BY SCOTT ABRAMSON
The ghastly scenes are familiar: boxcars bursting with human freight, soldiers leading death marches as if shepherding flocks, mass graves swallowing up the cadaverous bodies of the living and the dead. Such are the scenes of the Holocaust that a few infamous photographs have impressed upon the popular consciousness. Much less familiar is another set of images showing the same scenes but with different subjects. In these, the victims are Armenians, who, like the Jews, are among antiquity’s few survivors and persecution’s most experienced veterans, and the images of them show the progress of another genocide that, like the Holocaust, was prosecuted amid a world war and abetted by a global conspiracy of indifference.
Though Asbarez’s readership needs no reminder, last month brought the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, what the American ambassador to Istanbul in 1915 then described as the Ottoman Empire’s “campaign of race extermination” against its Armenian population.The alibi for this campaign had offered itself a few months before the genocide had begun, when the First World War renewed the centuries-old hostilities between the Muslim Ottomans and their foremost Christian enemy, Russia. Claiming as warrant the Christian Armenians’ supposed loyalty to the Russians, the Ottomans took several “precautions” on the pretense of preventing Armenian subversion in the service of the empire’s enemies. To the so-called “Armenian question,” these “precautions”—expulsions, deportations, forced starvation, rape, dispossession—were to be the language in which the Ottomans gave their definitive answer: the extermination of their Armenian subjects.
A century on, an account of justice still awaits its settlement, as the Ottoman Empire’s successor state, the Republic of Turkey, has disdained to accept any responsibility, let alone make territorial or monetary reparations, for a genocide that claimed perhaps as many as 1.5 million Armenians. Far from following the dignified examples of Germany’s reckoning with the Holocaust or many Kurdish leaders’ apologies for their nation’s role in the Armenian Genocide, the Turkish government has instead seen fit to criminalize any talk of the Armenian Genocide as such. Imprisonment even threatens to be the fate of anyone who dares defy Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which outlaws “insulting Turkishness.”
It is the good fortune of the rest of the world that enforcement of Turkey’s laws ends at Turkey’s borders. Yet many governments conduct diplomacy as if they, too, are subject to Turkish censorship. The American government is one such. Afraid it could hurt the feelings of its Turkish ally of almost seventy years, the United States has consistently refrained from recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Only one sitting American president has called the Ottoman bloodbath by its proper name. That was Ronald Reagan, who would later disarm this declaration of its force by opposing congressional resolutions for recognition.
For some opponents of recognition in Washington today—specifically, for a few politicians-turned-lobbyists— the seventeenth-century expression “to turn Turk” is appropriate. This sneer once applied to Europeans who converted from Christianity to Islam, the religion of the Ottoman Turks. At issue here, though, is a conversion not religious but political, nor one brought about by principle—these are former politicos after all—but rather by money. Such former congressmen as Dick Gephardt and Dennis Hastert may accordingly be said to have “turned Turk” for supporting recognition as legislators but later opposing it as lobbyists—after the Turkish government became a generous client of theirs.
Whatever the reason, whether to flatter Turkey’s pride or to take its money, Washington’s failure to recognize the Armenian Genocide is a dereliction with very serious implications. It is, first of all, an offense against the proposition that underlay the Nuremberg Trials, the proposition that the justice with which crimes against humanity are to be answered is preventive as well as punitive. The chief American prosecutor at Nuremberg, Robert Jackson, made clear that the proceedings he jointly led were intended as a cautionary precedent, explaining that “if those guilty of inciting World War II had been held immune from prosecution, any who might tomorrow plot a third one would be equally immune.” Likewise, the tireless Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal pursued war criminals on the principle that if punishment deters, impunity encourages. “When history looks back,” he reflected, “I want people to know that the Nazis could not kill millions of people with impunity.” For past perpetrators of genocide, a trophy even more valuable than impunity is non-recognition, which, unlike impunity, presumes the perpetrators’ innocence. For would-be perpetrators of genocide, it is that much more of an incentive.
For an object lesson in the dangers of failing to recognize—let alone punish—genocide, one need look no further than to Germany’s actions in the decades before the Holocaust. By the time they set about exterminating Jews, the Germans were already practiced at genocide and emboldened by the world’s supine response to it. In their colony of German South-West Africa (present-day Namibia) in 1904, they committed against the Herero and the Namaqua peoples the first genocide of the twentieth century, complete with concentration camps and medical experiments. The following decade found them trading their role as perpetrator for that of accomplice, doing more than any other country to abet their Turkish ally in the second genocide of the twentieth century, that of the Armenians. It was against this backdrop that Hitler could give a speech on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Poland urging his commanders to be fearlessly brutal. “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” he asked rhetorically.
Speaking of the Armenian Genocide as such was exactly what many hoped President Obama would do last month, when the centennial was marked. Yet when the moment of decision struck, Mr. Obama maintained a studied silence. True, non-recognition was no more than a continuation of President Obama’s position since he took office, but there nevertheless remained the hope that he might, on the centennial, take occasion to fulfill a campaign promise to the contrary. Running for president in 2007, he vowed, “The Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact….As president, I will recognize the Armenian Genocide” A month ago, however, President Obama simply read the same statement he had mouthed every year, either verbatim or with slight syntactic variation, since taking office: “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed.” The sum of this reversal seems to be that, to Obama the presidential hopeful, the Armenian Genocide was not “a personal opinion or a point of view,” but to Obama the presidential incumbent, it is merely his “own view.” One wonders, then, if Mr. Obama had himself in mind when he wrote this sentence in The Audacity of Hope: “Say one thing during the campaign and do another thing once in office, and you’re a typical, two-faced politician.”
Might President Obama recognize the Armenian Genocide in the two years that remain to his presidency? Despite the near certainty of the answer, a reporter asked Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, this very question on April 24, the day the centennial was marked. “Stay tuned and we’ll let you know,” Mr. Earnest responded.
So, history will record that when asked about recognizing the Armenian Genocide, on the occasion of its centennial, the American president’s spokesman responded with a statement worthy, not of a principled statesman, but of some local news anchorman teeing up a post-commercial weather forecast. Much less flippant words come courtesy of another official in the Obama Administration, Samantha Power, who was an anti-genocide activist and an ardent supporter of recognition before taking up her appointment as ambassador to the United Nations. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide, she writes, “The key question, after a century of false promise, is: Why does the United States stand so idly by?” Perhaps Ms. Power, now herself such a bystander, can enlighten us.
Scott Abramson is a doctoral candidate in UCLA’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, wherein he researches the history of the modern Levant.