The Memory of the Genocide as a Moral Compass

suzanne-khardalian (2)

Why should we even talk about the Genocide?
– In Anticipation of 24 April 2015


During the last few years there has been great enthusiasm for presenting the Armenian Genocide in fictional, story, form. My sense is that this notion animates all Armenians around the world. We all want our “Schindler’s List”, we all want our “Sofie’s Choice”. We want it because we cannot stop talking about the Genocide.

I have heard many articulate things said about the importance of making movies. I have myself been emphasizing the importance of telling the countless stories of the Genocide. But, interestingly, we have never asked the following question: why should we even talk about the Genocide? If the answer is just to satisfy our need for entertainment, then maybe a fiction film is good enough, or maybe more than enough.

But the story and remembrance of the Genocide is obviously about something else, it has another larger purpose.

What is that purpose then? Why should we even remember these atrocities? We do it mechanically and dutifully, every year, on the 24th of April. But few people respond clearly to the question of why. Duty makes itself heard, a faint feeling of obligation is there too, and the best argument you have is that it would be disrespectful not to do it. May be it is. But the problem is that this mechanical response both in the Diaspora and especially in Armenia threatens to ritualize these ceremonies and drain them of any meaning.

That we lack a clear and distinct answer is troubling, especially now, when Genocide survivors are not around us anymore. Their personal immensely powerful testimonies are only with us in sound or picture, their testimonies are mediated.

This reality, this loss, has its consequences:
– Unfortunately, for many of us – Armenian or not, it makes April 24 an abstract idea that we no longer have any living relationship with. The lack of clarity of purpose creates distance, ritualizes annual commemorations, and shortens memory more than necessary.
– It enables Turkey and its nationalists to “clean house” and gives them access to democratically elected parliaments or other institutions around the world.
– In a country like Sweden which celebrates the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, we witness a callous government ignoring the its Parliament’s directive to pursue international acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide.
– We witness in France a bizarre court verdict condemning a French-Armenian for ostensibly defaming the denialist.
– It allows the Srebrenica genocide to be denied on Swedish national television by its executive director who claims that giving room to denial “enriches the picture of what happened.”
– It creates a climate in which it becomes possible for certain intellectuals to protest against spreading awareness of genocide under communism.
– It romanticizes racism, xenophobia, and makes it extremely difficult to confront these ideas simply with good arguments.
– Finally, this absence leads to a high degree of downgrading and depreciation of certain concepts: everywhere we hear accusations of racism and xenophobia. People stopped by the police simply for speeding get to speak of “Gestapo methods”. Thus we hear Azerbaijan claiming Genocide in Khojali committed by Armenians, we hear Turkey preparing commemoration of the genocide of Turks in the Balkans, and I have even heard compassionate Armenians depict the political turmoil in Armenia as genocide. As a result the importance, the significance, and the gravity of the crime of genocide diminishes, the crime is trivialized, and finally distorted.

Therefore, it is time to re-articulate the importance and significance of Memory and compel ourselves to question the validity of the old, no longer functional, templates. Why? For the simple reason that they evidently no longer have any strength or effect. Why do we remember the Genocide? To prevent future recurrences? Maybe to honor the victims? To find comfort? Could it be about the ritualization of respect? It is important to answer these questions, because otherwise we fail to re-convey the importance of the memory of the suffering, the importance of paying attention to April 24, 1915, or January 27 (International Holocaust Remembrance Day), or Srebrenica Day, or the Rwandan Genocide Remembrance day. We have to give the memory a new force.

This “start over” must always begin with the questioning of the old. We should rethink and once more find a good answer to the question of why we should remember and why we should pay attention to these crimes. The old answer typically is: we have to remember the past in order to prevent future recurrences. The problem is that this is not true, or rather does not match what we want. The memory of the Genocide, this tremendous tragedy for the Armenian people, did not help humanity and could not prevent Srebrenica, Darfur, or Rwanda. And the same memory obviously does not prevent racism and xenophobia, extreme Turkish nationalism, and other atrocities we witness daily around the globe.

The reason that the memory does not help us to prevent recurrence of a crime is that this argument presupposes a cyclical understanding of history – that is we expect the events to recur in a more or less regular pattern. But they do not. It could be that memory helps us not to repeat a mistake, but the problem is that the committed mistake is never the same. Evil always appears in a new context, comes in unrecognizable shapes. Knowledge of the past is simply not enough vaccine against evil. Because the knowledge of Der Zor might prevent a new Der Zor , but cannot prevent a new Srebrenica or Rwanda.

The other problem with the method of using the past to draw conclusions about the present or future is that things are not comparable in the way we are trying to compare. The Armenian genocide is difficult to compare with anything else, and Hitler’s concentration camps are definitely not the same as Guantanamo. To compare these things is to create flawed logic.

Finally, it should be realized that memory is not always the best bunkmate. Memory helps us a lot when it is processed but it can also be our enemy when it is not processed and not woven into the body of our new society.

So why should we remember? How should we see commemorations? As I see it, we need to remember for three reasons. First, we must remember in order to acknowledge the suffering of our people who have experienced the Evil. We must remember because if we do not we would violate our murdered ancestors again. This enables us to go on living without shame, having paid tribute, our debt, to the victims. Genocide scholars know that we rarely lack knowledge of ongoing genocide, as we contend in hindsight, that countries and their governments, usually also the public, know exactly what is going on— the “early warning” system usually works for the most part— but for some reason we fail to take measures against it. What is lacking is the will to help. To remember this is to both recognize the suffering of these people and admit that the world was passive when it should have responded and acted.

The second reason for us to remember is to spread the notion that atrocities and crimes can not be put into perspective, made relative. The truth about genocide is one, there are not several truths, and that suffering should not be silenced, distorted, twisted, and relativized. That is how to prevent hearing Turkish arguments about “we too suffered, share our pain”. By doing so we create a moral order where right is right and wrong is wrong. We create a moral compass that we all need.

Mind you I am not naïve. Of course what the compass displays will be neglected. There are still countries, groups, and individuals who deny the Genocide. There are countries and groups which without denying it, just by ignoring its importance, give a helping hand to the deniers. There are still genocide deniers who are invited as guest speakers to prestigious universities in Europe and the USA.

Finally, I believe that we must remember in order to include memory as a building block in the world we are trying to create. This Memory is too fragile to be used as a weapon against evil, too volatile to be a barrier, and too abstract to serve as a vaccine against evil. Moreover, when solidarity with the victims terminates – in time and distance – it is replaced with indifference, or at most with a sense of guilt.

Do not misunderstand me. Here it is clearly not a question of those who disappeared in, but who REMEMBERS those who disappeared in, the Belgian camps in Congo, the camps in Der Zor. Does the world remember at all that these camps existed? We should use memory as a glue to put together our world, its history, and its institutions. Human rights will never become a part of western world’s democratic institutions unless the memory of the humiliation that our people who died in the killing fields – of Syrian concentration camps – are added into the consciousness of western civilization, injected into its bloodstream.

Just so we can say that we have learned a lesson, created something durable that will work even after the Memory has faded.

Only then we can say that we did our best so that those who died and suffered did not do so in vain.

And only then we can say that we gave a meaning to these tragedies.

Therefore, we should remember.


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