Speak no evil?

July 16, 2006
Source: Los Angeles Times (California)

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU refer to Turkey's 1915-1923 genocide of Armenians, accurately, as "genocide"? In Turkey, you face a possible three-year jail term, even if it wasn't you using the term but a character in your novel. In the United States, you just lose your job as ambassador to Armenia.

The novelist is Elif Shafak, who learned last week she will go on trial for defamation of the Turkish Republic. The former ambassador is John M. Evans, who was recalled from Yerevan in May after referring to the "Armenian genocide" in a speech before a group of Armenian Americans in February 2005. As one State Department bigwig told an Armenian newspaper: "Ambassadors serve the president, and they are obliged to follow his policy. President Bush's policy as regards the mass killings of Armenians is precise."

Precisely what purpose this policy serves is clear: avoid using the most truthful word in the English language to describe an eight-decade-old atrocity for fear of offending a crucial NATO ally. As Bush's proposed replacement for Evans, Richard Hoagland, put it last month during his confirmation hearing, "Instead of getting stuck in the past and vocabulary, I would like to see what we can do to bring different sides together."

Vocabulary may not be the president's best subject — Bush himself has poked fun at his frequent malapropisms — but he's shown he knows the meaning of the word "genocide." Campaigning for the White House in 2000, Bush told Armenian American groups that "the 20th century was marred by wars of unimaginable brutality, mass murder and genocide" and that "history records that the Armenians were the first people of the last century to have endured these cruelties … If elected president, I would ensure that our nation properly recognizes the tragic suffering of the Armenian people."

It's one of the more blatant of Bush's broken campaign promises. Luckily, the Senate is showing signs of giving this rhetorical appeasement the rebuke it deserves. Half of the senators on the Foreign Relations Committee have demanded that the State Department give an official explanation for Evans' premature recall, and some have hinted that Hoagland's appointment could hang in the balance. They should block the nomination altogether until the ambassador-to-be dares to utter the g-word.

And the Bush administration should have the courage of its lack of conviction and explain forthrightly — not just to Armenian Americans but to all Americans who believe in calling evil by its proper name — why U.S. policy is being dictated by Ankara nationalists.