The challenge of the Armenian Genocide for the 21st century
Published: Thursday May 21, 2009
Washington - Mr. Theriault, an associate professor of philosophy at Worcester State College, delivered these remarks on April 22, at the Armenian Genocide observance organized by the co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues, Cannon Caucus Room, at the House of Representatives.
I am profoundly honored to have been asked to add my humble words to the eloquent statements we have already heard and to share a little corner of the same stage with the impressive religious and political leaders here this evening.
The Congressional leaders present today exemplify a great commitment to American values and universal justice through (1) their unwavering promotion of recognition of the Armenian Genocide, (2) their commitment to human rights across the globe, and (3) their broader work on behalf of all Americans on so many issues that affect us all.
I also have the deepest gratitude for those in the audience from the Armenian community and beyond, especially those who survived the Genocide and gave rebirth to the Armenian community.
You have all chosen on a beautiful spring evening to face one of the ugliest, most traumatic aspects of human history, genocide. Especially for Armenians here tonight, this is inevitably a painful process. And yet we all come together to bear witness to the suffering of those who survived and those who died, to stand ourselves in place of so many unmarked graves lost to history.
As we gather tonight, we should remember first and foremost that not only Armenians were targeted by the Committee of Union and Progress that controlled the Ottoman Empire. Assyrians and Pontian Greeks faced the same genocidal machinery, often alongside Armenians. As powerful as the cover-up and denial of Armenian deaths and suffering has been, denial has been yet more effective in preventing discussion of the fates of these groups.
Denial erases the memory of good Turks
Second, even as we reflect on the horrific prejudice and hatred that motivated thousands upon thousands of perpetrators, we must also remember the many Turks, Kurds, and other Muslims who resisted the Genocide, who out of friendship, out of respect for justice and human life, and in keeping with the true principles of Islam, refused to carry out orders from the perpetrators to commit genocide, or chose to shelter Armenians, often at great cost or risk to themselves.
One unfortunate effect of Turkish denial has been the erasure of the memory of these many good people at all levels of Ottoman society, such as the heroic Ahmed Risa who, as a member of the Ottoman Parliament, in 1915 bravely spoke out and struggled against the policy of extermination. Perhaps recognition of the Armenian Genocide will help the Turkish nation discover these true heroes, these genocide resistors who are its greatest glory.
And, we should keep in mind the many Turks and Kurds today who stand firm in their acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide and call for change in the treatment of Armenians - some of whom have gone so far as to support reparations for the Genocide.
How to improve relationships
Denial is still strong, unfortunately, as I am sure each of the Members of Congress here today can attest from direct experience. A Congressional resolution will certainly go far toward changing the climate of denial surrounding the Armenian Genocide. I applaud our elected leaders for their initiative, which is not simply a matter of bearing witness to the facts of history, but is necessary to any meaningful change in the relationship of the Turkish state and society to Armenians inside and outside its borders.
Only a relationship grounded on truth can succeed. Relations have been stuck so long because of the Turkish refusal to give up denial, despite the many Turks today calling on their government and military for change.
The Congressional resolution initiative - given the moral authority of the United States and our practical relationship with Turkey - has the very real possibility of occasioning a true ethical accounting in Turkey and opening space within Turkish society and state circles for Turkish people to engage this dark history in a responsible manner, without fear of social stigmatization or legal prosecution. In the halls of the U.S. Capitol, we can now see glimmers of a future in which it is no longer an insult against Turkishness and a violation of law to discuss the Armenian Genocide in Istanbul, but the height of Turkish civics building toward a new and positive Turkish national identity.
Denial is a diversion
In this hopeful moment, however, we must be careful not to succumb to the illusion of denial. Denial is, after all, merely a diversion. It is difficult to see this because, for years, in the face of a multimillion-dollar denial campaign involving hundreds of academics and diplomatic personnel, Armenians and others concerned about this terrible event have had to expend tremendous physical and emotional effort and sacrifice scarce and much-needed financial and other resources just to exercise the basic human right and need of public speech about this event. With so much devoted to the effort to defend truth and memory from denial, it has come to seem for many that overcoming denial is the main issue, is what the Genocide is about today.
But this is not the case. Ending denial, however welcome a step that will be, will only be clearing a space for us to begin to engage the Genocide itself. The Armenian Genocide, as any genocide, has had a devastating impact on the victim group, with consequences that are powerful today and in fact have become stronger through time. The harms inflicted are many and deep: