“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” –Adolf Hitler (statement made before sending troops to invade Poland)
It has been 97 years. It’s as if it never happened, as if it never mattered. It was the first genocide of the twentieth century, yet it is rarely recognized as such. In fact, most do not even know of its existence. It has been used for political gain when advantageous and conveniently swept under the rug when politically expedient. Year after year, the country that has both the power and influence to break the chain of denial remains silent.
The Armenian Genocide is personally significant to me. Both of my grandparents were survivors. My grandfather was one of seven children. He was only seven years old when he lost both of his parents and all of his siblings. My grandmother was one of the luckier ones. Her father was murdered, but her mother and all five of her siblings managed to escape alive. Don’t tell me that what happened wasn’t genocide. The idea that 1.5 million Armenians suddenly disappeared is not only preposterous, it’s insulting to those, like my grandfather, who lost everything.
Every time a presidential election roles around, the Armenian-American community is optimistic that this time we will have a president with the courage to call the genocide what it was: a government-sanctioned, pre-meditated mass murder to destroy an entire race. Unfortunately, the 2008 election was no different than previous ones. During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama gave many Armenians hope when he stated that the “Armenian Genocide,” carried out by the Ottoman Empire from 1915-1923, led to the deportation of nearly 2 million Armenians and approximately 1.5 million deaths. He stated that the evidence a genocide took place is overwhelming, and therefore should be recognized for the horrific act that it was. He even called on Turkey to acknowledge this. As a Senator, Obama urged President George W. Bush to recognize the genocide. Then there was the famous campaign promise: “As President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.” Well President Obama, where was your recognition on April 24, the day the genocide is commemorated each year?
On Monday, April 23, President Obama spoke at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, in which he outlined our country’s commitment to preventing genocide in the future. During his “Never Again” address there, he mentioned several genocides, but conveniently left the Armenians off the list. The Executive Director for the Armenian National Committee of America, Aram Hamparian, commented:
“President Obama undermined his own commitment to ‘Never Again’” by remaining entirely silent on the Armenian Genocide, the crime that, as a candidate for the White House he so prominently and repeatedly promised to recognize.”
Every year, U.S. presidents issue a statement on April 24 regarding the genocide. President Obama’s statement this year (and in previous years), “did not explicitly reference the Armenian Genocide.” Instead, the president spoke about the darkness of “Meds Yeghern,” the Armenian phrase for the Armenian Genocide. Of course, unless you’re Armenian, “Meds Yeghern” means nothing. That is precisely why Obama chose to use this term instead of the English phrase. It’s a way to recognize the genocide without really recognizing it. It’s a way for Obama to keep his promise without really keeping it. Acknowledging the genocide means calling it GENOCIDE, not “Meds Yeghern.”
The Armenian Assembly of America, the largest non-partisan Armenian-American advocacy organization in the United States, expressed their disappointment in Obama’s April 24 statement. In a press release the assembly called on him to support the sentiments expressed in the 1951 filing before the International Court of Justice, President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 Proclamation (President Reagan was the only U.S. president in history to use the word “genocide” in reference to the Armenian massacres), as well as the 1993 Federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia decision.
To this day, Turkey denies that the genocide took place. Its leaders have repeatedly refused to face their past, admit their mistakes, and apologize for the evil their predecesors committed. Can you imagine if Germany tried to deny the Holocaust? Why should the Armenian Genocide be any different? Are 1.5 million lives less important than 6 million?
The reality is that our cushy alliance with Turkey prevents us from saying “genocide.” Obama is afraid to hold Turkey accountable for their dark past even though he promised that he would. He’s afraid Turkey will act on the economic and political threats it’s leveled at countries that have recognized the genocide as a heinous crime against humanity (France being the most recent example). He promised us “hope” and “change” and he gave hope to millions of Armenians who have long been denied their past. His failure to keep his campaign promise shows his hypocrisy and willingness to do whatever it takes to get votes, only to back down once elected. By not keeping his word, Obama has chosen to condone the evil that Turkey has done and that is extremely disturbing. Had he never promised to recognize the genocide, none of this would matter. But he did promise and he has since gone back on this word. A man who does this lacks character and cannot be trusted. Never make a promise you cannot keep.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Protestant theologian who lost his life opposing Hitler and Nazism once said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil … Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” President Obama’s silence is speaking. His inaction is acting. And this time the Armenian community will not be fooled by empty promises.