Our Yearly Battle Over The G-Word

Every year around this time in April a battle is waged in the White House and Congress; a unique battle because it is–at its heart–over one word, genocide.

The roots of this struggle lie in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire in the midst of World War I. The rulers of this Turkish Empire, the Young Turk Party, set in motion a plan to, once and for all, rid their borders of their largest minority, the ancient Christian Armenian population of more than two million spread across the Anatolian landmass. In systematic fashion the Empire’s armed forces killed over a million subjects, starting with intellectuals and able-bodied men, and then marched the rest to near certain death in the Syrian desert, resulting in the near annihilation of an entire people and the exile of a nation from its home of more than 3,000 years. These atrocities were widely reported at the time and are today one of the world’s most thoroughly documented mass murders.

To this day, against all evidence and in defiance of even the most basic human standards of morality, the Republic of Turkey denies this crime. They have also mastered Orwellian Newspeak by convincing generation after generation of Turkish citizens that the genocide never occurred.

They spend millions of dollars each year, hiring expensive lobbying firms, creating university chairs that sponsor genocide deniers, buying into foreign policy think tanks here in the U.S. and around the world while at the same time threatening to close U.S. bases in Turkey, block access to our troops in Iraq, threaten trade, or retaliate against Armenia with blockades and economic pressure. They think that by erasing a word, genocide, they will somehow escape responsibility for the wholesale death and suffering, theft and dispossession they have caused. Turkey can no more evade either the verdict of history or the requirements of justice by imposing a gag-rule on the word genocide, any more than a killer can escape punishment by insisting the word murder does not exist.

I’m personally very familiar with the word genocide. All 4 of my grandparents were survivors. In the case of my grandfather, Stepan Haytayan (whose life story is told in the documentary “Screamers”), Turkish soldiers came to his village, took away his father and all the Armenian men were never to be seen again. This was a standard practice by Turkish soldiers, who typically rounded up the men to take them off to “labor camps” where they were to be executed, leaving the women and children unprotected and subject to forced marches, described by Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. Ambassador at the time, as a “death warrant to a whole race.”

The similarity between the treatment of the Armenians and the genocide today in Darfur was pointed out last year by Barack Obama, who noted that, “tragically, we are witnessing in Sudan many of the same brutal tactics – displacement, starvation, and mass slaughter – that were used by the Ottoman authorities against defenseless Armenians back in 1915.” It’s no coincidence that Turkey is one of only a handful of nations, along with China, that still sells arms to the genocidal Sudanese regime, or that Ankara is trying to shield its leader, Omar al-Bashir, from an International Criminal Court arrest warrant.

Even before international lawyer Raphael Lemkin, a Pole of Jewish heritage, coined the term genocide, it was clear to the world that a systematic plan of race extermination had been executed by the Ottoman Turks. Lemkin’s motivation in inventing this term and leading the charge for the Genocide Convention was, in great measure, his study of the Armenian Genocide, which he, with great foresight, saw as the blueprint for the coming destruction of Europe’s Jews by Hitler and the brutal machinery of the Nazi German state.

For many years, Turkey has leveraged its NATO membership, its former Cold War role, its lobbying power, and military-industrial alliances to buy, bully, or threaten other nations into silence on the Armenian Genocide. Far too many countries, the U.S. included, have been held hostage to Turkey’s warnings of retribution, but more and more are standing up to this intimidation. Among these are Canada, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Russia and a growing list that includes 12 NATO allies. Here in the U.S., 42 states have recognized the Armenian Genocide.

Today, as we approach April 24th, the global day of remembrance of the Armenian Genocide, we look to both the President and Congress to stand up for what’s right; to speak against the Armenian Genocide and all genocides at the level of American values, and to never again allow the United States to be dragged down to the level of Turkey’s threats.

This April, Turkey will again try to block both the White House and Congress from condemning and commemorating this crime, giving itself a vote that it does not deserve in our American democracy. A foreign government, particularly one that so violently suppresses free speech by its own citizens, should never be allowed to dictate U.S. human rights or genocide prevention policy.

We have, sadly, not learned our lesson. Here we are, nine decades after the Armenian Genocide and fully six years into the Darfur Genocide, and the international community has yet to forge a durable, effective response to genocide. Global leaders have proven themselves unwilling to intervene effectively to stop the ongoing slaughter in Sudan, and they have been unable to summon the courage to end Turkey’s denials. Why? Because, genocide remains a political issue, bartered like a commodity by the great powers, and not a moral imperative that all nations and all peoples must, at all costs, act to prevent.

President Obama is the best-positioned American president in generations to bring about real change to how America and the international community confront mass inhumanity, and our best hope to bring the peoples of the world together to end the cycle of genocide. He has said that, “America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian Genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides.” He’s right. That’s the moral leader America and the world need and deserve. In the coming days he has the chance to be just that man.

For more on Serj Tankian’s campaign to urge President Obama to affirm his pledge and officially recognize the Armenian Genocide, please visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcJjxOqgANM

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