The Problem With Kid Gloves

Today we are grappling with how to address the rapid spread of online hatred in what is still the Wild West of social media. The problem is that what used to be only in people’s heads or maybe spoken in the privacy of their living rooms is now readily available for all to see. And that is not good.

Facebook is under the gun and a group of world leaders met in New Zealand where they signed a document calling for “effective enforcement of applicable laws that prohibit the production or dissemination of terrorist and violent extremist content.”

Well, good luck with that.

I used to write a newspaper column about the justice system. Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, a confirmed neo-Nazi, made his home in Toronto and at one time had his name up for leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada. Zundel even delivered a speech at the 1968 convention that elected Pierre Trudeau as party leader.

The Canadian justice system, which I had often criticized in my column for being lax with offenders, charged Zundel with a hate law and it went to trial. Among the witnesses were Holocaust victims who had to parade into court and describe their experiences. Zundel was found guilty, but his conviction was overturned on appeal, leading to a second trial which meant those same Holocaust victims, some of them getting on in years, had to come back.

I wrote a piece saying how ridiculous this was, prompting a threatening letter from a Zundel supporter. The police got involved, the man was charged, and a hearing was held where the judge had me read my article into the court record.

“That’s a very controversial column,” the judge said.

Back then there was no Internet, no social media, no Facebook. Lots of people had nasty ideas, but for the most part those ideas were, well, kept in their heads or living rooms. Not so with Zundel, who was the biggest neo-Nazi publisher in the world. Why did he choose Canada to do his thing? Maybe because the country had a reputation for being soft with thugs.

At Zundel’s second trial he was again found guilty, but he was eventually acquitted by the Supreme Court of Canada which claimed that his rights had been violated under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Yes, the rights of a neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier. Zundel was later deported back to his native Germany where he was promptly tried and sentenced to five years. He served three.

Where am I going with this? If history shows us anything, it’s that the Neville Chamberlain approach of using kid gloves to deal with thugs does not work. (If you don’t know who Chamberlain was you can start with Wikipedia.)

What happened to the Ernst Zundel supporter who wrote me that threatening letter? Canada’s justice system was most stern with him. The judge released him with the order that he couldn’t write letters to any newspapers for a year. The name of the judge wasn’t Neville Chamberlain.

But it might as well have been.

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