When Is a Genocide Not a Genocide?
This past Saturday in Philadelphia, home of The New Moderate, members of the local Armenian community went for a walk. It wasn’t the glorious spring weather that brought them out. It was the date: April 24.
Armenians have a thing about April 24, and here’s why. Back in 1915, the Young Turk leadership of the crumbling Ottoman Empire chose this particular date to round up, torture and/or execute 800 prominent Armenian intellectuals, poets and community leaders in Constantinople. This symbolic decapitation of the Armenian community signaled the start of a horrific and deliberate ethnic cleansing that swept through the historic Armenian homeland at the eastern edge of the empire.
Men were murdered in front of their families or snatched from their homes and never seen again. (My great grandfather, Parsegh Gulbenkian, was among the latter.) Most of the women, children and old folks were rounded up and forcibly marched toward the Syrian Desert to the south.
Hundreds of thousands of these unwilling marchers died from starvation, exhaustion or the often unspeakable depredations of marauding Turks and Kurds. In all, somewhere between a million and 1.5 million Armenians perished — out of a total population of just two million.
We Armenians call it genocide. So do France, Russia, Sweden, Greece, Canada and numerous other nations large and small. The U.S. and Israel do not. And of course, neither does Turkey.
The Turkish government has been denying the genocide for 95 years, and they’re not likely to come to Jesus after all that assiduous stonewalling. To concede now would be to imply that they were wrong for nearly a century, and no government wants to make itself appear more foolish than necessary.
Turkey generously concedes that large numbers of Armenians died, and that the increased mortality rate wasn’t simply due to influenza or cigarette smoking. The official government position is that World War I was raging, and that the Turkish Armenians located along the Russian frontier posed a dire security threat during wartime. (Their Russian Armenian brethren were poised to invade Turkish Armenia and liberate the region from its oppressors.) So the Turks simply attempted to move the entire Armenian population from one part of the empire to another. C’mon, can you blame them?
Yes, it’s unfortunate that so many Armenians died, the Turks admit. But this was World War I and the Ottoman Empire had to think of its security. No matter that nearly all the Armenians who met their doom were unarmed farmers, merchants, professionals, artisans and their families.
The U.S. and Israel have been participating in a massive enabling venture for at least half a century now. The Turks are strategic allies, after all, and we don’t want to alienate a strategic ally by implicating it in the first genocide of the twentieth century. Let the Turks and Armenians resolve the dispute on their own, the argument goes.
Time and time again, Congress has proposed resolutions to acknowledge, on record, that the deaths of all those Armenians did indeed consititute genocide. And time and time again, those resolutions have been quashed by higher powers before they could go to an actual vote.
Last month, it was President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton who did the quashing. Why would two well-credentialed progressives deny the Armenians their right to a long-overdue vindication? You guessed it: we can’t risk offending our “friends” over there in Asia Minor. Why can’t we offend them? Because our “friends” might take out their frustrations on Israel and, at the same time, deny us the right to use their strategically positioned airfields to launch tactical strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This hard-nosed, unsentimental, wholly pragmatic approach to foreign policy is known as Realpolitik, a suitably Germanic term that can be roughly translated as “Give the Devil his due.” The problem is that if you kowtow to the Devil often enough, you’re essentially doing his work.
Genocide, shmenocide: what’s in a name, anyway? Back in 2008, candidate Obama pledged to acknowledge the Armenian genocide as genocide as soon as he reached the White House. Since then, he’s made eloquent overtures and attempted to soothe those ravaged Armenian souls by empathizing with their pain. He’s danced gracefully around the central idea. You know he wants to say it. But to date, the man who wrote The Audacity of Hope hasn’t mustered the audacity to utter the dreaded G-word.
This past weekend, speaking in Asheville, NC, the president commemorated the genocide by declaring it “one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.” He added, “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed. It is in all of our interest to see the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts.”
Nice display of Realpolitik there, Mr. President: We know what’s in your heart… we know you’d really like to use the G-word… but we also know you can’t come out and say it without ruffling some choice Turkish feathers. Wouldn’t be prudent.
Circling a little closer to the unspeakable truth, Obama concluded that “the indomitable spirit of the Armenian people is a lasting triumph over those who set out to destroy them.”
This is about as close to a U.S. acknowledgment of genocide as we Armenians can allow ourselves to expect. After all, if the president notes that somebody set out to destroy the Armenians, we can reasonably conclude that those Armenians were victims of genocide. He just hasn’t used the G-word or furnished us with the identity of the perpetrators. But those of us who know our history can fill in the blanks.
I didn’t join my fellow Philadelphia Armenians in Saturday’s genocide commemoration. I’ve always felt ambivalent about parading our victimhood in public — and besides, I had a porch ceiling to repair.
I’m even ambivalent about the importance we Armenians attach to the G-word. Genocide, shmenocide: what matters is that the Ottoman Empire deliberately destroyed an ancient nation in its own homeland, with over a million casualties, and that ninety-five years later, Turkey still refuses to fess up to the deeds of its ancestors.
As if to rub salt more deeply into those gaping Armenian wounds, Turkey still clings to territory it illegally snatched from the fledgling Armenian Republic following World War I. Turkey lost the war but won the greater part of Armenia without so much as a blink from the international community.
Just as dastardly, to my mind, is the ongoing Turkish campaign to expunge Armenia from its history books: all those ruined medieval churches that dot the now-desolate landscape of eastern Anatolia are simply the relics of nameless vanished Christian communities, their stone walls reduced to barns for Turkish and Kurdish livestock — or convenient quarries for local builders.
When is a genocide not a genocide? Proponents of Realpolitik would answer, “When it would adversely impact one’s foreign policy.” But of course, the real answer is “Never.” In this best of all possible worlds, truth and justice should always trump the demands of diplomacy.