Should we call it a massacre or a genocide?

May 5, 2003
Source: The Boston Globe (Massachusetts)

By Christine Chinlund

MOST GLOBE READERS probably don't have a particularly strong view on whether the word "genocide" or "massacre" should be used to describe what happened to Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire nearly 90 years ago. But for those who do care, the passions run extraordinarly deep. That is especially true for Armenian-Americans this time of year; April 24 is the anniversary of what they say was, by any reasonable measure, a campaign of genocide started against them in 1915 by the Ottoman Turks. In all, 1.5 million Armenian men, women, and children were slaughtered or died in forced marches, Armenians say. To call it anything other than genocide, they say, is a dangerous denial of history and is an insult to humanity.

To the contrary, say the Turks. They argue that while 600,000 Armenians may have died, it was simply the consequence of war, not an attempt to wipe out an a entire people. (The United Nations defines genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.")

Newspaper editors around the country -- not to mention would-be presidents and Washington politicians -- have, like it or not, been drawn into the debate. The Boston Globe, like other papers, had to pick sides.

For 15 years the Globe has, to the dismay of its large Armenian-American readership, shunned the use of "genocide" unless it's used in quotes. The paper prefers "massacre," and routinely includes Turkey's version of events.

Several other papers with large Armenian-American readership use "genocide" more freely. For example, the Los Angeles Times's main headline on its story about the April 24 anniversary read, "Thousands march to denounce genocide."
The Providence Journal routinely refers to Armenian genocide in both text and headlines. (California and Rhode Island are the states with the largest share of the population reporting Armenian ancestry. Massachusetts is third.) The list goes on.

To reader Marc A. Mamigonian of Belmont, the Globe's "disgraceful, Orwellian policy has been made more obvious than ever to the Armenian community in recent months." First, he said, was the removal of the word "genocide" from the Globe's capsule review of the movie "Ararat," which, after all, was about the Armenian genocide. Then came the the Globe's April 3 obituary of Pastor Vartan Hartunian, a local Armenian leader.
Pastor Hartunian was "a genocide survivor... [and] a righteous man who devoted a large part of his life to raising public awareness... of the genocide," wrote Mamigonian, director of publications for the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research in Belmont.

"Incredibly, I found that the word genocide was not used (except in quotes) and there was the usual caveat that 'The Turkish government maintains that figure of 1.5 million killed is exaggerated.' Well, heck -- why not come out and say that Vartan Hartunian might have been a liar? It amounts to the same thing."

Add to that some Armenian-American readers' displeasure over the Globe's lack of a story on the April 24 commemoration -- "I didn't read one word on Armenian genocide; what are we, dirt?" demanded reader John Garabedian -- and it amounts to sour relations with the 28,500 Armenian-Americans in the state.

But there is potential for a changed landscape. The Globe is reviewing its 15-year practice of avoiding the word "genocide" next to Armenian. It is possible, although not a given, that sometime soon it will be used more freely.
The review is wise and timely.

A book describing the genocide -- Samantha Power's "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide" -- just won the Pulitzer Prize. In Washington, members of Congress grow more willing to acknowledge the genocide, although they are still wary of a resolution saying so for fear of angering Turkey, a NATO ally. (That concern may fade since Turkey's parliament refused to let the United States use bases there in the war against Iraq.)

Going back a few years, there are other signs of change: France officially acknowledged the genocide. George W. Bush as a candidate, although not as president, used the g-word.

"A combination of new and better scholarship, along with a wider recognition of a fuller definition of genocide that grew out of the debate over the Balkans, have combined to lead most knowledgable historians of the period to conclude what happened to the Armenians was genocide," says Paul Glastris, senior fellow at the Western Policy Center in Washington and editor of The Washington Monthly, who has studied the Armenian genocide.

Not being a historian, I can not claim personal knowledge of what happened to Armenians, or why. But I find it telling that 126 Holocaust scholars have signed a petition calling the Armenian genocide "an incontestable historical fact."

The Globe's rethinking comes at a good time.