Owning up to a past

Turkey must confront Armenian genocide if it hopes to ever really join modern civilization.

October 19, 2007
Source: Chicago Tribune

By Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON - Eight years ago when I was traveling in the Caucasus, I decided to stop in the former Soviet republic of Armenia, a country and people I had long wantedto know. What I found was a land of utterly remarkable people thatcontradictorily struck me as one of the saddest places on Earth.

Here was a people who were, until 1915, the dominant and most prosperousethnic group in Eastern Turkey. Christians, with their own Armenian OrthodoxChurch and a language that has enriched the ages, their churches, castles andpublic buildings were gems of civilization on the too-often scarred landscapeof the Middle East.

When you drive to the Turkish border – everything is very close, Armeniabeing only a small republic tucked in between Georgia, Iran, Azerbaijan andTurkey – you can see Mt. Ararat, where Christians believe the biblical Noahbuilt his ark to escape God’s raging floods.

There is little question that, during that devastating year of 1915, when Europe’s collapse into World War I spread even into the Middle East, a viciousinterim group in Turkey, the "Young Turks," slaughtered some 1.5 millionArmenians. The men were largely murdered outright; the women, dragged fromtheir villages, were either buried alive or sent on a forced death march tothe Syrian deserts. The remainders joined the Russians and eventually formedtoday’s Armenian republic.

Today’s Turkish government, prosperous and progressive, hoping to join theEuropean Union and refusing to look back, unrelentingly refuses to recognizethe well-documented Armenian genocide. That was not today’s Turkey, they arguevehemently; that was a ragtag, temporary, vicious end to the 500-year-oldOttoman Empire. Many Turks simply refuse to admit it even happened, andarticle 301 in their constitution helps them along, allowing as it does forpunishment for "insults to Turkishness."

Yet the community of Armenians, not only in today’s Armenia but across theworld, remain undaunted. Even now, the American Congress, pushed by thecapable, organized Armenian community in the United States, is about to pass aresolution (as France did recently) labeling the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 as "genocide."

This has occurred, confusingly enough, at a time when the United States ismore dependent than ever upon Turkey for aid to Iraq (Turkish bases arecrucial for refueling and resupplying American troops). Which leaves (1) the "progressive Islamist" Turkish government and military saying that, if theresolution passes, relations between the two countries will "never be the same again," and (2) the American administration is begging the Congress to put theresolution aside, at least for this crucially important time.

So, where do we come out in a complex, tragic story like this? The Armenians, whose suffering has become an epitome of the stories of worldsuffering, deserve, finally, some recompense, even if only of words. Yet the war we have strangely enough chosen to fight today also needs to be conducted seriously.

Let’s try to pare the whole situation down to a few central concepts, because the Turkish-Armenian question is one that is duplicated in many parts of the world.

First of all, one of humankind’s steps forward in the late 20th and early21st Centuries is the ways in which – from Chile to South Africa to Liberiaand Rwanda – aggressors are being made to pay in some way for their pasttransgressions. This has taken different forms: truth commissions, humanrights trials, international and regional courts of justice. Though wildlyimperfect, the fact is that we are experimenting with means of retribution.This has barely happened before, and it is a way of opening the doors to a more just future.

Moreover, the world the Turks want to join – the advanced and expanding world of "Europe" – will never take them until they have, in appropriateways, truly faced their "Armenian question," just as Germany finally faced its "Jewish question" and France its "Algerian question."

Indeed, in the thousands of pages of regulations and principles thatnations must adhere to in order to join the European Union, some of the mostimportant ones involve new members solving their ancient ethnic problems.

So, no, I don’t think that Turkey is yet going to deal with this. It’s still a country whose psyche hasn’t absorbed its past, who can’t accept thatits historic DNA contains some unpleasant cancers – just as all national DNAsdo.

The United States finally dealt with considerable justice with its Native Americans and African-Americans. Did that make America less of a great state? The Germans gave massive payments to the millions it harmed or murdered; theyoung king of Morocco today is putting on television the men and women wrongedby his father so they can tell their stories. The Tanzanians have put West African dictator/mass murderers on trial.

Someday Turkey will feel that need, too, and the Armenians will finally have some long-denied relief. And I don’t think it’s going to be too long now, because that is what it means to be a modern people.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist based in Washington.