Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Armenian Genocide

Congress is seeking to pass a non-binding resolution that identifies events in the former Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) in 1915-1917 a ‘genocide’. In those three years, the Ottoman Empire forcefully relocated the Armenians. In the process, somewhere between several hundred thousand and 1.5 million Armenians (out of an estimated 2 million) died.

The Turkish government is upset about this resolution and has promised to punish the United States if the resolution should pass. The most likely form of punishment would be to prohibit the United States from supplying its forces in Iraq through Turkey – mostly by flying through Turkish air space.

One of the things that the Turkish government does not like is the idea of calling this a ‘genocide’. Yet, the one quality that all of the victims of this massacre shared – the quality that was used to single them out for this special treatment – is the quality of being members of a particular group of people. So, ‘genocide’ seems to be a quite appropriate term.

President Bush and his administration are opposing this resolution. Once again, they are demonstrating to the world their Christian morality by saying, “If you have something of value that you can offer us, then we can certainly ignore the slaughter of up to 1.5 million people. What’s the slaughter of large numbers of innocent people among friends?

The Turkish government itself is behaving in a contemptible manner in opposing this resolution. One of the things that their action tells us is that they are not willing to condemn those who committed these crimes. If they do not think that these crimes are worthy of condemnation, then we must worry that they might do something like this again in the future. At the very least, they cannot effectively join the rest of the international community in condemning others who might engage in similar actions.

If the United States sides with the Turkish government on this dispute, then it too will lose the authority to condemn similar slaughters elsewhere. The rest of the world will see that the difference between being condemned and not being condemned has little to do with the wrongness of one’s actions, but with the degree to which one can make oneself useful to the United States.

I need to clear up one issue regarding these types of measures – the issue of apologizing for past generations. I hold that the only person whose actions I am responsible for are my own. I am no more obligated to apologize for acts that a family member committed a hundred years ago, than for the acts of a stranger that lives 100 miles down the road. If somebody wants me to apologize, they will need to provide evidence that I did something that warrants an apology.

However, even though I will not apologize for the acts of other people, I do think that it is important to acknowledge when they have done something wrong. If I refuse to classify their actions as wrong, then I am saying that their actions are permissible (or obligatory). If I am saying that their acts are permissible, then I am putting people at risk of others who would perform similar actions. Indeed, I am saying that I would consider it permissible to perform such actions myself. Others in society have every reason to view those who will not condemn such actions as a threat – as somebody they have reason to condemn, in order to promote a hatred of the types of acts I refuse to condemn.

So it is the case that, if some government were to consider a resolution considering the actions against the Native Americans a genocide, or condemning slavery, I would condemn any American who stood in the way – who did not, in fact, join in the condemnation of those policies. It is necessary to convey the message, “Those actions will wrong. In condemning them I give warning that I will also condemn any contemporary who would perform similar crimes.”

One particular crime that I think that Americans have an obligation to own up to has to do with the Revolutionary War. One of the events that we tend to gloss over is the controversy over the Line of Demarcation in 1763. This was one of the reasons for going to war with the English crown, and is included in the Declaration of Independence.

This controversy concerned England’s decision that all land west of the Appalachian Mountains belonged to the Indians (Native Americans), and prohibited the American colonists from settling the land there. The Americans rejected this idea. They saw vast tracts of land ripe for the taking, and did not at all approve of the Parliament’s enforcement of the moral prohibitions on murder and theft.

On this matter, the founding fathers were the moral monsters. Any morally decent American would condemn the founding fathers for this (as well as the stand that they took on the issue of slavery).

This does not diminish the fact that they were right on a number of other issues. In fact, one of their greatest moral failings was their utter hypocrisy. They did an excellent job of expressing a set of moral principles that should govern relationships between people and their government – if only they had the moral fortitude to actually live according to those principles.

(This, by the way, is the biggest problem with the type of ‘originalism’ practiced by Supreme Court Justice Scalia. Scalia’s method of interpreting the Constitution is to apply the principle ‘Do as I do, not as I say.’ As a result, every example of hypocrisy committed by the founding fathers is taken by Scalia to negate the principles that they wrote into the Constitution.)

A moral person need not apologize for the criminal acts of their ancestors, but they do have an obligation to admit that those were criminal acts. Failure to do so means failure to contribute to setting up a culture that will help to prevent similar crimes from acting in the future. Failure to do so tells the world, “You, too, can slaughter a million people, as long as you have something that you can then sell to those who would condemn you for it.”

That is not a very good message to be spreading throughout the world.

In saying this, there is some room for practicality when somebody is doing something immoral. If a thief pulls a gun on you in a dark alley and demands your money, it may be the case that he deserves condemnation, and refusal to condemn him simply makes the world a more dangerous place. However, at that particular place and time, it may well be best to remain silent, or even show some sympathy for the man with the gun. At the same time, you can be taking a description of your assailant in order to provide a better description of him to the authorities, and better condemn him later.

It is quite possible that the Bush Administration is negotiating with Turkey as I write this, with Turkey making real threats about what may happen if its demands are not met.

If the threat is to deny American airplanes the use of Turkish airspace, this threat is not good enough. We are weighing the cost of diverting flights against the principle that it is wrong to kill hundreds of thousands (over a million) innocent people. The United States should have the moral fortitude to be willing to pay such a small price for defense of such an important principle.

Or, Turkey may be threatening to attack the Kurds in northern Iraq and, in so doing, take even more innocent lives. This, then, could count as a hostage situation, with the hostage taker threatening to take lives unless his demands are not met. This bargain should go a considerable distance to proving that Turkey remains the same morally contemptible place that it was when it brought about the death of those Armenians. The fact that they have not improved their moral character in nearly a century provides a hint of what happens when others do not take a stand for moral decency.

Sincerely, it is difficult to find a threat that is significant enough, for somebody who is truly interested in promoting good and fighting evil, to warrant claiming that mass murder on this scale is acceptable. I am not snot saying that it can’thappen, but only that it would be morally difficult for a good person to turn his back and ignore up to 1.5 million deaths.

Except, the Bush Administration seems quite comfortable with turning its back on 1.5 million deaths.


NAL said...


That was when he was govenor of Texas.

David Cortesi said...

By coincidence I was talking about exactly these subjects at lunch today with a very smart, well-educated American woman who happens to be married to a Turkish citizen. Here are some tid-bits from among the many interesting things she had to say, based on her experiences in Turkey and with her Turkish in-laws.

The Kurdish situation today has no historical connection to the Armenian history -- I tend to mix them up and asked about it -- The P.K.K., Kurdish Separatist party, is officially branded a "terrorist organization" by all nations including the U. S. Turkey feels insulted because in recent incidents within Turkey, P.K.K. guerillas were caught carrying U. S. - made weapons -- the assumption being, that they had been supplied by the U. S.'s very good friends, the Kurdish people in northern Iraq, who are about the only Iraqis that whole-heartedly like us. Anyway, enough on the Kurds.

Re the Armenians, Turks are at pains to point out that this was done by the Ottoman empire. After WWI, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and modern Turkey was created almost single-handedly by Kemal Ataturk (check Wikipedia). This entailed a huge renovation of the whole culture, including making everyone learn a new alphabet (many, a new language). Few nations have undergone such a thorough cultural revolution; to Turks, this represents a sharp watershed between the bad old past and the modern era. There is a real sense of "why should we apologize for what the Ottomans did? We aren't them."

Other excuses include: it was war-time; the Russians were threatening to invade through Armenia and the Armenians were not averse to that. etc.

A key question that nobody has clearly answered is: WHY NOW? The Armenian Genocide has been historical fact for a century; why in exactly this session do the Democrats find it necessary to bring a resolution to the floor?

David Cortesi said...

I should add that, regarding air-space rights, my friend pointed out that France was the last country to pass a resolution declaring the Armenian Genocide, and since then no, zero, French aircraft have been allowed in Turkish airspace. Not just barred from landing, but from crossing it. So that is not an empty threat.

Anonymous said...

Apology and acknowledgement have very different definitions. Reread the article.

Unknown said...

The issue of apologising for past wrongs has been controversial in Australia over the past decade. Many people believe, as you have stated, that modern Australians should not have to apologise for past moral injustices committed against indigenous Australians.

One argument in support of an apology is that it would be an apology on behalf of the government for crimes committed in the past by the government. So it would be the government apologising for its own actions. There is a precedent for this sort of thing. In 1993 the US government apologised for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

If it is true that the Armenian genocide was committed by the Ottoman Empire and not the present Turkish State, then this argument probably doesn't apply in this case.