Mel Gibson's soon-to-be-released film The Passion of the Christ—hailed by some as a powerful account of the last hours of Jesus' life, decried by others as an inflammatory screed with anti-Semitic overtones—has become a lightning rod in the culture wars. The film's conservative defenders have charged that the criticism is driven by liberal fears of religion's growing influence on society. The critics charge that conservatives are using the issue to whip up a hysteria about alleged persecution of religion. Recently, the debate shifted to another inflammatory issue: Holocaust denial and comparisons between the Holocaust and other atrocities.
Holocaust denial is relevant here because of Gibson's father, Hutton Gibson. A prominent member of the "traditionalist" Catholic movement which split from the Catholic Church over the 1965 reforms of the Second Vatican Council (which, among other things, rejected the doctrine that the Jews were guilty of "deicide") is also known as a Holocaust denier. Of course Gibson shouldn't be blamed for the sins of his father; but in an interview with Peggy Noonan, forthcoming in the March issue of Reader's Digest, he says, "My dad taught me my faith, and I believe what he taught me. The man never lied to me in his life."
It was in the same interview that Noonan, who has defended Gibson in the controversy over The Passion, offered him a chance to end any speculation about his views on the Holocaust: "You're going to have to go on record. The Holocaust happened, right?"
Gibson's reply: "I have friends and parents of friends who have numbers on their arms. The guy who taught me Spanish was a Holocaust survivor. He worked in a concentration camp in France. Yes, of course. Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps. Many people lost their lives. In the Ukraine, several million starved to death between 1932 and 1933. During the last century, 20 million people died in the Soviet Union."
Does this answer exonerate Gibson, or does he damn himself with his own words? Obviously, he doesn't deny that the concentration camps existed or that Jews were killed in them. But George Mason University law professor David Bernstein points out on the Volokh Conspiracy weblog that Holocaust "revisionists" typically do not deny that Jews were killed; they simply minimize the killing, portraying it as another part of the overall death toll of World War II rather than the systematic extermination campaign that it was. In Bernstein's opinion, "Gibson is skirting pretty close" to this kind of minimization.
A more controversial aspect of Gibson's comments is the question of whether the Holocaust merits unique status in the annals of 20th century crimes against humanity. The double standard applied to Nazi and communist crimes has long been a sore point among critics of the Western left, and it's a legitimate charge—made, among others, by British writer Martin Amis in the 2002 book about Stalin's reign of terror, Koba the Dread.
Gulag revisionism is not stigmatized the way Holocaust revisionism is. Historian Robert Thurston's 1996 book, Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, which argued that bad things happened but there was no systematic deliberate terror, was published by Yale University Press and received blurbs from respected scholars hailing it as "thought-provoking" and "original." Meanwhile, The Black Book of Communism, a 1999 book documenting communism's bloody record, was widely criticized as sensationalist and biased.
So yes, there is a double standard because communism is seen as having "progressive" goals. And yes, the Soviet regime engaged in mass murder on a Nazi-like scale. But that hardly justifies Gibson's comments.
Given an opportunity to state clearly that the Holocaust happened and that it was a horrific crime, Gibson, instead, chose to hedge—to give a "yes, but" answer, to gloss over the Nazi extermination of the Jews and quickly move on to other victims of other regimes. This may not signify anti-Semitism, but it certainly signifies a frightening moral obtuseness.
Politically correct witch-hunts do happen. But Gibson is not the victim of such a witch-hunt; the backlash he faces is of his own making.
Correction: In last week's column on Peter Landesman's New York Times Magazine article on sexual slavery, I wrote that Landesman offers no corroboration for many lurid and sensational claims: for instance, that some sexual slavery rings condone clients killing children. I should have made it clear that Landesman quotes such a claim by one of his sources but does not make the assertion himself.