Despite unequivocal support during his campaign, President Obama is reportedly wavering on using the "g" word in recognizing the Armenian genocide. He is off to Turkey soon, and many people here are rightfully wondering what he'll do next. So I'll say it clearly.
Do the Right Thing, Mr. President.
America once again has the chance to stand up and be counted. To stop the cycle of genocide. To stop -- as Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel calls it -- the last stage of genocide. To make real the words "Never Again" by combating genocide denial -- whether it comes from the Iranian president denying the Holocaust, or the Turkish government denying the first genocide of the 20th century. The time has come to put a name to the "forced exile and annihilation" of approximately 1.5 million Armenians -- as George W. Bush called it in April 2001.
Do the Right Thing, Mr President. Call it what it is. GENOCIDE.
While he was campaigning, Obama said, if elected President, he would use the word Genocide. Hilary Clinton promised the same. With Samantha Power, Pulitzer prize-winning author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide now in his coterie of foreign policy advisers, the prospects for recognition look good. But in the President's travels to Turkey this April, these promises will be put to the acid test. "Plopping the president down over there really does raise the stakes," says Mark Parris, a former US ambassador to Turkey, reported in the LA Times. "Now it can't be overlooked ... it could carry costs to his credibility." Obama's credibility, probably. America's credibility? For certain.
In many ways, this seemingly narrow issue -- one word -- could be an indication of Obama's foreign policy to come -- in the next four, if not eight years. With this one word, we will know.
Will it be Obama's America? A new and more transparent world order, where water-boarding is called what it is -- torture -- and Turkey's extermination of a million and a half people is called what it is -- genocide? Or same-old, same-old? Appeasing Turkey's genocidal past, colluding with the current repression of its own citizens who, in true Soviet style, cannot openly discuss their own history without risking a prison sentence, or worse yet, the extremist's bullet?
Will Obama join the ranks of "G-word" dancers -- who have played political football with survivors' hopes and dreams, promising out of office to recognize history's first "crime of humanity," as the British called it in 1915 -- then reneging once they are in power -- for whatever geo-political blackmail Turkish leaders can conjure? Bases? Oil? Security in Afghanistan ... Iran ... or Iraq?
Genocide? Or denial?
I speak as a filmmaker on the front-line of the genocide debate in America and Europe. I made a documentary feature called Screamers featuring a popular band "System of a Down," which was broadcast on the BBC and later released theatrically in America in 2006-7. The film looks at the history of genocide from the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, up to Darfur today. It includes an extensive interview of Samantha Power. After its theatrical release in U.S. cinemas, the movie was shown in Congress three times, as well as in the European Parliament, the British Parliament (for their Genocide Prevention Committee), and most recently, at a screening sponsored by the United Nations. Around the world, it has been shown in churches and synagogues, cultural institutes, universities and schools, translated into a host of languages, including French, German, and Arabic. We've been supported by Jewish World Watch, the Shoah Foundation, Save Darfur, Amnesty International, Clooney's "Not on Our Watch" ... the list goes on. I am still touring the world on the film's behalf.
In January 2007, one of our contributors, Hrant Dink, was murdered on the streets of Istanbul. He was an Armenian newspaper editor who preached peace and tolerance when it came to discussing this issue in Turkey. Dink was prosecuted by the Turkish State, under its draconian Penal Code, Article 301, which can label any discussion of the Armenian Genocide a crime against the state, i.e., "insulting Turkishness." Under pressure from the European Union, this code has been revised, but the changes are only cosmetic. Some people think the new code is even worse.
For anyone who thinks this is an arcane problem from the past, I would ask them to go to Turkey. Dink, along with Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk both faced the slammer for referring to these events. They faced the whipping up of extreme nationalist hatred, the intimidation of any Turkish citizen who seeks to talk about this subject openly in Turkey. Two month's after our film's release, and the Turkish government's exhortation for all citizens to combat the "lies" coming out of the Armenian Diaspora, Dink finally faced the true face of genocide denial -- the assassin's bullet.
How do we combat this? On the road, in schools and universities, I am talking to young people about the recurring problem of genocide and what we can do about it -- whether it be in acknowledging the first genocide of the 20th century, the Armenian genocide, or stopping the ongoing genocide now in Darfur. These young people want to follow Obama's dream -- "to be the change we want to see in the world."
Many want to believe that something as horrible as the Holocaust can never happen again. Many do not know about the Armenian genocide -- the so-called "forgotten genocide." When they learn that it was the first time the phrase "crimes of humanity" was used, that Hitler later referred to it as a justification for murdering the Jews, that President Wilson wanted to partition Turkey in response to this "murder of a nation," they are appalled.
Samantha Power, Obama's new National Security Council advisor, starts her Pulitzer Prize winning book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide with the Armenian genocide, calling it the "crime with no name." She identifies "screamers" -- people who refuse to remain silent when a genocide is occurring. Upstanders, she calls them, not bystanders. She cites "screamers" in every major genocide in the last century -- people like Ambassador Henry Morgenthau during the Armenian Genocide, Szmul Zygielbojm during the Holocaust, Dith Prawn in Cambodia, Romeo Daillaire in Rwanda. You could add George Clooney in Darfur. We've always had screamers. The problem is, she argues, we don't listen to them.
Why not? Samantha Power argues it is difficult to get a national consensus to help people far away about whom most Americans can't identify. That's the engine -- public pressure. In the case of the Armenian Genocide, many American citizens stepped up to the plate in 1915 and offered foreign aid. The genocide was well-reported in the New York Times, so American citizens knew about it. Armenians had, in fact, been massacred in the late 1890s under the Hamidian regime, fostering the phrase "the starving Armenians." These massacres were followed by one of the American Red Cross's first international interventions, spearheaded by Clara Barton. Years later, in 1915, millions of dollars were raised in America to help the victims of the Genocide. That's why I'm here -- Americans helped my family.
But, in America's case, humanitarian relief was as far as its support went. President Wilson wanted to go a step further and punish Turkey for what it did to the Armenians, after World War I, by partitioning the country and giving lands back to the Armenians. But he was persuaded to back off - that would cost America's alliance with the new leader of the Turkish Republic, Kemal Ataturk. Turkey was the bulwark against Boshevism. Turkey controlled oil in Mosul. Did America really want to alienate this new ally?
It's the same old problem, argues Power in my film. "The only times that humanitarian issues command the full attention of policymakers is when there is significant domestic political pressure," she says. "And if we don't do that the government will just fall back into its very familiar patterns of only pursuing its economic and security agendas."
This "familiar pattern" has repeated itself through the last century -- whether it be with the collective silence of the Carter Administration on the genocide in Cambodia, or the Reagan administration's lack of action against Saddam Hussein's massacres of the Kurds in Iraq in the late 80s. With the Rwandan genocide, the Clinton administration did not intervene. "We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name - genocide," said President Clinton in March, 1998. It was an apology for inaction, but not exactly genuine, says Salih Booker, from Africa Action. "In the case of Rwanda, the Clinton administration had refused to say the word genocide, and there were literally State Department memoranda saying, 'don't use the word genocide because we'll have to do something about it.'" In other words, Clinton knew what was going on, but allowed America to stand idly by.
No politician will openly say, "hey, it's not in our interest to stop genocide." That sounds terrible. Who wants to be associated with such heinous indifference? So they dance. They won't say the actual word. They will euphemize it. They will claim they didn't really know the full extent of the problem. Or they will not talk about it at all -- silence breeds silence.
The bottom line: "Never Again" is meaningless. "Why do genocides continue in the 21st century?" asks Booker. "Because those who perpetrated them in the 20th century got away with it."
So what will Obama do? U.S. Presidents have a history of flip-flops. President Reagan openly called the Armenian genocide "genocide" in 1981. He was, after all, the Governor of California, with one of the largest populations of Armenians in America. But that act of recognition occurred before the U.S. ratified the UN Genocide Convention -- something the Reagan administration did reluctantly, says Samantha Power, following the embarrassing Bitburg scandal in April 1985. On that occasion, the Reagan administration planned a trip to Germany, encouraged by then Chancellor Kohl. Included in Kohl's itinerary was a visit to the Bitburg cemetery, where many Nazi Waffen SS officers were buried. Oops. Deeply embarrassed, the Reagan administration sought to appease the rightfully enraged Jewish American community. What could he do? He ratified the Genocide Convention -- which had awaited American ratification since December 9, 1948.
President Reagan did the Right Thing -- for the Wrong Reason.
Perhaps that's all we can expect. Unfortunately, after ratifying the convention and legally committing the United States to punish the perpetrators of Genocide, President Reagan changed his tune. Fearful of Turkey's response, he never again called the Armenian genocide "genocide." Instead, after 1988, he referred to the events as "a terrible tragedy." Flip Flop again.
President Clinton? He took Reagan's cue. "Senseless deportations and massacres of 1.5 million Armenians that took place from 1915-1923," he said on Armenian commemoration day, April 24, 1996. "Tragically, our century has repeatedly borne witness to man's senseless inhumanity to man," he said. "Together we mourn the loss of so many innocent lives."
Is genocide a tragedy? Like a tsunami that sweeps across a nation, leaving its victims helpless, with no blame to accrue, other than to a bad weather system? Genocide is not an act of God, some "senseless tragedy." It is a government policy to destroy, in whole or in part, its own citizens. It is mass murder.
President Bush actually found a new variation of the G-word dance. With Darfur, after his Administration initially denied that Darfur was indeed a genocide, he turned around in 2004 and announced to a startled Sudanese UN representative in the United Nations that "what's happening in Darfur is GENOCIDE."
The world gasped. America used the G-word! So, we thought, the U.S. would then declare the Sudanese war criminals. That's what the UN Genocide Convention requires. Action ... right? Well, no. The Bush administration said it was not the United States' responsibility to deal with this issue - it was the UN's problem, the African Union's problem. So much for scaring the be-Jesus out of the Sudanese government. Hey, dude, our President effectively said. You are genocidal murderers. But no worries! We won't seek punishment. In fact, we will share intelligence with you on Al Qaeda. The War on Terror trumps Stopping a Genocide.
President Bush did not Do the Right Thing. He redefined the rule book. The only credible law of genocide we have is the UN Genocide Convention -- Bush tossed it into the dust-bin of history.
Do the Right Thing, Mr. President.
We cannot "parse" Genocide. There are not "two sides" to Genocide, just as there are not "two sides" to the Holocaust. Talaat Pasha, the Young Turk leader, had no qualms about what his regime was doing to the Armenians. He freely admitted to US Ambassador Morgenthau in 1915 that three quarters of the Armenians had been "disposed of" and that the rest had to be "finished off." Even Turkey's ally, Germany called it "extermination." There is no legitimate disagreement about what happened - just what to do about Turkey.
"Just think for a moment what would it be like if all of Turkey had been occupied by the Allies and war crimes trials had been brought to a successful conclusion," asks Prof. Dennis Papazian of the University of Michigan. "The episode would be widely followed, the chief perpetrators punished, and restitution made to the survivors. The survivors would then urge the world to remember their tragedy and seek to prevent such tragedy from happening ever again."
"And just think for a moment if the Nazis survived World War II and there were no Nuremberg trials for the perpetrators of the Jewish Holocaust," he continues. "The Nazis, just as the Turkish government today, would deny the Holocaust and its memory might fade into history. The Jews of course would demand recognition and attempt to keep their tragedy in the public eye, but most of the public would forget over time and the Holocaust might be known today as the "forgotten Holocaust."
"Who Remembers the Armenians?" The Hitler quote about the Armenians is on the wall of the U.S. Holocaust Museum - just down the road from the White House. Mr. President. Go look at it. This will give you strength to Do The Right Thing.
No alliance is so fragile that historical truth should be denied. No democracy -- if Turkey is to call itself that -- should punish its own citizens -- its journalists, authors, teachers, publishers -- for trying to speak openly about its own history. Turkey is spending millions of dollars on public relations firms in America to try to eradicate from the public mind the memory of the Armenian Genocide. By giving in to this Orwellian behaviour, we are only strengthening its resolve to deny genocide.
I have heard from Turkish citizens who have seen my movie (they have bought it on the internet - it is not on sale in Turkey.) Some have written to me about the necessity to recognize the genocide. But, as one Turkish man said, in a screening here in America, "if I said this openly in Turkey, I could be arrested." Which brings us to the point: which Turkey are we supporting? A democratic Turkey who lets their citizens speak freely about their own history? Or a repressive Turkey? Who persecutes its own people?
America's long-standing policy of doing the "G-word dance" has only emboldened Turkey's policy of denial. Successive governments have actively, brazenly denied what was done to the Armenians - in schools, universities, work-places. Teachers, priests, newspaper editors, authors are being prosecuted for speaking openly about what happened to the Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks. Why are we supporting this?
Turkey is now the poster child of genocide denial -- thanks to the United States. How else are we to interpret Turkey's hosting of the Sudanese president, a country we have accused of genocide? Perhaps it is no surprise that a country which denies the crimes of its past, should be living in self-righteous delusion. The only surprise is that we are supporting it.
Many Turkish citizens want leadership from us -- to help their government Do The Right Thing.
And we can provide that leadership. By recognizing that this isn't really about Turkey. It's about us.
That's why recognizing the Armenian genocide is about more than simply saying one word. It is about creating a climate of opinion in the world that censures all genocide denial - whether it be the Iranians denying the Holocaust, Pol Pot's cronies denying the Cambodian genocide, the Sudanese President denying Darfur, or the Turkish government denying the Armenian genocide. As the Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel says, denial is the last stage of genocide. So let's stop it -- now.
Do the Right Thing, Mr. President. Say it loudly. Clearly. Without any conditions.
Honor your repeated vows to call the extermination of the Armenians what it is. Genocide. Honor the brave men and women in Turkey who are fighting for the simple freedom to talk about their own history without reprisal from their Government. Honor the brave people in America -- who had the courage to be "screamers" in the past and who are trying to stop genocide now in Darfur. Honor the path America can and must take, if it is to redeem its moral standing as a leader of the international community.
Do the Right Thing, Mr. President. Do it because history must never be denied in a democracy. Do it because the world is watching us now, and hoping that America Does the Right Thing.