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A Willful Ignorance

America must apply a uniform standard in its reaction to genocide

By Matthew H. Ghazarian, None

Over the course of this year’s campaign, my grandparents—despite their unfortunate racist inclinations—were particularly happy with Barack Obama, then candidate and now President-elect. For them, his appeal didn’t lie with his denunciation of the war in Iraq, his plan for universal healthcare, or even his promise to reinvigorate the economy. Rather, it was his stance on the Armenian Genocide, of which my grandparents were victims, that won them over: “America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian Genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides,” Obama said last January, “I intend to be that President.”

Only time will tell whether or not Obama will stick to his word. History, certainly, is not on his side. Despite its steady criticism of human rights violations abroad, the United States government has a disconcerting tendency to its power not as a means of preventing the more despicable cases of crimes against humanity, but as a strategic or political tool.

It’s no news that Iranian President Ahmadinejad has consistently denied the occurrence of the Holocaust. The U.S. government wasted no time in lambasting Ahmadinejad; in 2007 Congress passed a resolution signaling their disapproval in no uncertain terms and condemning the practice of Holocaust denial in general. Of course, there remains no political risk in scolding Iran—America has had little strategic interest or diplomatic ambition in the Islamic Republic since both countries parted ways after the 1979 revolution.

It is no coincidence that, when these practical exigencies do exist, the U.S. abandons its hard-line opposition to genocide in all its forms. The government of Turkey, one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, not only vehemently denies the thoroughly documented slaughters and deportations of 1.5 million Armenians during World War I by Ottoman authorities, but has actually prosecuted its citizens for insinuating any such events occurred.

Raphael Lemkin, the man who invented the word “genocide,” did so in part because he could not find a word to describe the horrors of the Armenian episode. Yet in October 2007 Congress—the very same legislature that inveighed against Holocaust denial when it was easy—simply refused to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide in a non-binding resolution. Upon hearing the news that the House was planning a vote, Turkey threatened to cancel arms deals and revoke their support for American air units operating in Iraq. The U.S government blinked immediately.

Of course, some have pointed out that contemporary governments shouldn’t meddle in history, that the confirmation and evaluation of historical phenomena should be left to historians. However, Congress has a strong precedent of politically recognizing historic events. In recent years, it has passed resolutions commemorating the anniversaries of the Holocaust, the founding of the Republican Party, and even Napa Valley’s victory in a 1976 Paris wine-tasting competition.  No one objected to these commemorations.

This moral inconsistency on genocide is nothing new. In 1994, having recently suffered losses in Somalia, the American political establishment had no interest in starting other human rights expeditions in Africa—so it dithered while the Rwandan genocide was being perpetrated. At State Department press briefings, officials refused to acknowledge that genocide was occurring, despite internal documents clearly stating that it was. This spineless denial delayed the placement of U.N. troops that could have averted the bloody 100 days during which Hutu militias slaughtered at least 800,000 Tutsi citizens. Intervention was simply politically inconvenient.

In the contemporary case of Darfur, American politicians didn’t hesitate to use the “g-word.” With the war on terror spreading throughout both Afghanistan and Iraq, anti-Arab sentiment was palpable at the time, and again, the United States had little to lose in labeling the actions of the Arab janjaweed as genocidal before the U.N. could. Yet, again, intervention and even effectual advocacy has been slow to come.

There is of course nothing wrong with the sober reverence paid to the victims of the Holocaust by the powers-that-be in the United States. The only problem is that that reverence is ultimately undermined by general inconsistency in response to other clear cases of genocide, all of which have wreaked unfathomable havoc upon communities not unlike our own. If American politicians are to continue to present this nation as the global defender of liberty and human rights, it must begin to do so in every case. 

Matthew H. Ghazarian ’10, a Crimson editorial comper, is a government concentrator in Kirkland House.

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