An Ugly Truth

The challenges of confronting the Armenian genocide

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A boy pauses in front of a wall-sized poster depicting the faces of 90 survivors of the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, in Yerevan.

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Call it a tragic episode, a massacre, even a crime against humanity. But don't—at least officially—call the death and forced displacement of up to 1.5 million Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire a genocide. That is what the government of Turkey has long insisted, though seldom more strenuously than in the wake of the most recent attempt in the U.S. Congress to pass a nonbinding resolution that would do just that. Were it to pass, the United States would be on record as seeing the events of 1915-1919 as, in the words of the 1948 U.N. Convention on Genocide, acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group."

At the moment, however, it looks as though Turkey and an impressive array of supporters—from the White House to K Street and beyond—will prevail in blocking the attempt. Twenty earlier backers of the bill have already defected in response to a tsunami of pressure that includes millions of lobbying dollars, eight former secretaries of state, three former secretaries of defense, Gen. David Petraeus, the patriarch of the Armenian church in Turkey, and even The Daily Show.

The case put forward against the bill is powerful: Its passage would alienate Turkey, America's strongest ally among Middle Eastern Muslim nations and a crucial geostrategic partner. Not only might Ankara shut down the American-run Incirlik air base (through which 74 percent of Iraq-bound U.S. air cargo transits), it would feel even less reluctant to send troops into northern Iraq to crush the Kurdish separatists who have found a haven there. In return for an entirely symbolic resolution, the voices of realism declare, an already colossal mess in Iraq would grow even worse.

Despite the dwindling number of supporters, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insists that the bill will still go before the full House. But even if the measure meets the fate of earlier ones, the forces that repeatedly bring the issue up will not go away. Foremost among these are the some 1.4 million Armenian-Americans who are part of a larger world diaspora that dwarfs the number of Armenians now living in Armenia itself. To them, this is not ancient history but something that lives on painfully in their present lives, a crucial fact of "our narrative," as Ross Vartian, executive director of the U.S. Armenian Public Affairs Committee, calls it. "This is about the U.S. being on the record about the Armenian genocide," he says, "and it's about confronting genocide in general, even when it's hard."

Denials. But just as much a force, in a perverse way, is the obstinate refusal of the modern Turkish republic to acknowledge a historical episode for which it was not itself responsible. Ironically, the vehemence of persistent denials—including a 2003 law requiring schools to deny the massacre and a provision added to the penal code that made "insults to Turkishness" jailable offenses—has made this sad historical chapter loom even larger in the Turkish present. The assassination of Hrat Dink, an Armenian-Turkish journalist who had been charged under the new law for writing about the massacre; the near imprisonment of Nobel-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, who had mentioned the killing of a million Armenians in an interview; the death threats that hang over Taner Akcam, who has written an unflinching history of the genocide—all of these have been cited by the larger global community as proof that Turkey has done nothing to set its own record straight.

Yet repeatedly, Turkish officials say that the events of 1915-19 are questions that historians and scholars should adjudicate, not ones on which governments should pass laws or pronouncements. (When France proposed a law in 2006 criminalizing the denial of the Armenian genocide, Ankara responded by cutting off military relations and some commerce.) Even many self-critical Turks say that political pressure from the outside will suppress nascent efforts to confront the history and even create a backlash. "This resolution will just block the way to dialogue," says writer Mustafa Akyol, deputy editor of the Turkish Daily News. But the response of UCLA historian Richard Hovannisian is pointed: "I don't think the resolution will stifle investigation in Turkey. They've had over 90 years to study this."