Once Upon a Genocide

Los Angeles City Beat
by Natalie Nichols
A whole race genocide,
taken away all of our pride,
a whole race genocide
taken away, watch them all fall down.
-System of a Down, `P.L.U.C.K.’

`P.L.U.C.K.’ stands for `Politically Lying, Unholy,Cowardly Killers’ –
which neatly sums up System of a Down’s feelings regarding the Ottoman
Empire’s massacre of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915, and modern
Turkey’s refusal to admit to what scholars widely consider one of the
20th century’s first genocides.

The distant past still echoes loudly for the superstar L.A. rock
quartet, as singer Serj Tankian, guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist
Shavo Odadjian, and drummer John Dolmayan all have Armenian heritage.

The song, from System’s 1998 debut album, is not a history lesson. Its
minimal lyrics and grinding music instead telegraph complex, visceral,
and wide-ranging emotions: vengeful, anguished, defiant. Part of the
anger stems from frustration – not just because these killings
happened, scattering Armenians all over the globe, but also because
Turkey resists calling them `genocide,’ maintaining that it wasn’t an
organized campaign and that the Empire was defending itself from
Armenians’ alliance with its then-enemy, Russia. This denial has kept
the United States from officially recognizing the Armenian massacre,
for what Tankian terms `geopolitical reasons.’ That is, whenever a
resolution to acknowledge the genocide comes up in Congress, Turkey
objects strenuously by, say, threatening to withhold U.S. access to
military bases within its borders.

`Geopolitics is no longer an excuse,’ says Tankian, sittingwith
Odadjian on a funky, rug-upholstered couch in a woody NoHo rehearsal
studio, where they’ re working out songs for their first album of new
material since 200’s Toxicity. (They hope to release it by
year’s end.) `Something similar would be, let’ s say we want Germany’s
help in the Iraq war, and Germany says, `OK, we’ll help
you. However, first you gotta go destroy all the Holocaust
museums.’ That would be absurd.’ The Armenian genocide is an old
injustice in a world busy making new ones every day, but the band
members feel that one way to prevent new massacres is to remember
those that time or circumstance would have us forget. To that end,
this Saturday at the Greek Theatre, they’ll headline the
sold-out`Souls 2004,’ a benefit concert to raise awareness of what
happened to the Armenians. The date – April 24 – is significant as the
annual commemoration of the genocide worldwide, marking the day in
1915 when more than 200 Armenian leaders in Constantinople (now
Istanbul) were arrested, setting mass murder in motion.The show also
aims to support passage of House Resolution 193 and Senate Resolution
164, affirming U.S. commitment to the international Genocide
Convention, recognizing planned carnage in Ottoman Turkey, Nazi
Germany, Rwanda, Cambodia, and other regions. (Proceeds will go to
various groups focused on genocides, including the Armenian National
Committee of America.) `No matter when it [occurred], if it’s an
injustice, it needs to be addressed,’ Tankian says. A postcard
campaign on System’s website urges visitors to contact their
representatives about these resolutions. `We’ve been in touch with
over half a million of our fans, and we’ve got 75, 80 thousandpeople
who have actually sent postcards to the Speaker of the House and the
Senate Majority Leader,’ he says. `It’s like a whole grassroots
activism tied into the Souls show.’ Most fans may be more motivated
to see SOAD in a relatively intimate venue.

This is the second time the band has staged this type of benefit; the
firstwas before it recorded Toxicity. `We played some of those tunes
with [different] titles and lyrics,’ Dolmayan recalls of that show,
which took placeat the Palace (now Avalon). Similarly, this time,
Malakian says, `We mightplay a couple new songs, but you might hear
some changes by the time we record them.’ And that possibility
should spark as much excitement in System’s fans as the massacre
sparks outrage in their heroes.

As genocides go, this one wasn’t the biggest. Or the worst. Probably
it’s not even the most overlooked. But to these guys, it’s
personal. `The point of it was so I wouldn’t exist right now,’
says Malakian, jabbing a thumb toward himself as he and Dolmayan take
their turn on the couch.

All four had ancestors perish and/or survive, and their own potential
futures altered. Thus, the genocide even shaped System itself. The
knowledge had a powerful formative impact on Tankian, the group’s
charismatic mouthpiece. To him, the massacre is emblematic of all
truths left unsaid.

`It’s one of the things that made me think, `Look, this is a
truth that’s there, that is being denied, even in a democratic country
like America,’ he says, widening his dark brown eyes. `How many
other truths are being denied for geopolitical reasons, for profit
reasons?’ Although SOAD has a big Armenian following here – Glendale
is home to the world’s second-largest Armenian community – most fans,
obviously, are not Armenian. Indeed, its tunes deal far more with
universal subjects its young followers can relate to: love, sex,
alienation, drug abuse, suicide, even other political flashpoints,
such as LAPD crackdowns during the 2000 Democratic National
Convention, criticized in Toxicity’s `Deer Dance.’ So why tap the
activist potential of its audience for this relatively obscure cause?
Well, why not? Rock has a grand tradition of activism (and promoting
pet causes), and System’s personal connection lets the genocide’s
broader implications resonate with listeners. As Odadjian points out,
`The world is getting more political.’ The issues surrounding this
long-ago massacre hold lessons for today, which such current
nightmares as Sudan vividly prove. Plus, at a time when Turkey’s
moderate leadership aspires to join the European Union (which has
concerns about the nation’s human-rights track record), some (mostly
expatriate) Turkish scholars are calling for a soul-cleansing look at
what the Ottoman Empire really did. Thanks to the easing of
free-speech restrictions, it’s now easier for Turks to bring the
matter into public discourse.

Even if the time were not so ripe for reassessing this unrepented
atrocity, the band would still feel duty-bound to, as Dolmayan puts
it, `contribute back to our people.’ The absence of grandparents,
great aunts and uncles, distant cousins, and their potential
descendants is palpable, a history these third-generation survivors
can almost touch. Like the Holocaust or the slaughters in
Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Armenian genocide is still a force at work on
its target. Indeed, in one simple exchange, Dolmayan and Malakian
demonstrate the strange mixture of painful knowledge, bitter humor,
and resigned fatalism that this writhing worm of collective memory has

Dolmayan: Actually, I wouldn’t be here if my grandmother’s first
husband had not been killed. She remarried my grandfather, who [begat]
my father – and here I am.

Malakian: So¦ so, the genocide helped you.

Dolmayan: In a way.

Malakian laughs, a parched, sardonic cackle.

Dolmayan: No, but, I mean, that’s the reality. I wouldn’t exist, but I
would gladly give up my existence to have that not have happened. Who
knows, maybe I would’ve been born some other way.

Genocide may be a phantom threat now, but the shock still
ricochets. `They tried to wipe out our whole culture so we
wouldn’t even be here,’ Malakian says. `And in some ways they
have, because a lot of Armenian kids lost touch with tradition and
heritage and language and alphabet.’ He sobers. `But the one
thing they didn’t erase was our will and our character. I mean,
there’s something about Armenian people; we’re very fiery.’ He laughs
again, an acidic guffaw. `You can’t bring us down that easy, I

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