Denying the Armenian genocide
By Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
Thursday, August 23, 2007
BOSTON: Was there an Armenian genocide during World War I?
While it was happening, no one called the slaughter of Armenian Christians
by Ottoman Turks "genocide." No one could: The word wouldn’t be coined for
another 30 years. But those who made it their business to tell the world
what the Turks were doing found other terms to describe the state-sponsored
mass murder of the Armenians.
In its extensive reporting on the atrocities, The New York Times described
them as "systematic," "deliberate," "organized by government" and a
"campaign of extermination." A Sept. 25, 1915, headline warned: "Extinction
Menaces Armenia." What the Turks were embarked upon, said one official in
the story that followed, was "nothing more or less than the annihilation of
a whole people."
Foreign diplomats, too, realized that they were observing genocide avant la
lettre. American consular reports leaked to the Times indicated "that the
Turk has undertaken a war of extermination on Armenians, especially those of
the Gregorian Church, to which about 90 percent of the Armenians belong." In
July, U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau cabled Washington that "race murder"
was underway – a "systematic attempt to uproot peaceful Armenian populations
and . . . to bring destruction and destitution upon them." These were not
random outbreaks of violence, Morgenthau stressed, but a nationwide
slaughter "directed from Constantinople."
Another U.S. diplomat, Consul Leslie Davis, described in grisly detail the
"reign of terror" he saw in Harput and the corpses of "thousands and
thousands" of Armenians murdered near Lake Goeljuk. The mass deportations
ordered by the Turks, in which hundreds of thousands of Armenians were
crammed into freight cars and shipped hundreds of miles to die in the desert
or at the hands of killing squads, were far worse than a straightforward
massacre, he wrote. "In a massacre many escape, but a wholesale deportation
of this kind in this country means a longer and perhaps even more dreadful
death for nearly everyone."
Other eyewitnesses, including American missionaries, provided
stomach-clenching descriptions of the "terrible tortures" mentioned by
Morgenthau. Women and girls were stripped naked and raped, then forced to
march naked through blistering heat. Many victims were crucified on wooden
crosses; as they writhed in agony, the Turks would taunt them: "Now let your
Christ come and help you!" Reuters reported that "in one village, 1,000 men,
women, and children are reported to have been locked in a wooden building
and burned to death." In another, "several scores of men and women were tied
together by chains and thrown into Lake Van."
Talaat Pasha, the Turkish interior minister who presided over the
liquidation of the Armenians, made no bones about his objective. "The
government . . . has decided to destroy complete all the indicated persons"
– the Armenians – "living in Turkey," he wrote to authorities in Aleppo. "An
end must be put to their existence . . . and no regard must be paid to
either age or sex, or to conscientious scruples."
Was there an Armenian genocide during World War I? The Turkish government
today denies it, but the historical record, chronicled in works like Peter
Balakian’s powerful 2003 study, "The Burning Tigris," is overwhelming. Yet
the Turks are abetted in their denial and distortion by many who know
better, including the Clinton administration and both Bush administrations,
and prominent ex-congressmen-turned-lobbyists, including Republican Bob
Livingston and Democrats Dick Gephardt and Stephen Solarz.
Particularly deplorable has been the longtime reluctance of some leading
Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American
Jewish Committee, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, to call
the first genocide of the 20th century by its proper name. When Andrew
Tarsy, the New England director of the ADL, came out last week in support of
a congressional resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide, he was
promptly fired by the national organization. Shaken by the uproar that
followed, the ADL finally backed down. The murder of a million Armenians at
the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1915, it acknowledged Tuesday, was "indeed
tantamount to genocide."
Now the other organizations should follow suit. Their unwillingness to
acknowledge that the Turks committed genocide stems from the fear that doing
so may worsen the plight of Turkey’s beleaguered Jewish community or may
endanger the crucial military and economic relationship Israel has forged
with Turkey. Those are honorable concerns. But they cannot justify keeping
silent about a most dishonorable assault on the truth. Genocide denial must
be intolerable to everyone, but above all to those for whom "never again" is
such a sacred principle. And at a time when jihadist violence from Darfur to
Ground Zero has spilled so much innocent blood, dissimulation about the
jihad of 1915 can only aid our enemies.
The Armenian genocide is an incontestable fact of history. Shame on anyone
who refuses to say so.
Jeff Jacoby’s column appears regularly in The Boston Globe.