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."
The question is whether Turkey will ever enter a debate in which the consensus of scholars holds that the killings and mass deportations of Armenians did indeed constitute a genocide. According to the International Association of Genocide Scholars, the historical record on the Armenian genocide is "unambiguous": In the years approaching World War I, a new breed of Ottoman officials, the Young Turks, heirs to two centuries of imperial decline, saw themselves as the defenders of the Turkish remnant state in the Anatolian core of the empire. Embracing an ultranationalist and supposedly secular ideology, Young Turk leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress pointedly excluded non-Muslim minorities, particularly Armenians, from their vision of Turkish purity. The outbreak of war allowed these leaders to paint all Armenians as pro-Russian fifth columnists (which only a small number were) and undertake organized and widespread massacres and deportations that led to further deaths from starvation and disease.
Most historians conclude that the massacre was carefully planned and executed. They base their evaluation on American diplomatic cables, some Ottoman documents, and Austrian and German archives, as well as accounts of the Turkish courts-martial of 1919-20 which, under Allied pressure, tried and convicted many of the Young Turks for the atrocities.
By contrast, the populist Turkish take on this history emphasizes the war conditions and the threat of Armenian disloyalty to discredit allegations of an intentional policy of extermination. As Akyol says, almost every Turk today has heard a grandparent's tale of treacherous Armenians. The Turkish view has found at least partial support from a small number of scholars abroad.
"Nonnegotiable." If a consensus exists, then, there are at least grounds for discussion. So why is it unlikely that truly open conferences will occur within Turkey? To some degree, both Armenians and Turks are at fault. The former insist that Turks embrace the "G" word even at the outset of discussion. Akcam says that what Armenians expect is "an acknowledgment of moral wrong, and most are not worried about what exact word is used." But Vartian, speaking for many activists, says, "The 'G' word is nonnegotiable."
That hard stance doesn't bode well as an opening move. But neither does the overly defensive outlook of many Turks—an attitude reminiscent of the late Ottoman mentality. Seeing fifth columnists everywhere (now mainly among Kurds rather than Armenians) and overly suspicious of foreign intentions (the proposed resolution is denounced as proof of "American imperialism"), the Turks view any concessions on the Armenian question not only as an affront to national pride but as something Armenians will use to extort reparations or even restoration of property. The fact that the International Criminal Court has imposed strict limitations on the retroactive use of the genocide charge to recover damages does little to assuage Ankara.
But what about the broader meaning of the resolution, and even implications for the prosecution of genocide cases? Michael Scharf, a professor of law at Case Western Reserve University and a frequent adviser to genocide tribunals, doubts that the resolution would be of any practical prosecutorial value. And he adds that because there was no scholarly debate in Congress, the measure appears to Turks to be nothing but pure politics. Yet, like many, he wonders at Turkey's inability to put the matter to rest: "Why doesn't Turkey do a mea culpa and move on? There just doesn't seem to be a downside to doing that."