They want to punish him for expressing his beliefs, their actions based on the assumption that, even if Zundel himself is not committing acts of violence against his fellow man, then his words are creating the atmosphere that could cause such acts.

Frankly, I try not to give Zundel the audience he so desperately craves, and he does crave attention. If you doubt me, and if you have the stomach for it, go to the Web site to see what I mean. Before everything else, you will be confronted with an image of Zundel at the centre of a media circus, with microphones, recorders, and television cameras stuck in his face as if he were someone of consequence in our society. I leave to your imagination what the reporters in that photo were thinking at the time ("Four years of journalism school for this?" comes to mind).

Let me make one thing clear right now: The only reason why I allow Zundel to occupy even one synapse of my memory capacity is because I refuse to sink to his level in order to shut him up. I mean, c'mon -- does anyone really believe that the mythical Universe According to Zundel would allow Holocaust believers the same freedoms we are graciously giving him? Of course not, and for the mere sin of believing he holds the only truth, I reserve the right to mock him for as long as it amuses me.

And that's all I'm prepared to do. Shutting him up in more coercive ways only gives him the attention he wants, and in his own mind makes him the "free speech defender" he believes himself to be. To me, this case against a Web site that may or may not be under his direct control sets a dangerous precedent, and needlessly gives him the ammunition he craves.

The Commission's argument is that the Internet relies on telephone wires to transmit information, and therefore anything transmitted over those wires falls under the government's jurisdiction. Sorry, no. A Web site is not a telephone call or an anonymous flyer left in mailboxes. In those cases, there is the element of action involved -- a person with something to say actively seeks out people to receive a message. In the case of a Web site, information is created and left in one spot. It is therefore up to the reader to seek out that information.

It's a fine distinction, but a crucial one. It's the difference between hanging a swastika flag in your bedroom and hanging it outside your window; both are tasteless acts, but only the one committed in public view ought to be censured. A Web site does not spread its message any more than a book gets up, walks across the room, and forces itself in front of your eyes. Unless Zundel and his minions are invading chat rooms and news groups to tell the rest of us what to believe, I do not see how we can justify shutting a site down just because we don't like what it says. It's the virtual-reality equivalent of going into someone's house and seizing all the books that we don't like... and I'm sure few of us are eager to relive those days again.

Throughout this whole sordid affair, the only participant that has earned my respect is Chris Schefler, president of the company currently hosting the Zundelsite. Although he will comply if our government rules against the site, and although he thoroughly despises what he sees on it, he told CNET Canada that he will not censor any speech that is protected under under the U.S. Constitution's first amendment.

This, from a man whose own grandmother died in a Nazi concentration camp. That's the kind of class act that's hard to follow. Me, I would've just told Zundel's lackeys to go to hell.

Copyright © 1997 by Rogers Multi-Media and CNET, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.