Thoughts on Genocide Remembrance Day, 2021

Map of the 1921 Allies proposal to dismember Anatolia: Ermenistan is the Turkish word for Armenia

April 24 is an Armenian holiday: Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. President Biden today gave official certification that the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 was a genocide. I wrote my thoughts about the issue many years ago. I wouldn’t change much today. Perhaps someday–when the history of Jim Crow, the war with Mexico, the occupation of the Philippines, the abandonment of European Jewry to extermination, the Chinese Exclusion Act, are honestly taught in American schools–perhaps then will we have the moral standing to pronounce which side, the Armenians or the Turks, have the better assessment of the horrors of 1915. Until then it would have better for Biden to stay out of the argument.

Here’s what I wrote ten or twenty years ago on the subject:

Memo to Congress: Leave the Turks and Armenians alone to bury old enmities

Old hatreds die hard. Many Serbs still burn with hate for Muslims over the lost battle of Blackbird’s Field in Kosovo on June 15, 1389. In Great Britain there remains mutual hatred between Catholics and Protestants dating from atrocities of the 17th century. And many Armenian Americans still burn over the massacres and other deaths of 1,500,000 Armenians by the forces of the collapsing Ottoman Empire—the predecessor to modern Turkey–in 1915. Turks dispute the number, claiming that 300,000 Armenians were killed and at least as many Turks, as the empire descended into chaos and war.

It seems that civilization depends on our ability to put such horrors aside, to consign them to the ash heap of history. That ability is what allows black and white Americans to coexist—even love each other—a mere 140 years after the end of brutal slavery in the U.S. It allows many Jews and Muslims, Japanese and Chinese, Indians and Pakistanis to live and let live. Even Turkey and Armenia are on the verge of normal relations and an open border, with their presidents even attending football (soccer) games between the respective national teams in each other’s country.

Enter the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, which just passed, 23-22, a non-binding resolution calling on US policy and President Barack Obama to refer formally refer to the World War I mass killings as a “genocide.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi must now decide whether the bill passed by the committee will be sent to a floor vote in the House.

All the members knew that this was a matter of national pride for Turkey, an issue that could blow up relations between the US and our close ally. It has. Turkey—the Muslim world’s oldest democracy—has just withdrawn its ambassador from Washington in protest.

“We condemn this resolution accusing Turkey of a crime that it had not committed,” the Turkish Prime Minister’s office said in a written statement. “Our Ambassador to Washington Namik Tan was recalled tonight to Ankara for consultations after the development,” the statement said.

The mind boggles at the House action. Several questions worry an ethicist:

1) Was it genocide? This Fourth Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary defines genocide as “the systematic and planned extermination of an entire national, racial, political, or ethnic group.” Armenian-Americans say yes, passionately. Some Turks agree, although the Turkish government’s position rejects just about every word of the definition: not systematic, not planned, not extermination, and not entire.

2) Is the US doing good or harm by raising the issue? Armenian-Americans are pleased, although Armenians are likely to be big losers if the budding normalization with their Turkish neighbors is wrecked.

3) Who are we to cast a stone at the Turks. Perhaps we should first come to terms with the sins of our own forebears before we accuse others of –what? Descent from sinners? Aren’t we all?

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