Thursday, October 18, 2007


Have you kept up with the whole kerfuffle about the Armenian genocide? Or maybe the Red Sox's woes in the playoffs are what have kept you up at night. Well, in case you missed it, Congress is considering whether or not to officially designate as genocide the mass executions of Armenians during the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

A lot of conservatives are asking – with some justification – why now? Why bring up old news from a government that doesn't even exist anymore? All it's doing is upsetting the Turkish government, our allies, and threatening our working relationship.

Of course, there are a lot of little things going on. First, I suppose, is that a Democratically controlled congress would naturally want to make life more difficult for a highly unpopular administration. This certainly does that. Turkey is threatening to pull permission for us to use their bases if the vote goes through.

And then, there is the fact that the recommendation to call that old event genocide has popped up many times over the years, always to little avail. It doesn't hurt that – according to NPR – Nancy Pelosi has a sizable Armenian constituency. Ah, politics is a beautiful thing when viewed from a great distance.

A lot of folks are angry at the Democrats for bringing up this old wound, and the Democrats are balking – this vote is not going to win. But while we're looking at it, let's ask a couple of questions.

One, why shouldn't we call it genocide? It was a concerted effort to destroy a particular ethnic group. One and a half million people were killed, and even if some of them fought back, the fact remains that the overwhelming power remained on the side of the state which carried out the killing.

Two, we are best served by remembering past genocides – and there have been many – so we can work all the harder to stop them in the future. Think back to the not so distant past. Rwanda. Cambodia. Germany. Or think to the present. Darfur. When we don't talk about the dirt of our past, we forget what human beings are capable of.

There is a disputed quote by Adolf Hitler (disputed because there's controversy over whether he actually said it), that involves the Armenian genocide. Despite the doubt over its authenticity, it is certainly something that he might well have said, and something he probably felt. He is reported to have said, "I have placed my Death's Head units in readiness—for the present only in the East—with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks to-day of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

The point is that speaking today of past atrocities does mean something and does have a place in modern conversation – despite being used for political sniping. As Christians, we have an obligation to speak truth to power. To speak up for those who are without power, not to cover over unpleasant realities because they inconvenience people from whom we want something.

But that brings me to a third point. If it is important to remember the past and not paper over it, why isn't anyone in Congress mentioning our own genocide? Or do we not dare to call what we did to the indigenous inhabitants of this land genocide? In 1944, Raphael Lemkin coined and defined the term "genocide." He called it the destruction of a "culture, language, national feelings, [and] religion." Isn't that what we did? Maybe we should ask Native Americans and see what they say.

So, while I believe genocide should be named, I believe those with logs in their own eyes should be careful about pointing out specs in the eyes of others. Or maybe we should all just shut up and watch the playoffs.