"An unpunished crime": The 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide and Obama's broken promise

U.S. denial of history is a big mistake, a leading Armenian advocate tells Salon

Published April 22, 2015 4:30PM (EDT)

             (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

On April 24, the world will mark two important anniversaries: One to commemorate how human beings can do harm to one another on an unfathomable scale; and another to remember how we're capable of doing ill to one another on a smaller, more interpersonal level, too.

This coming Friday will represent not only the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, but also the seventh time President Barack Obama will fail to keep a promise he made during 2008 presidential campaign: that he would use the word "genocide" to describe what the Ottoman Empire did a century ago in present-day Turkey to kill more than 1 million people. Responding to massive pressure from the Ottoman Empire's successor state, the Republic of Turkey, the president broke his promise in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. According to a report from yesterday's Los Angeles Times, the president's chosen to make 2015 no different.

Recently — after Pope Francis referred to the crime as a genocide, but before the Obama administration made its decision known —  Salon spoke over the phone with the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee of America's Phil Walotsky. Our chat touched on Obama's promises, Turkey's intransigence and the realpolitik calculations that determine the contours of the debate. A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation can be found below.

Why is using the specific word "genocide" important? 

From the perspective of the Armenian community today, I think a lot of it has to do with just being able to remember their ancestors with dignity. If you were to think of the Jewish community and if, let’s say, Germany were to pressure the United States to not recognize the Holocaust, the outrage would be overwhelming and palpable. I think when you look at the Armenian experience ... there are a lot of the same concerns. When it comes to even just acknowledgement, it’s teaching children a forthright version of history.

A lot of the concern is ultimately that this is still an unpunished crime. That sense of injustice can stick with you, and especially where you have generations right now whose grandparents who are still alive, whose grandparents survived the genocide. There’s this very strong, palpable sense of memorializing and remembering the grandparents and the great-grandparents who went through these horrific, horrific experiences all because they were a religious and ethnic minority in a country.

Why does Turkey so vigorously oppose using the word?

It should be noted that up until very recently, there was actually a law in Turkey, Article 301, that prohibited speaking about or promoting the idea that there was a genocide. One of the scholars who was actually indicted under Article 301 was a guy named Taner Akcam, who is now up at Clark University, and if you look at what Taner Akcam has written about this subject, he generally points out two big things from a Turkish perspective as to why there’s so much resistance.

The first is this idea that there would need to be compensation in some form. There was a tremendous amount of property that was seized from the Armenian people; this giant presidential palace that was just built for President Erdogan is four times the size of Versailles, 32 times the size of the White House — and it was built on land seized from Armenians. You look at Incirlik Air Base— that was built on Armenian lands. A significant chunk of Ataturk Airport in Istanbul — built on Armenian land ... So this idea of actually having to pay out compensation to the Armenians in some way, shape or form is a significant fear. When you look at the amount of money that Germany has paid out to survivors of the Holocaust and still pays out to this day, for example, it’s in the high tens of billions.

What's the second reason for Turkey's stubbornness?

It speaks very much to the pride of Turkey and the idea of the creation of the modern Turkish state. The reality is is that if you consider that the purging of minorities was important to that, if you consider that the taking of lands and property and assets was a part of that, it kind of bursts the bubble a little bit in terms of the creation myth of their state ... But that still doesn’t provide a good excuse. What Turkey wants is reconciliation without acknowledgement, without any sort of restitution. They just want to say, OK, well, sorry that happened 100 years ago, but let’s get past it — and that’s what’s fundamentally unacceptable here.

When then-Senator Barack Obama promised in 2008 to recognize the Armenian genocide, was he doing something new? Or was he making promises many other presidential candidates had made before?

I think there’s definitely a difference between what President Obama had promised and what’s been promised by other presidents in the past. This is not just in 2008, and it actually goes back several years before that, when he became very close to Samantha Power.

Samantha Power obviously is someone who is known extremely well globally for her stances on genocide; prior to her current role as the U.S. Secretary to the United Nations she won the Pulitzer Prize for a book called “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” and a significant piece of this book was actually dedicated and focused on the Armenian genocide. There’s actually a great YouTube video of Samantha Power talking about how she had actually gotten a call from President Obama, after he had read this book, and that’s where the relationship between the two started.

The idea that this was just a pledge that he had made as a presidential candidate in 2008 doesn’t pass muster. This wasn’t simply something that was a fly by night, OK, well, let’s make these guys happy so we can get their votes-type promise. This is something that he repeatedly made clear in the Senate he was in favor of supporting. During the campaign, he repeatedly made the point that America deserves a leader who would speak truth about the Armenian genocide.

How has the Obama administration opted to deal with the issue instead of "speaking the truth"?

It’s interesting — essentially, President Obama has bent over backwards trying to find creative euphemisms for talking about the genocide. A few years ago, he had called it “Meds Yeghern,” which means in Armenian “the Great Catastrophe.” That was one attempt, but it's ultimately not the same thing as using the word "genocide." It’s trying to find a way of not using the word genocide in a creative way that ultimately tries to make Armenians happy. Most recently, he had talked about how, he said that his personal views on this are extremely well known, and he’s stated them multiple times in the past, but he didn’t then go forward and talk about, Well, yeah, my personal views on this is that it was a genocide.  There’s been some dancing around this issue.

What about the argument that U.S. interests in the Middle East require maintaining a friendly relationship with Turkey, which would be imperiled if the president recognized the genocide as such? 

There’s this presumption that the realpolitik argument lies entirely in Turkey’s corner, and I think that’s complete nonsense.

The reality here is that Turkey is increasingly drifting towards a police state. There was a new security law passed in Turkey late last month that dramatically increased the powers of police to wiretap, that legalized the use of lethal force against protesters, to immediately on the spot arrest any protester who has any type of covering on their face, to detain protesters. All of these laws that are being passed ... while Erdogan insists that they have the freest media in the world ... There’s this incredible sense of crackdown on free speech and opposition in Turkey.

I think with the United States — we talk this big talk whenever we go abroad about the importance of free speech, but we’re not practicing what we preach in this instance. We’re actually not supporting voices in Turkey that are calling out for freedom and democracy; we’re kowtowing to the quasi-dictator there who is becoming increasingly intolerant to any sort of democracy or protest or opposition or freedom. There’s an important symbolic statement here to be looked at from a realpolitik perspective of the consequences. It’s not just about making the Armenian-American community mad.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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