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Genocide and Its (Dis)contents

“Genocide” debate is important, but should not distract from Armenians’ historical suffering

By Matthew H. Ghazarian, None

Tomorrow, April 24th, Armenians around the world will gather on what they call Martyrs’ Day to commemorate the Ottoman Empire’s deportation and mass slaughter of Armenians during World War I. Armenians and many others deem this the first genocide of the 20th century, citing scholarly consensus that the atrocities were a well-documented and premeditated wartime assault on an ethnic and religious minority.

Not everyone aligns with this view, however—others, namely the current Turkish government, vehemently reject the use of the word “genocide” to describe these events. This puts President Obama in a difficult situation. In years past, the president of the United States has delivered a speech commemorating these events. Obama will almost certainly keep with this unofficial tradition. But, if he omits the word “genocide,” Armenians around the world will accuse Obama of breaking his promise to explicitly label the events as such. Likewise, if he does utter the “G-word,” a torrent of infuriated accusations will flood in from the many who reject this label.

Word choice here is certainly very important. To label the acts “genocide” would put the late Ottoman government in the company of Nazis in Germany, Hutus in Rwanda, and other perpetrators of genocide. But no matter how powerful the label of “genocide” may be, insisting on its use should never come before the priority of accurately describing what happened. While a debate over the precise terminology may be useful for international lawyers, for activists and ordinary citizens, studying the actual historical events and their lessons is far more relevant and meaningful than sparring over semantics. For Turkey and Armenia to learn from their experiences in a productive way, both countries should resist the temptation to concentrate too much on this single, albeit extremely powerful, word.

So loaded is the term that it can override logic itself. In an official statement last year, President George W. Bush declared that “as many as 1.5 million Armenians lost their lives in the final years of the Ottoman Empire, many of them victims of mass killings and forced deportations.” Ironically, many Turkish activists celebrated this description for its omission of the word “genocide,” despite its overwhelming castigation of the events in all other ways. Never mind Bush’s accusation that their forebears had executed a campaign of forced deportation and mass murder; as long as the word “genocide” was not mentioned, they believed that they had won.

Similarly, at times Armenian activists have allowed their fixation with the word “genocide” to trump their respect for historical fact. In attempts to convince the world that genocide took place, activists rely at times on inflated death tolls and disputable sources to prove their points. Armenian activists must realize that the accusation of genocide is grave and that using any source or figure that is even remotely disputable is an irresponsible act that only undermines their cause. Carelessly spreading inaccurate information insults both the Turkish and Armenian peoples, slandering the Turkish nation for crimes it did not commit as well as casting doubt on the true accounts of Armenian survivors.

Those of us recognizing Martyrs’ Day tomorrow, then, should not fall into the trap of arguing over whether the events of 1915 should be classified as “genocide.” Instead, we should find people who were there or were affected and speak with these living primary and secondary sources. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find someone—cities all over the world, from Boston to L.A., Montreal to Fresno, Moscow to Sao Paulo, and Paris to Beirut, host thriving Armenian communities made up of scattered survivors and their descendants, all of whom have a story to tell. And, when we do talk to them, instead of asking, “Was it a genocide?”, we should simply ask, “What happened?” That way, instead of feeling the pressure to shape such devastating experiences to a label, we can let the content of history speak for itself.


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

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