Facts, supposedly, are facts, and words, allegedly, have a meaning that should not be disregarded easily. That includes the word “genocide,” which dictionary.com defines as “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.”
The biggest and most famous genocide of the 20th century, and perhaps of all time, was the Nazi murder of approximately 6 million Jews during the Hitler period. The only good thing that can be said about it is that Germany has fully acknowledged this mega-crime, apologized and made no excuses for it since the fall of Hitler, publicly memorialized it in a variety of ways and tried to learn and internalize the proper lessons.
But the second biggest 20th century mass slaughter of a minority ethnic group, the murder of an estimated million to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians by Turkey during World War I, in Turkey and territories that Turkey occupied during the war, has never been properly acknowledged by Turkey.
Turkey explicitly rejects the term “genocide” to describe its role in the deaths.
There is perhaps some semantic basis for distinguishing what the Turks did to the Armenians from what the Nazis did to the Jews. And the word “genocide” hadn’t even been invented at the time all those Armenians were killed for the “sin” of being Armenians.
But until Turkey tells the truth about its crime and apologizes, it lacks standing for much sympathy in expressing offense at the use of the word for mass slaughter based on ethnic identity.
Nor, over recent decades, has the G-word been used by the government of the United States to refer to what Turkey did to Armenians, for fear of creating tension with its NATO ally.
Apparently, no U.S. president other than Ronald Reagan had ever used the word “genocide” to refer to the matter.
President Biden, to his credit in my humble opinion, became the second last week, and the first president since 1981 to use the word “genocide” on the day earmarked for observing the Armenian Genocide, keeping a campaign promise he had made.
During those 40 years, presidents chose to coddle the feelings of Turkey, an important NATO ally. Maybe that was understandable in some pragmatic sense, but I prefer to err on the side of truth-telling, and applaud Biden for his statement, which read in part:
“The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today.
“One and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination. … We remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring.”
You’ll note that, presumably out of concern for the feelings of a NATO ally, Biden managed to avoid the actual country-name “Turkey” in his statement, sliding by with “Ottoman-era Armenian genocide.”
But the Ottoman Empire refers to Turkey in its pre-World War I incarnation. Still, Biden’s statement was the strongest acknowledgement in decades. Biden also said:
“Over the decades Armenian immigrants have enriched the United States in countless ways, but they have never forgotten the tragic history. We honor their story. We see that pain. We affirm the history. We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.”
The Turks who committed the genocide are all gone. The Turks who deny it occurred, or dispute whether it should be called “genocide,” or wish it would not be mentioned should be told to come to terms with this significant blot on their national escutcheon (as the Germans have long since done), stop quibbling over the semantics, apologize, and figure out how to make whatever amends might be appropriate for the crime itself and the century-plus of denial.
That, of course, is up to them. So far, they have mostly been doubling down on half-assed denials of their accountability and quibbling over whether the million-plus deaths, and the way they occurred, qualify as a “genocide.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted a reply to Biden’s statement that managed to admit nothing and deny nothing but nonetheless accuse Biden of opportunism:
“Words cannot change or rewrite history. We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past. Political opportunism is the greatest betrayal to peace and justice. We entirely reject this statement based solely on populism.”
My mom taught me long ago that you can’t apologize for something without acknowledging you did it or did anything at all.
A more detailed overview of the Turkish genocide against ethnic Armenians living under Turkish rule in this period is here, from the Washington Post.