Sunday, August 24, 2008


October 18, 2007

"America must speak candidly about the past not only to help heal the wounds of the survivors and the families of the victims, but to give the United States the moral authority it needs to take action against other genocides like that taking place today in Darfur."

So said Adam Schiff, the Democratic Congressman from Pasadena, following the passage of H.Res. 106 by the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week. This non-binding resolution, which he authored, calls upon the president "to accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide."

Candor, healing, moral authority: all noble ideals, all in critically short supply today. Would the presidential utterance of that one word, genocide, help bring these about?

It doesn’t look like it. Immediately after the vote, the Republic of Turkey, at which the bill’s sponsors claim it is not directed, recalled its ambassador and issued a statement that passage of the measure by the Congress might force the country to "cut logistical support to the U.S." Jittery, the administration presented Defense Secretary Gates to remind legislators that 70 percent of the military hardware going to Iraq and 30 percent of its fuel comes through U.S. bases in Turkey. Besides, said Presidential Press Secretary Dana Petrino, President Bush has often "expressed on behalf of the American people our horror at the tragedy of 1915" — he just won’t use the G-word to describe it.

Not much healing going on as yet; what about candor?

According to its sponsors, the bill has nothing to do with modern Turkey; it merely want to set the historical record straight. Beginning in 1915, the desperate and disintegrating Ottoman Empire attempted to exile its Armenian population, which it considered an internal threat; at the outbreak of World War I, the Empire had aligned itself with the Central Powers, and the Orthodox Christian Armenians were accused of aiding the enemy, Russia. Reporters and diplomats from the U.S., the neutral countries of Europe, and even allied Germany extensively documented the deportations and the deaths, and at the end of the war an international tribunal condemned them as "offenses against the laws and customs of war and the principle of humanity." Subsequent research by scholars worldwide overwhelmingly concluded that the leaders of the Empire systematically planned and actively attempted the mass extermination of the Armenians. At present, 22 nations have identified those acts as "genocide."

In 1923, the Republic of Turkey, a secular state modeled on Western governments and embracing Western culture, was shaped from the ruins of the Ottoman sultanate. Its radical disengagement from the old ways in some sense legitimizes the contention of the genocide bill’s supporters that it levels no accusations against the people of Turkey or their government but is directed, in the words of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, at "another government, at another time." It wishes only to place before the world the atrocities against the Armenians alongside other deplorable efforts at extermination, past and present.

But cultures are always slow to admit their own shame and will manipulate their histories intensively to avoid it. The official Turkish position, as I understand it, is that most of the Armenian deaths were caused not by execution but by starvation, disease, and their own hands — horrible enough, but circumstantial, not intentional, and thus not technically "genocide."
Wriggling on the issue of atrocities, while inexcusable, is understandable and by no means unusual. Germany kept the Holocaust out of its textbooks for years. The Soviet Union denied its horrors against Jews, Ukrainians, and even its own people during the Stalinist era. And what about our own government’s treatment of the American Indian? It took almost two centuries before our children began to be taught that this was not the heroic civilizing of a savage people but something close to . . . genocide. I doubt that that word appears much in textbooks even now, nor that the Congress in its quest for candor has ever passed a resolution acknowledging it. And indeed, no matter how repentant we Americans may become of our history of racial maltreatment, be it against Indian tribes, the Chinese in the nineteenth century, the Japanese internees of the twentieth, and African-Americans to this day, would we not still be insulted if, say, the Turkish parliament chose to call it to our attention?

Which brings up the question of restoring our moral authority. If there’s one positive cultural result of Abu Ghirab, Guantanamo, and the secret detention-and-torture centers outside our borders, it may be that we Americans are becoming more open-eyed about the actual weight of our moral authority. Humiliated and chastened by our government’s actions and attitudes, we may be becoming less likely to cast the first stone. Violations of human rights are every country’s problem, including our own. Our moral authority will not be restored by self-righteous declarations but by positive initiatives for peace, international justice, and economic development.

Judging from the experiences of other countries including our own, it may take a long while yet for Turkey to acknowledge the historical fact of the Armenian genocide. It may come sooner, rather than later, if the U.S. continues to nurture its relationship to Turkey as an open, forward-looking secular state.

Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, a Foreign Relations Committee member who voted against the genocide resolution after supporting identical ones in 2000 and 2005, summed things up exactly: "While this is still the right position, it is not the right time."

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