If the UK can Apologize Over Bloody Sunday, Why can’t Turkey Apologize Over the Armenian Genocide?
Good question! Well, no, not really, the two events aren’t even remotely comparable for one thing. A single shooting that left 13 people dead isn’t even on the same planet as a mass murder that claimed hundreds of thousands of victims. Still, it did take a certain amount of class to apologize for the Bloody Sunday shooting, kudos to David Cameron. Though to be sure, politics played more of a role than ethics, governments and leaders rarely do things for ethicals motives. The world’s problems would long ago have been solved if our leaders actually were trying to make the world a better place, no, for the most part they are protecting the power and wealth of the rich and privileged, such as it always has been and likely always will be. Even more depressing, many people cling to the propagandized fantasy that their government is devoted to the common good, the problem is all those other bad governments.
Sigh, OK, the Armenian Genocide. A quick overview. Armenia was one of the subject populations of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was a Muslim Caliphate based in Turkey that conquered vast areas of the middle east and the Balkans starting in 1300 and peaking in 1700 or so. It then spent the next two hundred years in decline, and during the nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire was known as “The sick man of Europe.” In the late nineteenth century the Ottoman Turks began to systematically persecute their Armenian minority. And in 1915, the Ottoman government blamed the failure of the war effort against Russia on its Armenian minority (The Ottoman empire entered World War One on Germany and Austria’s side) and systematically and deliberately rounded up and killed in one way or the other (usually through death marches) hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians. It was arguably the first systematic mass ethic killing of the modern world, the Armenian massacre and the Holocaust were the events for which the word genocide was coined.
Now, in 2010, many in the global Armenian community, especially the American Armenian community, are calling on the government of Turkey to publicly acknowledge that the genocide occurred, if not actually apologize for the crime. For their part, “The Turkish government continues to protest against the formal recognition of the genocide by other countries and to dispute that there ever was a genocide.” (from Wikipedia.) In fact the efforts by the modern Turkish government to squash even discussion of the Armenian Genocide have been pretty ugly, including charging Turkish citizens with the crime of “insulting Turkey” and possibly worse. Complete denial is Turkey’s official position. This is, well, propaganda. While the total numbers and just who was involved may be debatable, what isn’t debatable is that hundreds of thousands of ethic Armenians in what is now modern Turkey were rounded up and killed during World War One, with the complicity if not active participation of at least elements of the Ottoman regime. So why the hell is Turkey still denying this, and why won’t they apologize? It’s a good question, and a reader suggested I try to answer it.
Well, for one thing, the Armenian Genocide happened in 1915-1917. This means that it’s a very pretty safe bet that everyone involved is long dead, and long past prosecution. So it’s not like there are going to be any war crimes trials over this. And in fact the Ottoman Empire is no more, the current government of Turkey dates from 1922. So it’s not like anyone today in Turkey bears any personal responsibility for the Armenian Genocide. Now this doesn’t explain why they won’t apologize, if my grandfather committed a terrible crime I’d certainly be able to say I was sorry for his crimes. However, my point here is that the Armenian Genocide is an historical crime, not a current event. So not only does that call into question why contemporary Turks should be called upon to apologize, it’s also reasonable to ask why anyone should be insisting they do so? “The Turks did it, so the Turks should apologize” may be emotionally satisfying to people whose families still feel the pain of this terrible crime, but it’s an appeal to emotion, not a logical argument.
So there’s two thing happening here. On a personal level a lot of people are still in pain over a relatively recent crime historically speaking. In fact from my studies of history, people tend to keep “alive” crimes like this for 100 odd years before they fade into emotionless history. This has been going on since Alexander the Great, he invaded Persia as revenge for Xerxes invasion of Greece … 100 years earlier. And it’s perfectly normal for people to deny involvement in crimes that took place before they were born, I might apologize for my hypothetical grandfather above … but I wouldn’t consider myself guilty of his crimes and I would resent anyone who said I was obligated to apologize. And an even uglier aspect of this is that racism still plays a role in both side’s stands. A quick review of various sites run by Turks and Armenians on the genocide issue yields a surprising amount of hate and denial in both camps. It’s pretty ugly in fact, there’s plenty of Armenians making the claim that the Turks are history’s greatest monsters based on stuff that happened before living memory, and the Turkish genocide denial sites look so much like Holocaust denial sites it would be funny if a horrible crime didn’t underlay the whole mess.
The point I’m trying to make here is that the Armenian genocide is sadly a pretty “normal” occurrence, this sort of thing has happened too many times in history to even think about, and similar things have happened in living memory and no doubt will happen in the future. They don’t happen because some ethnicities are good innocent people and other ethnicities are bad evil people, they happen because that’s the nature of governments. And under the right circumstances any government can commit a terrible atrocity. More importantly, if one falls into the logical trap of “Turks are bad, Armenians are good,” (or vice versa) … no resolution is possible! The Turks can no more undo what their ancestors did than Americans can give the Indians back their lands and all the Indians slaughtered by American militias in the nineteenth century.
In any event, it’s going to take a second post to discuss the current situation in a little more depth, I just wanted to lay out some background and try to point out some of the underlaying assumptions on both sides that make this sort of issue so polarizing. So another post is on the way. And I’d like to conclude by pointing that I am on the same side as I am on in any and all situations like this. I’m not on the Armenian side, I’m not on the Turk side; I’m on the side of all the innocent people who were rounded up and murdered so callously during the Ottoman Empire’s death rattle. And I’m on the side of people who want to resolve this issue in a way that makes it less likely to happen in the future.
(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law as it was taken before 1927, the gentleman in question was assassinated in 1921 by an Armenian activist on the orders of the British and German intelligence agencies. It’s photo of Talat Pasha, the Turk interior minister who is most associated with issuing the orders that got the whole nasty business rolling in 1915. I chose it because individuals are at the heart of all human actions, not ethnicities. And it is by understanding them, each a human being, that we can unravel the horrors that people inflict on each other. Here are his words on the topic: “Look here, I have a heart as good as yours, and it keeps me awake at night to think of human suffering. But that is a personal thing, and I am here on this earth to think of my people and not of my sensibilities. If a Macedonian or Armenian leader gets the chance and the excuse he never neglects it. There was an equal number of Turks and Moslems massacred during the Balkan war, yet the world kept a criminal silence. I have the conviction that as long as a nation does the best for its own interests, and succeeds, the world admires it and thinks it moral. I am ready to die for what I have done, and I know I shall die for it.”)