A friend once sent me a Christmas card with a handwritten greeting: “May your genocide be recognized this holiday season.” It still makes me laugh out loud, because it captures something about the absurd and profound impasse between Turkey and the Armenian people.
One hundred years ago this month, the Ottoman Empire began carrying out a systematic plan to exterminate its minority Armenian population.
Between 1 million and 1.5 million people were killed or died of starvation. Yet the Turkish government won’t admit this historical fact. It spends a fortune annually to stop scholarly and cultural events about the genocide, even going so far as to pay former Missouri Sen. Richard Gephardt’s Gephardt Group more than $1 million each year to lobby against congressional resolutions on the genocide. Turkey has threatened several times, most recently in 2007, to close Turkish missile bases to U.S. airplanes if Congress passes a simple non-binding statement acknowledging the events of 1915 as genocide. And its tactics work; the resolution, which had the votes to pass, was killed at the State Department’s behest.
The United States isn’t the only target of this censorship effort. At their government’s prompting, Turkish diasporan organizations in 2009 mounted a campaign to stop the Toronto school board from including the Armenian genocide in a human rights curriculum. In 2010, Ankara succeeded in pressuring the Rwandan government to scrap a presentation on the Armenian genocide at a panel on genocide at the United Nations. In 2012, the Turkish government was successful in demanding that the British government order the Tate Gallery to remove the word “genocide” from the wall text of an Arshile Gorky exhibit.
Substitute “Jews” for “Armenians” and “German government” for “Turkish government” and you can imagine the ensuing moral outrage. The Armenian community has been waiting a century for the international community to stand up to Turkey. It shouldn’t have to wait any longer.
The word “recognition” hovers over the history of the Armenian genocide like a hawk. It’s a defining word that embodies an ethical basis for accountability after a human rights crime. The issue of recognition is not an abstraction, or a rhetorical game. The “R-word” is about responsibility, social justice and repair in the aftermath of one of the most extensive human rights crimes of the modern era: the crime that was instrumental in Raphael Lemkin’s coining the very word and concept of genocide.
When Lemkin was asked in February 1949, just after the U.N. Genocide Convention was ratified, why he became interested in genocide, he answered, “Because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians. And after — the Armenians got a very rough deal at the Versailles conference because the criminals who were found guilty weren’t punished.” Lemkin was not only noting the importance of the event but also pointing out that it’s ethically harmful to commit such a crime with impunity.
Denial of genocide is the final stage of genocide because it strives to kill the memory of the event; denial seeks to demonize the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators; denial creates what the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has called “a morally counterfeit universe for the survivors and their legacy.”
In December, after North Korea organized a hacking operation against Sony Pictures to stop the release of “The Interview,” President Barack Obama spoke out against the use of threats by foreign powers to inhibit free speech in the United States.
“We cannot have a society where some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States,” he said, “because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they’ll do when they see a documentary that they don’t like, or news reports that they don’t like — or even worse, imagine if producers or distributors or others start engaging in self-censorship because they don’t want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended.”
Obama has gone further than any other president in confronting Turkish leaders by asking them to deal with the events of 1915 honestly, as he did in 2009 when he visited Turkey. But he should heed his own wisdom and stop self-censoring.
The president understands clearly that what happened to the Armenians is genocide. In 2008, before his election, he stated, “My firmly held conviction (is) that the Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence.” The president should follow the example of Pope Francis who, in acknowledging the historical significance of the Armenian genocide on Sunday, refused to be intimidated by Turkish government bullying and cajoling.
The Turkish government, for its part, should stop interfering with cultural events and intellectual freedom in democratic societies. And it should listen to many of its own ethically committed citizens who work hard for truth in Turkey. The Turkish scholar and journalist Cengiz Aktar spoke for many of his citizens when he wrote, “The Armenian genocide is the Great Catastrophe of Anatolia, and the mother of all taboos in this land. Its curse will continue to haunt us as long as we fail to talk about, recognize, understand and reckon with it.”
Removing the curse won’t require magic. All that’s necessary is moral leadership.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Peter Balakian is the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities at Colgate University and the author of many books, including “The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
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