Genocide by any other name

A century later, a war of semantics engulfs the World War I-era banishment of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. The urge to purge arose again, of course, on the U.S. West Coast during World War II. And generations later, people are still turning out other people. Even if they aren't killing them outright, the act requires defining someone as less than human.
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A century later, a war of semantics engulfs the World War I-era banishment of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. The urge to purge arose again, of course, on the U.S. West Coast during World War II. And generations later, people are still turning out other people. Even if they aren't killing them outright, the act requires defining someone as less than human.

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?

When the Armenians were killed, no one yet used the term "genocide." But the massacres did inspire the first discussion of "crimes against humanity." After World War I, the victorious Allies wanted people responsible for the Armenian massacres identified and punished. At first, the Turkish government cooperated. But the Allies soon grew more interested in dividing up the spoils of war than in getting justice for Armenians, the Turks soon grew more interested in repelling the Greek invasion sanctioned by the Allies, and the issue faded into the historical background. Some men responsible for the massacres took leading positions in the first post-Ottoman government. It's hard for Turkey to point a finger at them without casting doubts on the founders of the modern nation.

Again, how different is that from our own experience here? President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself signed the infamous Executive Order 9066 that sent people to the internment camps. Justice Hugo Black wrote the Supreme Court opinion in the Korematsu case that said excluding people of Japanese descent from the entire West Coast was OK. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote a concurrence.

(Korematsu leaned on language from the court's earlier Hirabayashi decision, upholding the conviction of a University of Washington student for violating the curfew that had been imposed on Japanese-Americans before the exclusion order. The Hirabayashi court said, "we cannot reject as unfounded the judgment of the military authorities and of Congress that there were disloyal members of that population, whose number and strength could not be precisely and quickly ascertained. We cannot say that the war-making branches of the Government did not have ground for believing that in a critical hour such persons could not readily be isolated and separately dealt with, and constituted a menace to the national defense and safety, which demanded that prompt and adequate measures be taken to guard against it.") Future Chief Justice Earl Warren was California's attorney general - and soon to be its governor - at the time the Japanese were sent away. Warren evidently said the fact that no one of Japanese descent had been caught at espionage just showed how clever they all were. Was Warren a racist? Almost certainly not. He was a politician. He was saying what he had to say. (When I was in college, a Nissei friend of mine wrote to by-then-Chief-Justice Warren to ask about the internment. Warren never wrote back.)

In a time of stress, you'll seldom go wrong by pointing an accusatory finger at people generally perceived as other. (And you'll always be tempted to place some of those others where they can do no harm. Indefinite detention of Middle Easterners, anyone?)

Does that mean that what happened in Ottoman Turkey was just politics? Not really. There was certainly some of the ethnic and sectarian viciousness that we see all too frequently in Iraq. There was certainly some naked greed. (The Turkish government took businesses from Armenians and gave them to ethnic Turks.) Did it add up to a "genocide?" Does that really matter? Does it make any sense to argue over the semantics of mass murder? Wouldn't it make more sense to direct congressional energy into halting similar incidents in, say, the Congo or Darfur? But words do have consequences. It isn't entirely a waste of time to argue over the semantics of "torture."

Or, perhaps, the semantics of "people." All, or nearly all, groups have codes of conduct governing the ways in which one acts toward other people; the question is whom you consider a full-fledged person and whom you don't. The trouble starts when a society, or a group within a society, defines others as less than human.

Joan Dayan has written in The End of the Eighth Amendment that in Furman v. Georgia, a 1972 decision in which the Supreme Court held Georgia's capital punishment law unconstitutional, sending all the states with capital punishment laws back to the drawing board,

Justice Brennan argued that there could be cruelty far worse than bodily pain or mutilation. It was not just "the presence of pain" that proved the significance of the Eighth Amendment but the treatment of "members of the human race as nonhumans, as objects to be toyed with and discarded." The ominous leeway of American legal rules – from slave codes, to prison cases, to the Bush administration's torture memos – redefines these persons in law. That redefinition – the creation of a new class of condemned – sustains a metaphysics that goes beyond the mere logic of punishment. Once you create the category of the stigmatized, whether they are called "terrorists," "security threat groups" (gangs in our prisons), or "security detainees" (prisoners in Iraq), the use of torture can be calibrated to the necessities of continuously evolving and aggressive security measures.

The expatriate Turkish historian Taner Akçam suggests in his analysis of the Armenian massacres, A Shameful Act, that although "making the concept of 'crimes against humanity' an inseparable part of national legal systems can have certain advantages ... this is not an argument to reduce crimes such as genocide to the level of a 'domestic problem' of any country, which could open the door to the danger of multiple definitions of 'humanity.'"

What does it look like when you define someone else as less than human? Years ago, I talked with a Sephardic Jewish woman who had immigrated to Seattle in the early 20th century. All of Seattle's early Sephardic immigrants came from the old Ottoman empire. Most had grown up along the Sea of Marmara or on the island of Rhodes. This woman had grown up in Istanbul. She remembered looking out her window there and seeing a Turk chase an Armenian down the street, wielding a club that looked like a baseball bat. The Turk caught the Armenian. He hit him over the head with the club. I think she stopped watching at that point. A lot of other people stopped watching, too.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.