Naming Evil: The Armenian Genocide

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the event that became the Armenian genocide. On this day in 1915, Turkish authorities rounded up around 200 Armenians in Constantinople. Most were eventually killed. Over the next decade, the Armenian population fell from over 2.1 million people to less than 400,000. Diplomats and journalists at the time recounted stories of mass killings and deportations. In 1915 alone, The New York Times printed around 145 articles on the atrocities against the Armenians. Background from vox here and the Times here and here.

The Armenian genocide took place during World War I, when Germany and the Ottoman Empire were allies. After the war ended, the victorious allies carved up the Ottoman Empire. As Amanda Taub points out on Vox:

Several of the Turkish officials who had been architects of the Armenian genocide went on to found the modern Turkish state that emerged from the Ottoman Empire’s ashes.

Those Turkish officials became heroes of modern Turkey, and their reputation wrapped up in the legitimacy of this new state. Admitting that the genocide happened would risk tainting the Turkish state itself, as well as the individuals responsible. “It’s not easy for a nation to call its founding fathers murderers and thieves,” Turkish historian Taner Akcam told the New York Times.

The question of whether to call what happened to the Armenians “genocide” has long been tied up with Turkish nationalism and international politics. Thomas de Waal, author of a recent book on the controversy, explains in Foreign Affairs wonders whether the word “genocide” itself has become part of the problem:

Simply put, the emotive power of the word has overpowered Armenian-Turkish dialogue. No one willingly admits to committing genocide. Faced with this accusation, many Turks (and others in their position) believe that they are being invited to compare their grandparents to the Nazis.

It may be that the word “genocide” has exhausted itself, and that the success of Lemkin’s invention has also been its undoing. Lemkin probably never anticipated that coining a new standard of awfulness would set off an unfortunate global competition in which nations—from Armenia’s neighbor Azerbaijan to Sudan and Tibet—vie to get the label applied to their own tragedies. As the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov has observed, even though no one wants to be a victim, the position does confer certain advantages. Groups that gain recognition as victims of past injustices obtain “a bottomless line of moral credit,” he has written.

Whatever it’s called, it was a crime against humanity, a great tragedy, and a great evil. Humans continue to witness and perpetrate such evils in the twenty-first century. Naming evil, having moral clarity on evil is one thing. Reconciliation is something else. We cannot hope to create a more just and peaceful world community unless we are able to recognize and name evil, and to seek such reconciliation in its aftermath.

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