The Problem with Genocide is People

armenian genocide

The problem with genocide is people. Joe Biden has made an attempt to rise above the politics of people by recognizing the massacre of Armenians in WWI as genocide. 

President Joe Biden on Saturday became the first US president to officially recognize the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire as a genocide, risking a potential fracture with Turkey but signaling a commitment to global human rights.”

Why is this meaningful?  

Biden promised to recoginze the genocide if elected. Saturday, April 24 marked the 106th anniversary of the ethnic cleansing and the day Joe Biden called it out for what it was: genocide. As the first U.S. President to do so it means he was willing to go beyond semantics and use the ‘G-word’ at the risk of angering the current goverment officials of Turkey who were not yet born when the genocide happened. 

“Today, as we mourn what was lost, let us also turn our eyes to the future — toward the world that we wish to build for our children. A world unstained by the daily evils of bigotry and intolerance, where human rights are respected, and where all people are able to pursue their lives in dignity and security,” Biden said. “Let us renew our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world. And let us pursue healing and reconciliation for all the people of the world.”

“The move fulfills Biden’s campaign pledge to finally use the word genocide to describe the systematic killing and deportation of Armenians in what is now Turkey more than a century ago. Biden’s predecessors in the White House had stopped short of using the word, wary of damaging ties with a key regional ally.”

armenian genocideFor those of readers who are not familiar with the the Armenian genocide. A brief recap:

“The Armenian Genocide (see other names) was the systematic mass murder and ethnic cleansing of around 1 million ethnic Armenians from Asia Minor and adjoining regions by the Ottoman Empire and its ruling party, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), during World War I.”

During their invasion of Russian and Persian territory, Ottoman paramilitaries massacred local Armenians; massacres turned into genocide following the catastrophic Ottoman defeat “in the Battle of Sarikamish (January 1915), a loss blamed on Armenian treachery. Ottoman leaders took isolated indications of Armenian resistance as evidence of a nonexistent widespread conspiracy. The deportations were intended as a “definitive solution to the Armenian Question[3] and to permanently forestall the possibility of Armenian autonomy or independence. Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman Army were disarmed pursuant to a February order, and were later killed. On 24 April 1915, the Ottoman authorities rounded up, arrested, and deported hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders from Constantinople (now Istanbul).”

Turkey has an opportunity to make amends by simply acknowledging the brutality. No one from the Ottoman Empire is going to rise from the dead and admonish them.  But they won’t because they are stuck in their past. The wheels of bureaucracy are paralyzed with rust. 

“Turkey is the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, and its official policy on the Armenian Genocide is the denial of its occurrence. Whereas the convening of courts-martial to try the Young Turks for war crimes by the post-World War I Ottoman government amounted to an admission of guilt on the part of the state, the Nationalist government based in Ankara rejected Turkish responsibility for the acts committed against the Armenian population. After gaining military mastery over Turkey, the Nationalists, led by Mustafa Kemal, obtained a series of concessions from France and England which absolved Turkey of any further political or material responsibilities vis-à-vis the surviving Armenians.” 

The current Turkish government is adamant in their denial.

Whether it is labeled genocide or not is simply semantics. Yet we live in a culture of affront and denial: call someone out on something they don’t want to cop to, they become insulted and a relationship goes south. That seems to be what Turkey is cautioning the U.S. about now that Biden used the “G-word”.

“We reject and denounce in the strongest terms the statement of the President of the US regarding the events of 1915 made under the pressure of radical Armenian circles and anti-Turkey groups on April 24,” Turkey’s foreign ministry said in a statement Saturday that called on Biden to “correct this grave mistake.”

“This statement of the US … will never be accepted in the conscience of the Turkish people, and will open a deep wound that undermines our mutual friendship and trust,” the foreign ministry said.”

Now the question begs why should a word make the difference when the act speaks for itself?  Genocide is the “deliberate killing of a large number of people from a nation or ethnic group”. Why not call it for what it is? Calling out these acts for what they are brings awareness to atrocities that have occurred as a part of the history of man’s nature. Awareness offers the possibility of hope that it won’t happen again to another group of people. 

Genocide has occurred throughout the centuries and for many reasons. The social structure and organization of man into communities and groups was a breeding ground for rivalry, conflict, expanion, and for the concept of the “other” and the other was to be feared, hated, and eliminated for a variety of motivations. 

“In his 2007 volume, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide, Ben Kiernan explores genocide based on four themes:

the memory and recitation of classical cases of genocide into later periods of history

the relationship between agricultural pursuits, land, and the mass murder

the emergence of race thinking, racism, and the creation of the other, and

expansionism, the seizure of territory and the killing of its inhabitants”

It seems that what people do best is to hate and kill. That may sound harsh but over the course of history genocide has occurred more than most think. The Holocaust is what most people likely think about when we think genocide: the mass extermination of six million Jews in WWII Germany. Holocaust deniers want people to believe it never happened. I can’t wrap my head around that, especially as a Jew.

We may never know about all the genocides that have taken place over the course of history. Some genocides are not even thought of as genocide and that is what makes Biden’s announcement so important. The extermination or intentional decreasing of a population by another is the archetype of one group playing god over another. 

armenian genocideIn an all too familiar scenario (think about the fate of the Yuki Indians in Mendocino County in the 1860s or of the Aborigines in Tasmania in the 1820s and 1830s), at the end of the 19th century gold prospectors and sheep ranchers coveted the Sel’knam’s lands, massacred them in large numbers, and reduced them from a population of approximately 400,000 to some three hundred.”

We can’t forgot the African American genocide that took place during the slave trade in colonial America. That was as much genocide in its indignities, cruelties, and numbers as anything else. 

“The four hundred-year history of captured Africans and their descendants shares many features with the Holocaust experiences of European Jews – and the victims of other mass atrocities.”

“These include:

  • Dehumanization and vilification
  • Forced marches and migrations
  • Slave (forced, unpaid) labor
  • Stolen property
  • Mass incarceration
  • Torture
  • Medical experimentation
  • Discrimination by law and custom
  • Ethnic cleansing (race riots)
  • Lynchings and other forms of terrorism
  • Mass murder
  • Long
  • -lasting psychological effects (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) on survivors – and their descendants.”

The lasting psychological affects of black genocide spilled into 20th century America when black women feared government funded birth control clinics. 

“In the 1960s, many African Americans around the country deeply distrusted the motivations behind government funded birth control clinics, fearing it was an attempt to limit black population growth and stunt black political power. Their fears were well grounded in past experiences. In the South, black fertility had a long history of being controlled by whites. Under slavery, African American women were encouraged to have children to increase a plantation owner’s wealth. After the Civil War, when African Americans were no longer valuable property, the view among white supremacists abruptly shifted. It became desirable to decrease the African American population in the South. Sterilization abuse of African American women by the white medical medical establishment reached its height in the 1950s and 1960s. Women who went into the hospital to deliver children often came out unable to have more.”

Where did the term genocide originate?

“The definition of genocide developed by the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in the 1930s and 1940s, which was codified in the December 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, is a useful one, especially as adumbrated since the 1990s in the international tribunals.”

Raphael Lemkin devoted his life to establish international protection for minorities. His gravestone, at Mount Hebron Cemetery in New York City, calls him “The Father of Genocide Treaty”. 

“He coined the word genocide. He worked on the Nuremberg indictments and prevailed until genocide was added to the charge sheet. He analyzed the regulations of the Nazi occupiers and in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944) concluded that they were aimed at the destruction of the essential foundations of minority groups. He then lobbied successfully for the adoption and entry into force of the 1948 United Nations (UN) Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”

A problem arises when scholars debate over the use of the term genocide and what should be deemed genocide as if one group’s pain and suffering is not as meaningful as anothers. Calling out the inhumanity is the only way to bring about change – perhaps the perpetrators need to be chastened and punished. 

“Some scholars believe that the term genocide has ceased to have serious meaning because of its overly-politicised use by victim groups of the most variable and diverse character. It is certainly the case that the word has the kind of resonance that makes many victim groups anxious to use the appellation as a way to underline their own suffering. But both the international courts and reputable genocide scholars continue to argue for the need for a “high bar” for genocide.”

“Other scholars lament that the term genocide is too all-encompassing and too imprecise to be of much use. They prefer terms like ethnicide, democide, politicide, sociocide, or even genderocide as a way to focus more concertedly on the specificities of the victim groups. Recently the Italian scholar, Andreas Graziozi, has suggested the term “demotomy” to indicate the surgical nature of the removal of peoples, especially as experienced in Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930s.”

I think of the words from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; so Romeo would, were he not Romeo called.” Genocide is by no way a rose, perhaps rather the thorn in the rose bush of man’s nature, and were that thorn called anything else, the result is the same, the mass killing of a group of human beings at the hands of another.  

Joe Biden took one big step to call out yet one more genocide for what it was. The point is not what we call it, the point is to find ways to prevent it from occurring.

“Prominent Armenians, however, including Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, welcomed the news on Saturday. Pashinyan tweeted a brief statement, and, in a letter to Biden, said that the president’s words both paid “tribute” to victims of the genocide and also would help to prevent “the recurrence of similar crimes against mankind.”

“I highly appreciate your principled position, which is a powerful step on the way to acknowledging the truth, historical justice, and an invaluable of support for the descendants of the victims of the Armenian Genocide,” he wrote.”

Maybe this will be the first of many acknowledgements by brave world leaders to change the ideology of callous and savage inattention to human rights.  In that “too all-emcompassing” definition the scholars debate perhaps that is not such a negative: might I suggest including the genocide of the planet at the hands of the climate deniers as well.

Author: Sherri Margolin (Dark Matters)

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