“Don’t let them take me! Don’t let them take me!” Satenig cried. She gave Edward, another Armenian trapped in the schoolhouse basement, the little money she had in exchange for his protection. Each night, Ottoman authorities would raid the basement and remove the Armenians that were either dead or weak. Satenig was weak. She could barely stand, but she needed to appear strong. When the Turkish officials entered to complete their nightly check, Edward held Satenig up, pushed her against the wall, and tried to make her feeble body seem healthy. But the Turks saw through the guise. They dragged her out of the basement and Edward could only watch as Satenig disappeared. The words “Don’t let them take me!” rang in his memory.
Edward, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, shared his story with the Armenian Genocide Education Project in an effort to teach the world’s youth about the atrocities that occurred in the Ottoman Empire (now modern-day Turkey) in 1915. Few Americans know anything about the genocide—that is, if they even know that it exists.
This ignorance may be the result of Turkey and the United States’ longstanding friendship. To the United States, Turkey has been a strategic ally in the Middle East since the Cold War, when the two nations fought together against Communism as NATO allies. Today, Turkey houses several American military bases and serves as America’s geographic point of entry to the Middle East and North Africa. It is a nation on the brink of joining the European Union. However, this partnership has come at a heavy price—America has relaxed its strong standing on human rights. The genocide killed over a million Turkish Armenians, yet neither of the modern governments in America or Turkey recognizes the events of 100 years ago as a genocide.
It is no secret that the Ottoman Turks viewed Christians as second-class citizens, and this is exactly how the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire lived. For the most part, this prejudice rarely yielded violence and strife; rather, it was manifested in inconveniences such as higher taxes and army conscription for Armenians.
But animosity persisted between the Turks and Armenians. In 1914 the Ottoman Empire allied with Germany during World War I, fighting against Russia in the East. Only a small number of Armenians joined the Russians, but the Turkish forces accused the entire Armenian community of fighting against them and siding with Russia. During the war, the Ottoman Empire grew weaker by the day, and the Turks saw Armenians as a cause of this impending collapse. Tensions escalated. On April 24, 1915, under the guise of war, Ottoman officials arrested and executed hundreds of Armenian intellectuals. Later, adult males were condemned to hard labor camps, where the men were worked to death or massacred. The remaining population—women, children, the elderly—were expelled from the country on death marches through the Syrian desert. The brutality continued throughout World War I, and it did not fully end until 1923.
The massacre of the Armenians did not go unnoticed in the West — well, at least to the Western media. The New York Times’s extensive reporting on the matter portrayed a murderous vision of the Turkish government and a helpless Armenian people. A 1916 headline from the Times blared “Exiled Armenians Starve in the Desert.” The article documented a dispatch from the American Committee, which stated in no uncertain terms the death sentence imposed on the Armenians. They were deported from Turkey and made to wander the Arabian Desert without food or water. The article unequivocally concluded that the Armenians were doomed: “The misery and hopelessness of the situation are such that many are reported to resort to suicide.”
Accounts indicate that, before World War I, around 2,000,000 Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire. By 1923, only a quarter of that population remained in Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were permanently displaced, creating an Armenian diaspora that largely resides in America. Yet 100 years later, neither Turkey nor America have recognized what scholars and historians conclusively agree was genocide.
Adam Schiff, a California Congressman, aims to change this. “In many respects it’s a second killing, not having their own government recognize what they went through,” Schiff told The Politic. Congressman Schiff represents Los Angeles in the United States House of Representatives, and his district has more descendants of survivors of the Armenian Genocide than any other district in the country. In every session of Congress since 2007, Schiff has introduced House Resolution 106, or the Affirmation of the United States Record on the Armenian Genocide Resolution. After it was first introduced, it passed its initial vote in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs with bipartisan support. Schiff, a Democrat, was confident; his bill had the backing of over half of the members of the House of Representatives. But when it came time for a vote, Speaker of the House and fellow Democrat Nancy Pelosi indefinitely postponed the vote. President Obama opposed the resolution, as did then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. All eight living Secretaries of State at the time signed a letter expressing their opposition. Three former defense secretaries did so as well. At the time, the government of Turkey spent hundreds of thousands of dollars monthly on lobbyists to oppose the passage of the resolution. The message was clear: no such recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the American or Turkish governments would occur. Nor has it, in the eight years since Schiff first introduced House Resolution 106.
This controversy over official recognition of events that occurred 100 years ago seems unwarranted. Those events are widely regarded as fact, although David Simon, director of Yale’s Genocide Studies Program, notes that even “the word fact is used in quotation marks, and ‘contention’ itself is contentious.” There is no binary scale used to determine what constitutes genocide and what does not. (The term “genocide” was actually not created until the 1940s, when Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor Raphael Lemkin coined the term. Lemkin cited the Armenian Genocide as his basis for searching for a word to describe the aim to systematically destroy an entire people.) Simon’s studies of genocide have proven that controversy arises any time the word “genocide” is used. This is particularly evident in the case of the Armenian Genocide. It is Simon’s belief that an official recognition of the events of 1915 as genocide “would restore some dignity after what is not just an assault, but a personally felt assault.” Congressman Schiff agrees: “Words really matter, especially about crimes against humanity.” And for Schiff’s constituents, the genocide is “a contemporary and continuing issue.” But a normative judgment of the Armenian Genocide is not all that is at play here—political calculus also gives America a compelling reason to maintain its silence on the matter.
Permeating the discussions about Schiff’s resolution is a fear that an American recognition of the Armenian Genocide would lead to disastrous consequences for America’s relationship with Turkey. Robert Wexler, currently the director of the Daniel S. Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, previously served in the House of Representatives, where he created the Congressional Caucus on U.S.-Turkish Relations. “There are…the overtly political circumstances,” notes Wexler, who sees as “the bottom line [that] Turkey is a NATO ally of the United States.” And today, Turkey houses U.S. military bases that hold thousands of American soldiers. “What obligation do you have as a Member of Congress?” he wonders. For him, the answer was an unwavering responsibility to protect American military interests.
For Congressman Schiff, this response is not good enough. “We can’t politicize the issue of genocide,” he says; doing so “undermines our ability to be a leader on human rights.” The question is much more complicated than it at first seems, because the controversy in America is not about whether or not the events occurred. That fact is not contentious; in fact, every year, each American president since President Jimmy Carter has released a statement or given a speech in remembrance of the massacres that occurred in Armenia. The response to Schiff’s resolution is not due to a lack of acceptance of the events of 1915, and this could be seen as a good thing—a recognition of Armenian suffering at the hands of the Turks does mean something. But it denies that the Armenian people were targeted specifically for who they were as people, and as such it is not enough. The debate, then, goes much deeper, and has raised the question of whether America places a greater value on moral ideology or strategic goals.
Currently, President Obama opposes Congressman Schiff’s resolution, which would demand American recognition of the Armenian Genocide. But when Barack Obama was a presidential candidate in 2007, at the time that Schiff introduced the resolution in Congress, he supported it. In a position paper from his early campaign, he firmly stated, “As President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.” Obama was a Senator at the time, and he no doubt understood the potential political consequences of such a move. Then why hasn’t he recognized the Armenian Genocide during his two terms in office? Would adopting Schiff’s resolution and recognizing the events of 1915 as genocide actually alter America’s relationship with Turkey?
Ethnic pride is central to the identities of both Armenians and Turks. This poses a problem when that pride manifests itself as an Armenian demand for recognition of the genocide, for restoration of dignity, and a staunch opposition from Turkey, as a means to maintain its national pride. Seyla Benhabib, a Yale professor of political science and philosophy who grew up in Turkey, remembers silence about the Armenian Genocide. “Nobody quite knew about the extent of it,” she recalls. When she entered the world of academia, she began to simultaneously learn more about the genocide and notice the Turkish government’s opposition that stemmed from “a kind of cultural pride.” And even though Turkey in 1915 was ruled by a completely different government—that of the Ottoman Empire rather than that of the current Republic of Turkey—this pride is still pervasive today. “We do not want to be the first nation accused of genocide in the 20th century,” a government official in Turkey once told Benhabib. It seems Turkey will do whatever it can to ensure it does not gain that infamous title.
Meanwhile, there are some people in Turkey who see normalizing relations with Armenia as a first step to reconciliation. The Turkish government fears the legal and economic repercussions of genocide recognition. Turkey worries about reparations demands. As David Simon points out, “the crime of genocide doesn’t have a statute of limitations,” so any such demands would be legally permissible.
Over the past few years, Turkey has engaged in other forms of reconciliation. The Turkish government has restored churches in Armenian villages, and it has recognized them as remnants of the Armenian community of Turkey. Diplomatically, Turkey has extended a proverbial olive branch to Armenia. The governments have been communicating, and a few years ago, the president of Turkey attended a soccer match between the two countries in Yerevan, Armenia. “Football diplomacy,” as it has been called, is better than nothing. “I think that one should focus on increasing these people-to-people contacts, and not just fixate on the G-word,” Benhabib says. And if Turkish recognition of the genocide is realistically not going to happen, this indeed seems like a feasible alternative. But Turkey, although an American ally, has a long-standing legacy of human rights abuses. If America wants to maintain its credibility as a defender of human rights, it should not take policy cues on this important matter from Turkey.
The last important question is whether Turkey would really cut off America, its great Western ally, if the American Congress passed House Resolution 106 and formally recognized the Armenian Genocide. Congressman Schiff believes this is unlikely. “I don’t think becoming complicit in this respect will make them a better friend of the U.S.,” he says. Further, he noted that of the European countries that have recognized the Armenian Genocide, none have faced any major obstacles in their relationship with Turkey. (Only 22 nations in the entire world have recognized the Armenian Genocide.) And most importantly, he argues, “Turkey will do what is in its natural interest to do—not breaking relations with the United States.”
Wexler is not quite convinced, although for two very different reasons. The first, in Wexler’s eyes, is a lack of interest by the United States government to alienate “one of our most important allies against the Soviet Union.” This alliance remains today, and Wexler feels that an American recognition of the Armenian Genocide could cause it serious harm. “We’re talking about events that occurred 100 years ago, and [now] you’ve got American soldiers on the ground today in Turkey,” Wexler points out. For him, as a member of Congress, the question was exclusively political: his constituents were Americans, and his sole responsibility was to them. Because of this, Wexler saw any action that could potentially threaten American safety as one that should be avoided.
The Ottoman Empire, which inflicted the wounds of the Armenian Genocide, disintegrated after World War I. In its place came the modern-day Republic of Turkey. Turkey joined NATO during the Cold War, when Turkish forces and American forces often joined together. Armenia was a Soviet nation at the time, an immediate enemy of both the United States and Turkey, and Armenia’s standing as inferior perhaps still remains. The factors at play are endless, but it comes down to whether America will do what is right or what is convenient. This country is keenly aware of the fact that the greatest human right—life—was taken without reason from over one million Armenians 100 years ago. Perhaps as April 24 approaches, and Armenians dispersed across the globe mark the centennial of their genocide, America will affirm its long-standing commitment to the rights of all men and women. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel reminds us: “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”