When the Nobel-Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk spoke last month at Seattle's Benaroya Hall, an audience member asked him about the congressional resolution calling the Ottoman slaughter of Armenians during World War I an act of "genocide." The House Foreign Affairs Committee had passed the resolution the week before. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had vowed to bring it before the full House. Turkey had already recalled its ambassador. Pamuk's talk had been resolutely non-political, focusing on his life, his writing, his views on translation. But he must have known this one was coming. People should be able to discuss the genocide question freely within Turkey, Pamuk said. Beyond that, his answer was ambiguous. On one hand, what happened to the Armenians should be examined in moral terms. (He presumably meant that modern Turks should honestly confront the sins of their fathers.) On the other, the issue had become one not of morality but of politics. (He presumably meant that politicians in other countries were bashing Turkey to curry favor with their own constituents.)
Clearly, when the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed that resolution, it was pandering shamelessly to Armenian-American voters and contributors. (Responding to pressure from the Bush administration, which wants to stay on Turkey's good side, Pelosi conceded at the end of October that the genocide resolution won't reach the House floor this year.)
And clearly, when Turkey's government expressed outrage and recalled its ambassador, that was an all-too-predictable response by a nation in which a Turkish-Armenian editor who used the word "genocide" was recently murdered, in which writers - including the editor and Pamuk himself – can still face prosecution for the crime of insulting Turkishness. Granted, Turkey feels beleaguered. European nations won't let it into their club. (In 2000, the European Parliament called on Turkey to acknowledge the "genocide.") Kurdish terrorists based in the largely autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq cross the border and ambush Turkish soldiers. (Turkey's Kurdish population is concentrated in a region of eastern Anatolia that overlaps the one from which Armenians were cleansed 90 years ago. The New York Times reports that some sympathetic Kurdish residents provide the Iraq-based fighters with shelter, supplies, and medical care.) Still, as the Times observed last spring, "[i]t's odd that Turkey's leaders have not figured out by now that every time they try to censor discussion of the Armenian genocide, they only bring wider attention to the subject and link today's democratic Turkey with the now distant crime."
But before we throw too many stones in Turkey's direction, we may want to consider our own historical house of glass.
The Armenian massacres-genocide, if you prefer-began early in World War I. The fading Ottoman Empire worried about Russia taking over territory in eastern Anatolia, where most of the Armenians lived. The Ottomans feared that Armenians wanted to break away from the empire, and that they would join forces with the Russians. Ottoman leaders also wanted scapegoats for a disastrous military campaign against Russia in which tens of thousands of their soldiers died, mainly because they had been sent into the mountains in the dead of winter without proper clothing or supplies. Some Armenians had helped the Russians. Why not blame them?
The Armenians weren't all killed on the spot. Many were expelled from eastern Anatolia, forced to walk away from their homes. The Ottoman government did not give them adequate food or water. It did not protect them from people who robbed and murdered them en route. (Think the Cherokee Trail of Tears or the Bataan Death March, rather than Auschwitz.)
What does that have to do with us? Think of the situation: It's early in a big war. Your nation isn't doing well. You fear an enemy attack on one side of the country. In fact, there has already been an attack. Some people living in that region belong to an ethnic group you fear will side with the enemy. And maybe you are looking for scapegoats to deflect blame for a recent military disaster. Sound familiar? It could describe the U.S. internment of Japanese and Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast in 1942. No, they weren't killed. In fact, the government claimed it was protecting them from vigilante violence. Yes, that is significant. It is, one might say, a life-or-death difference. But how different were the basic governmental impulses?
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