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As the world remembers the Armenian genocide, why won’t Obama use the ‘G-word’?

There’s something weird about this. Everyone who cares about this issue knows what the president believes.

People light candles in memory of the victims of mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks at the main cathedral in Echmiadzin, Armenia, on Thursday.
REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

During the latter stages of World War I, the Ottoman Turkish Empire systematically killed — by grotesque means that would shock the conscience of anyone with a conscience — an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million of its Armenian citizens in an attempt to eliminate the large Armenian minority from Turkey’s future.

The Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) believes the correct number may be even higher than 1.5 million and estimates that the slaughter killed about 75 percent of Armenians in the world at the time.

The anniversary of this tragic crime is observed on April 24 because that was the date in 1915 when the genocide began. That makes Friday the centennial. It will be observed across the world, the United States and Minnesota but not by Turkey, which still denies that the genocide occurred, although it was well-established at the time, written about in newspapers around the world, many of the perpetrators admitted their crimes in international tribunals and many were convicted and executed for them.

At the time, it was not called an act of “genocide,” but that’s because the word “genocide” hadn’t been coined yet. And when the word was coined after World War II, the man responsible (Yale Law Professor Raphael Lemkin) made specific reference to the slaughter of the Armenians as a prime example.

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The governments of two dozen nations have embraced the term “genocide,” but no American president ever has, including Barack Obama, who as a candidate in 2008, promised to “recognize the Armenian genocide.” A bit more on that below.

Ellen Kennedy, executive director of World Without Genocide in St. Paul, wrote a Community Voices  column for MinnPost earlier this week about the genocide. Her theme was the damage that the long-standing denial does to both the perpetrators and victims of such a crime.

Turkish intellectuals have occasionally sought to bring the matter to light in that country but some of them have been prosecuted for the crime of “insulting Turkishness.”

My strong feelings about the Armenian genocide date from an interview I did in 2000, during my Star Tribune days, with Vahakn Dadrian, an Armenian historian. Dadrian was born in Turkey after the war and has held academic positions all around the world. He is best known as a historian of the genocide (in which his family lost many members).

Of course all genocidal campaigns are brutal and horrible. But the thing that stuck with me from that long-ago interview was Dadrian’s list of some of the methods Turks used to kill Armenians who had done nothing wrong. For example, quoting from that Strib piece:

In a policy that Dadrian said was “unparalleled in the annals of human history,” the Turks “decided to rely not on soldiers but on bloodthirsty criminals.” Dadrian said 30,000 to 35,000 convicts were released from prison to participate in the slaughter.

With a world war raging, Dadrian said, Ottoman officials were anxious not to waste bullets or powder on the Armenians, so they employed four main methods to kill the Armenians:

  • Many were beaten to death or killed with daggers, swords and axes.
  • Massive drowning operations were conducted in the tributaries of the Euphrates River and the Black Sea. Bargeloads of Armenians were intentionally sunk. Dadrian, quoting [Henry]Morganthau [who was U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman court at the time], said that in places the Armenian corpses became so numerous that the rivers were forced out of their beds, in one case changing  the course of a river for a 100-meter stretch.

The method that Dadrian called “the most fiendish” was to pack Armenian women and children into stables or haylofts and then set them ablaze, burning the victims alive. Dadrian estimated that about 150,000 were killed by this method.

Hundreds of thousands more died of hunger, thirst or exposure during forced marches in the desert. Dadrian said the Armenians were told they were being relocated but were marched along routes chosen to maximize the chances that none of the marchers would survive.

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That was what I meant above by a means of killing that would shock the conscience of anyone who has a conscience.

Obama’s statements

Now on to Obama and the “G-word.”

Against the objections of the Turkish government, many countries of the world have embraced the word “genocide” in official statements about the mass slaughter. Germany — the country responsible for the largest systematic genocide in history, but also a country that has long accepted full, direct blame for its crimes and which has gone to huge lengths to publicly atone — recently joined the list. Pope Francis recently became the first pontiff to do so. Israel’s Knesset has never officially embraced the word, but just Wednesday the president of Israel endorsed the Pope’s statement of recognition. Many U.S. states, including Minnesota, have used the word “genocide” in official statements about the Turkish crime against the Armenians.

But no American president, other than Ronald Reagan, ever has. After Reagan, in a 1981 proclamation made a passing reference to the genocide against the Armenians, Turkey protested so strenuously that the State Department backed down, saying that the earlier statement had not reflected official U.S. policy.

John Kerry, when he was the Democratic nominee in 2004, promised to use the word “genocide” to describe the slaughter, but he never became president.

Obama, the next Democratic nominee, said while running in 2008:

“The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable. An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy.

“As president I will recognize the Armenian Genocide,” Obama promised. But he hasn’t done so.

Turkey is a long-standing and important ally of the United States. It is a NATO member. It is the most legitimate democracy among the predominantly Muslim nations of the Mideast. Leaders of Turkey have no doubt communicated to President Obama that U.S.-Turkey relations would be damaged if Obama broke the long-standing policy of American presidents to stop short of the G-word.

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Still, nobody forced Obama to promise that he would “as president” “recognize the Armenian Genocide.” Armenians who had hoped that on the occasion of the centennial Obama might decide to use the G-word were disappointed. On Tuesday, the White House announced that Obama, who will make some kind of statement about the centennial, will not use the word “genocide.”

There’s something weird about this. Everyone who cares about this issue knows what Obama believes. He has never taken back what he said as a candidate, but he has never repeated it as president — which explicitly violates the promise that he made.

What he did say – and he said it in a 2009 speech to the Turkish Parliament – was this:

“History is often tragic, but unresolved. It can be a heavy weight. Each country must work through its past. And reckoning with the past can help us seize a better future. I know there’s strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915. And while there’s been a good deal of commentary about my views, it’s really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past. And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open and constructive.”

Presumably, because of the importance of U.S.-Turkey relations and because of the intense feelings in the Turkish government, he simply won’t, as president, say the word — the accurate word and the word he formerly used — that would mean so much to Armenians and be so inflammatory to Turks.

‘Century of denial’

I asked Lou Ann Matossian, who is on the board of the committee that planned the centennial events, how big a deal this is. She said it was very big:

“We need Turkey in the Middle East. It’s not a good time,’” she said, mocking the excuse that is always given. “They’ve been saying that since the 1920s. When is it going to be a good time?

“What is Turkey going to do in the end to stop people from using the word ‘genocide?’” Matossian asked. “Eventually with the number of countries recognizing it, it’s going to be too costly for Turkey to suspend their relations with that many countries.

“By refusing to use the word, [Obama] enables a century of denial. Denial is not just negation. Denial is an active campaign to kill historical memory. Denial is about the erasure, the suppression of Armenian cultural identity. Denial is the suppression of journalists and scholars who dare to speak about it. Denial manufactures a controversy where none actually exists. President Obama, by not calling a spade a spade, is perpetuating this game.

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“Denial is the murder of Hrant Dink,” an ethnic Armenian journalist who argued for Turkey to admit its historic crime and who was assassinated by a Turkish nationalist in 2007.

“Without truth there cannot be real reconciliation. There’s a reason why when people talk about truth and reconciliation, the word ‘truth’ comes first.”

Local events

There are many events commemorating the centennial. Here are several put on by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Matossian said the major event sponsored by her group will start Friday at 7 p.m. at St. Sahag Armenian Church, 203 N. Howell St., St. Paul. Confirmed speakers, in order of appearance, are:

  • Fr. Tadeos Barseghyan, pastor, St. Sahag Armenian Church.
  • Professor Alejandro Baer, Stephen C. Feinstein chair and director, University of Minnesota Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
  • U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
  • Steve Hunegs, executive director, Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
  • U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum.
  • U.S. Rep. Tim Walz.
  • Leroy Erickson, president, Armenian Cultural Organization of Minnesota.

Update: Two corrections: An earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed the source of the estimate that the genocide killed 75 percent of the Armenians alive at the time. Also the original post said that no president has ever used the word “genocide” to describe the slaughter of Armenians. As reflected in the corrected passage above, Ronald Reagan did use the word in a proclamation, but the State Department later backed off from the reference.