Photo by Mark DiOrio / Colgate University Portrait of Peter Balakian

To Armenians, Biden’s Recognition of the Genocide Means the World

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By Peter Balakian

(reprinted from the Washington Post, April 23, 2021)

In his Saturday statement commemorating the slaughter of the Armenian people on their indigenous lands by the Ottoman Empire, President Biden said the word “genocide,” marking a moment for which Armenian communities across the globe have been clamoring for decades.

Until Biden, no American president has had the courage to use that term for fear of angering modern-day Turkish leaders and damaging relations with a powerful ally, even one with an abominable human rights record. But when Biden said “We remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring,” his words affirmed historical fact and embodied moral truth.

Beginning in 1915, more than a million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Turks. Over a period of several years, property was confiscated, land stolen, women and children were abducted and raped, and many Armenians were forced to convert to Islam. Armenian cultural institutions, including more than 2,000 irreplaceable, architecturally unique churches were destroyed. Armenians have sought justice for these atrocities for over a century.

For decades, successive Turkish governments have denied the reality of the Armenian Genocide, pressuring other nations to deny this history: Ankara has tried to stop movies about it from being made, tried to stop the words “Armenian Genocide” from being included in museum exhibits and tried to prevent the history of this tragedy from being taught in schools. This assault on the truth has been, as international lawyer and scholar Richard Falk has said, a “major, proactive, deliberate government effort to use every possible instrument of persuasion at its disposal to keep the truth about the Armenian genocide from general acknowledgment, especially by elites in the United States and Western Europe.”

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These efforts represent the final stage of genocide, in which a perpetrator attempts to rehabilitate itself — a double killing, as Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel explained — because if we allow victims of genocide to be forgotten, “the dead will be killed a second time.” And the long battle against Turkey’s denial has been psychologically damaging to Armenians, myself included, in incalculable ways. With empathy, my Jewish friends often say: We can’t imagine how we would feel if Germany did to Jews what Turkey is doing to Armenians today.

In “Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence — from domestic abuse to political terror,” Judith Herman notes that “After every atrocity, one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies, the victim exaggerates … and in any case, it is time to forget the past and move on.” In the case of mass violence, culpable regimes often quickly manufacture narratives to falsify their human rights abuses, defend their actions and blame their victims and, in doing so, strive to create a false reality in which to entrap the survivor culture and smash it into silence.

The Turkish government’s export of its denial of the truth has been virulent and protracted. Its behavior has continued to abuse people of Armenian descent around the world by preventing the process of healing for survivors and their communities. It is an assault on the rituals of commemoration necessary for burial of the dead, who, because of their violent deaths, never had their last rites. Ankara’s denial has robbed generations of Armenians of a chance at restoring moral order. And beyond the tragedy for the Armenian community, this denial paves the way for future genocides by sending the message that governments won’t be held accountable for atrocities.

In recent years, however, Turkey’s campaign has been rebuffed and eroded by the dedication of activists around the world and the work of scholars of many nationalities.

And the record is overwhelming: As the International Association of Genocide Scholars wrote to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2005: “We want to underscore that it is not just Armenians who are affirming the Armenian Genocide but it is the overwhelming opinion of scholars who study genocide.” Countries in Europe, the Middle East, North America and South America have passed Armenian Genocide resolutions, among them, Germany, France, Russia, Syria, Argentina and Canada. In doing so, they have made a statement about the importance of accountability in the wake of human rights crimes. The United States joined this group with Congress’s passage of Armenian Genocide resolutions at the end of 2019, though President Donald Trump rejected the nonbinding measures.

Germany’s acts of apology and reparation to the Jewish people and Israel are benchmarks. The message is powerful and simple: Genocide demands acknowledgment, accountability, and acts of repair and reparation.

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The Turkish government has stalked the Armenian people for over a century to prevent their healing and to rob them of their dignity. It has stooped low to try to stop other nations from acknowledging and representing the truth of the Armenian Genocide in their various educational and cultural arenas. The denial has been poisonous, holding Armenians hostage in a wilderness of grief and shutting them out of their place in history.

Because Armenians are not politically powerful, and because Armenia has struggled against continued Turkish and Azerbaijani assaults on its very foundations, Armenia needs the support of powerful leaders, and Biden is such a leader. Armenian Americans are passionate, hard-working, patriotic citizens, and it means a great deal to the Armenian community to finally see our president affirming the truth.

By naming the Armenian Genocide, Biden is affirming that America stands for moral order and historical truth; he is confirming the human dignity of the survivor culture; and his acknowledgment is a major step toward real justice — which is as necessary as air for those who have been violated, harmed and wronged. His words acknowledge that not only is genocide a scourge, but that failure to reckon with past wrongs endangers us all by emboldening would-be genocidaires. Indeed, just before invading Poland in 1939, Hitler said, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

In his landmark April 24 statement, Biden has confirmed the Armenian people’s tragic past, and has spoken to the necessity of human rights and justice for all people. His moral leadership reverberates around the world.

(Peter Balakian is a professor at Colgate University and the author of several books, including Ozone Journal, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, winner of the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Award. This commentary originally appeared in the Washington Post on April 24.)

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