11 October, 2007

Thoughts on the Armenian Resolution

My roommate and I watched the House committee vote on the Armenian resolution live on Turkish television last night at about midnight. The non-binding resolution passed 27-21 and is supposed to go to the full House next and then on to the Senate.

I've seen the photos, the maps outlining deportations and camps and they are horrific and certainly seem to illustrate killing on such a scale as could not take place without some official system. I can certainly understand how any of the remaining survivors would want, finally, the Turkish government and the rest of the world to say "This happened to you."

If this was happening today, I would hope all governments could find effective means to stop it. Certainly, 92 years ago every government failed the Armenians. Ambassadors and others on hand and who may have had sway with their governments knew what was happening, reported it, yet no one stopped it. But, what does it mean for the government of the modern Turkish state to admit to a genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire?

And while many of my Turkish friends agree that the issue needs to be brought into the open and discussed, they see the issue as one for Turkey and Armenia to deal with and not foreign governments to demand. In some ways I agree, not quite understanding how these resolutions will change things for the better. Indeed, it seems forcing change on this issue only gives power to the very ultra-nationalists who want to keep it hidden in the dark of the past. One could also look at some of the countries, mine included, demanding that Turkey pull the issue into the light of examination. France has only recently begun to deal with the horrors wrought upon Algeria during the colonial era and the bloody war for its independence. In the U.S. the story of one of the world's greatest mass killings, that of the native peoples of the Americas, still usually only gets a brief mention in most schools. Academics and theorists who raise the issue of the US genocide against native peoples as the root from which the violent cycles of US culture and history grew from are often called unpatriotic or quacks, at best.

Not being Turkish, not being any sort of nationalist, perhaps I'll never understand. One confusing aspect for me is that this happened during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, not under the auspices of Ataturk or the modern Turkish nation. Why not use this episode to show how far the nation has come? I've read part of the difficulty is in the notion of a unified Turkishness - there are no Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, only Turks. This is the same issue plaguing the Kurdish issue. Differences are seen by many as weaknesses, cracks in the foundation. There are people here who call for a change, for the country to begin to celebrate its many cultures, to see variety as a strength. Of course, the same issue is being argued in reverse by many in my home country. After years of celebrating our many cultures, our own ultra-nationalists are pushing for people to see the "others" in the US as threats to security, economy, personal safety, and "American culture", whatever that phrase means.

Things like this cannot, should not, stay buried. Yet even for some of those here who take the risk of calling it genocide, this is an issue to be decided by the two countries involved. Most notable and tragic of those being Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was murdered early this year in front of the offices of his newspaper after calling the killings a genocide. He firmly believed it was genocide, did not agree with the interventions by foreign governments in the issue. In the days after his murder over 100,000 people marched in the streets here chanting "We are all Armenians." However, the Turkish government recently shut down YouTube after music videos appeared in which a Turkish singer insinuated that Dink got what he deserved and bearing images of his body on the ground shortly after his murder. The trial of the young man charged in the case begins soon.

Then there is the stifling Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which makes it illegal to "insult Turkishness", that is now well known for snaring Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk and author Elif Safak, who both faced significant jail time. Safak was charged under the code for simply having a character in her novel call the Armenian murders a genocide. Pamuk was only acquitted on a technicality, had to be provided a security detail after Dink's murder, and, rumor has it, has relocated to New York City for good. Europe is calling for the code to be repealed as part of Turkey's talks for joining the EU.

As with the current situation in Sudan, my stomach churns with all this discussion and debate over a word while people are starved, raped, and butchered. Mass killing, genocide, crime against humanity...Whatever you want to call it, people are dying, have died, and will die. Instead of spending time debating whether these horrors fit the criteria, I wish those in power would spend more time developing effective responses to end the violence and help the victims.

Supposedly the Nazis highlighted the fact that the world forgot about the Armenian victims when discussing their plans against Europe's Jews. There point was that no one would act against them, nothing would be done, because no one had stood for the Armenians in 1915. Sadly, they were right, and, in the beginning, few people in power stood for the Jews. That seems to be the sad constant with genocides across history and into today - it can be identified and classified like a specimen, but no one knows quite what to do with it. Some call the Armenian victims "The Forgotten Genocide". Sadly, it seems, too many victims of similar horrors are forgotten in the end.


PS: If you want to read an excellent and enraging work on a modern genocide, I suggest We Regret to Inform You, But Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch.

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