EDITOR’S NOTE: On Wednesday, April 24, the San Francisco Bay Area community held a gathering commemorating the 98th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. The keynote speaker at the event was Armenian Revolutionary Federation Western US Central Committee member Dr. Viken Yacoubian. Below is the text of his inspirational speech.
I have often wondered how different my life would have been, indeed, who I would have become, had my grandparents not been survivors. Had the Genocide not shadowed me and embedded itself in the midst of my budding identity, what would have become of me had I not inherited the big burden and not felt compelled to transfer it in turn to my son?
Around this time, I often think of my grandfather Ashod who, in 1909, was living in Omaha, Nebraska, working in the oriental carpet division of a big department store. By 1915, he could no longer bear the stories of the atrocities. So he enlisted with the French Foreign Legion to go back to his birthplace, Sis, to fight the Turks. And hence my story. My name is Viken but I am more of an Ashod than I could ever be a Viken. And so it goes with all the Aras, and Armens, and Jacks and Steves on whose essence the stories of their grandparents are imprinted…
So weird. So awkward. Their unconditional love anchored us in this world, yet a piece is missing in our core. Some of us are aware of this missing piece, for others, it exists at an unconscious level. But make no mistake. There is a hole in our soul because our collective identities were formed in the backdrop of this horrific national tragedy. Oh, how I wish my son, your daughter, can finally grow up free of this burden, reconciled and empowered.
Can we ever forgive the Turks? There is clear evidence that forgiveness allows for the conflicting sides to successfully move beyond the negative emotions that are perpetuated when forgiveness is lacking and that forgiveness promotes positive emotional reactions. It is questionable, however, if forgiveness can occur in a context absent of historical and social justice. Recent research on peace psychology has suggested that there is an inseparable link between peace-building and social justice movements.
But let us for a moment explore the nature of our loss.
Aside from the obvious physical destruction caused to an entire group, the trauma of genocide also deeply and often irreversibly affects subsequent generations of survivors. The fissure in the psyche of the genocide victim or survivor is one that involves a separation “from one’s original personal, social, and historical groundings (connections).” In our case, 1915 signified a year when we were suddenly stripped of a heritage that dated back 3000 years. Our churches were defiled, towns and villages destroyed, cultural symbols desecrated. All manifestations of Armenian culture were destroyed, relegating such symbols to a collective memory that would now be wrought with the calamitous consequences of genocide. Furthermore, in our case, the “genocidal fissure” was further amplified by the continuous denial of the perpetrators and the silence or complicity of others. Denial of genocide ultimately signifies the victim’s alienation from his or her own experience and therefore represents a psychological uprooting that is fundamentally irreversible. Yet, to this day, the Turkish government vehemently refuses to acknowledge the genocide perpetrated against Armenians, even though right after World War I, the extensive documentation of the genocide played a prominent role in postwar negotiation debates by the Allied Powers. Unfortunately, in 1922, when Nationalist Turks in Ankara took over the country, earlier criminal sentences against those who had organized and executed the genocide were annulled along with any hope that the perpetrators would acknowledge the Armenian genocide. This set the stage for the social and psychological context in which virtually every Armenian’s identity was formed after the 1915 genocide.
The implications of dislocation and uprooting are many. There is the agony of the psychological reconstruction of a life that has been virtually obliterated by the grief, loss, and wholesale destruction, caused by massacres and genocide. The denial of the transgression by the perpetrator promotes a silence that in essence perpetuates the trauma for the children and grandchildren of the survivors of genocide. Denial preserves the experience of the trauma such that it is transferred to those who were not directly targeted by the assault. That is, us: The children and grandchildren of survivors.
For us, the collective experience of trauma has played a defining role in the formation of the Armenian identity. For us, the stories of sustained victimization. at times peppered with acts of heroism, are transferred across generations through cultural narratives, thus encapsulating the original experience for the new generations.
Genocidal victimization has profound socio-emotional and psychological consequences. Individual and collective losses are monumental and the destruction traverses from the intrapersonal all the way to the communal.
Forgiving requires a process that can potentially address the genealogic loss, what some have called the cultural orphanage of surviving generations of victims of genocide. Thus, the victim’s sense of power must be restored. While the perpetrator of genocide experiences moral inferiority and a fear of being rejected from the moral community, the victim feels a sense of disempowerment, a loss of self-esteem, as well as a loss of perceived control. It is the perpetrator’s acknowledgement of responsibility for the injustice caused to the victim that could effectively create the milieu where the victim’s sense of power is reestablished. Only such an action can allow the perpetrator to ultimately be accepted in the moral community.
Often, as is the case of the Turkish government, perpetrators avoid feelings of guilt through a denial of culpability or responsibility for their action. Perpetrators of genocide may even perceive their actions as having some merit or justification. The victims, on the other hand, emphasize the injustice inflicted upon them and the imperative of the perpetrators’ acknowledgement of responsibility. Therefore, restoring the victims’ sense of power will enhance their willingness to reconcile with perpetrators. On the other hand, the victim’s forgiveness will increase the perpetrator’s willingness to reconcile in light of the fact that such an action would restore its public moral image.
As it relates to transgressions and painful inflictions, psychological and emotional benefits are derived from the act of forgiving the perpetrator.
Genocidal violence occurs on a mass level and its consequences are far reaching, including trauma experienced by subsequent generations of the affected group who were not direct victims of the act itself. Denial not only exacerbates the pain of the original trauma in subsequent generations, but it also plays a significant role in preventing the launch of a healing process which could potentially lead to forgiveness on the part of the victim and subsequent reconciliation. Therefore, acknowledgement of responsibility by the perpetrator or its representative for the genocidal act is a necessary precursor to creating the context of forgiveness and subsequent reconciliation. Absent such an acknowledgement, genuine forgiveness and reconciliation cannot be achieved. It is imperative that victims of mass trauma experience external sources of validation through the acknowledgement of the impact of their monumental loss, a loss that has obliterated the most basic expectations and needs of human existence; a need for safety, security, and a sense of connectedness to one’s roots, family, and home. In sum, a loss of identity and raison-d’etre. Such a validation, surely on the part of the perpetrator, but also on the part of the larger society, is an imperative step for forgiveness to find a meaningful expression in the victim.
Meanwhile, we shall continue to survive, as we have done for so long; with dignity, pride, and a resilience that only survivors like us can exhibit. Indeed, we have become the perpetrator’s worst nightmare, for our shared experience of uprooting and trauma has unified us in ways that transcend physical boundaries; an “Armenianness” that only WE can experience; an “Armenianness” that Saroyan’s lyrical vivacity captures with such eloquence:
And the Armenian gestures, meaning so much. The slapping of the knee and roaring with laughter. The cursing. The subtle mockery of the world and its big ideas. The word in Armenian, the glance, the gesture, the smile, and through these things the swift rebirth of the race, timeless and again strong, though years have passed, though cities have been destroyed, fathers and brothers and sons killed, places forgotten, dreams violated, living hearts blackened with hate.
Meanwhile, we shall continue to survive…