NYC: Barnes & Noble imbroglio over Armenian genocide

First-time author Margaret Ajemian Ahnert’s May 1 appearance at a Barnes & Noble store on New York’s Upper East Side to promote her new memoir on survivng the Armenian genocide, The Knock at the Door, was disrupted by hecklers who shouted and passed out leaflets denying the genocide occurred. One was arrested.

Ahnert’s book relates how her mother survived the genocide as a teenager during World War I and eventually resettled in the United States. “Here I was trying to tell the story of my mother, not making a political statement,” she said. “It’s a mother-daughter story, it’s how it affected my life. It’s not just about the Armenian genocide, it’s about my mother growing up, my life, and events in her life that affected me. It’s a mother-daughter memoir. I’m not making any historical statements.”

The crowd apparently included such notables as former governor Hugh Carey and the Manhattan district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, whose grandfather, Henry Morgenthau, was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1916. But trouble broke out in the Q&A session.

“Someone in the middle of the back of the room stood up and said, ‘That’s not so,'” Ahnert said. “Five or six men started to pass out fliers of denial. I thought, oh, my goodness sakes, it’s like Holocaust deniers. I was completely taken aback.”

Audience member Mary Occhino, the host of a call-in program on Sirius satellite radio, said some of the people were shouting, “This is a lie, this is a lie, this never happened.” Added Occhino: “I got up and said, ‘Enough.’ Her mother lived through the genocide—that’s all she said. They said, ‘That’s a lie, that’s a lie, that never happened.’ But this story is not about genocide; it’s about a mother’s love for her daughter.”

One man was arrested, identified by the police as Erdem Sahin of Staten Island, charged with resisting arrest, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail, and lesser charges including disorderly conduct.

At a hearing the following day in Manhattan Criminal Court, Judge Rita Mella adjourned the charges in contemplation of dismissal, meaning the case will be dropped in six months if Sahin is not arrested again.

Sahin said afterward that he and his fellow protesters were angry that France had “made it illegal to say there was no genocide.” The French National Assembly approved the law last fall. “We realize that if we don’t do something, we will soon have no rights,” he said. “We are fighting for freedom of speech.” When asked about his views on the Armenian genocide, he said, “Honestly, I’m not a historian, but historians say there is no genocide.”

In recent years, Turkish writers who have referred to genocide have faced reprisal. A legal claim against the novelist Elif Shafak was dropped last fall, but she cut short a six-city US tour promoting her sixth novel, The Bastard of Istanbul.

Orhan Pamuk, who won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, was also sued by a nationalist group for referring to genocide in a Swiss interview, and in January, Hrant Dink, a newspaper editor who had challenged the official Turkish version of the genocide, was fatally shot as he left his office in Istanbul.

A spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble said passing out pamphlets violated the company’s no-solicitation policy: “They were asked to stop passing out leaflets. They refused. They were jeering the author. They were asked to sit down and they refused.” That was when the police were called, she said.

Ahnert said she had appeared on college campuses and at a literary festival in Florida with no problems. “This is something I hope I don’t have to look forward to,” she said. (NYT via IHT, May 3)

Now let’s see, how many people deserve to be dissed in this sorry episode? Let’s count.

1. Erdem Sahin and his fellow revisionist hoodlums. (Of course!) But also:

2. The French, whose absurd law criminzalizing denial of the genocide only paradoxically vindicates the deniers by making them free-speech martyrs.

3. Barnes & Noble, whose “no soliciting” policy also bottlenecks free speech. The hypetrophy of their mall-like “bookstores” has made B&N the equivalent of the town square in this corporate-dominated age, and they should be made to take some responsibility for that. Handing out leaflets (even vile genocide-denying leaflets) is First Amendment-protected activity, and when B&N dominates intellectual space to the degree that it does in New York, the Bill of Rights must have some force of law on its turf. However, it should also be noted that as soon as Sahin and his pals started to shout down Ahnert, they violated her free speech rights, and crossed the line from dissent to mere thuggery.

4. The New York Times, whose account of the incident states:

Many historians say that the Ottoman Empire was responsible for the death of more than one million people around 1915 in a campaign intended to eliminate the Armenian population throughout what is now Turkey.

Would they use such appallingly neutral language about the Nazi Holocaust? Of course not.

Why is that?

See our last post on the Armenian genocide controversy.