Wednesday, October 17, 2007

"A great nation needs a thick skin" 

Knowing that we have fathers on either side of the Armenian-Turkish question (I did not know his mother was not Turkish; my mother is what we call back home "an old Yankee"), I had wondered when the WSJ's James Taranto would weigh in on the question of the genocide resolution. He does so today, and the result is actually quite good, containing tough medicine for both sides to swallow.

I have many Armenian friends, of whom several are of the type that still bring placards and shout angry words at Turkish officials when they visit the United States. When you are brought up in an Armenian (or even half-Armenian) household, you are taught over and again about the genocide, about the denial TO THIS DAY of it by the Turkish government, etc. When I read bloggers and columnists making the distinction between the current government and the Ittihad who then criticize the Congress for not being good judges of history, I wonder how many of them know that Ataturk himself was at one time a member of the Young Turks who later gave the orders to exterminate Armenians? Luckily, I guess, Mustafa Kemal was not in the top circle. Taner Akcam of the University of Minnesota has given an accounting.

So fine, I grew up with the history drilled into me, and Taranto says "this column is with Jack Murtha in acknowledging that we don't know enough to have an informed opinion." Yet when I read yesterday the quotes of some people -- including my friends -- who say "we all know it was a genocide," how do we know they know enough to have an informed opinion? And if they do not, are they in the slightest embarrassed by their ignorance?

That said, I have not stood with the placards and shouted the shouts. I have spent years with friends who are Turkish, most of whom acknowledge what happened and what we all know to be true -- many people who say they are Turkish can go back in their own family trees and find Armenians as well as Greeks and Kurds and Jews. Turkey wasn't always for the Turks. At one time, it was as multicultural a place as anywhere in the Middle East. The persons defending Turkey from the charges of genocide today may in fact be partly Armenian. Turkey for the Turks wasn't always the watchword.

I did once attend a commemoration at Claremont for the 80th anniversary of April 24, what we call Martyrs Day. Armenian-American students whom I was advising organized a panel, emceed by Mrs. Scholar -- while I held our infant Littlest in the back -- and to which we had brought a survivor who was 85 by this time and was six during the march to Der el-Zor. While he spoke we got treated to people with their own placards and shouts. Tempers flared as they said we were liars. My aunt, who lives in southern California and was in attendance, became very angry. But instead we talked with these Turkish students, who said they were told about this meeting not by our signs around campus but by letter. They never said who sent it, but I have a guess. When asked what they know about the history of the Armenians and Greeks of their country during and after World War I, they said they did not really know the stories, they were not taught. We eventually settled down, shook hands and went on our way, we back to our memories and parents telling us stories, and they back to their fatherland and ... nothing.

So Ataturk made a great nation, we are told, and its grandchildren do not know enough to form a good opinion. But this does not prevent Taranto from saying the right thing to Turkey:
Ankara's petulant threats, over what is after all only a piece of paper, seem to us to display a certain national immaturity. The Turks feel insulted by this resolution? Poor babies. America endures all manner of insults from allies, enemies and neutrals, including our friends the Turks. A great nation needs a thick skin.

Imposing injury in retaliation for insult is the Turkish way, at least as far as its World War I history is concerned. As the Guardian reported last week:

Aram Dink, and Serkis Seropyan, both editors at the Turkish-Armenian daily Agos, were each given a one-year suspended sentence under Turkey's controversial law on insulting "Turkishness," their lawyer, Erdal Dogan, said.

The case against Hrant Dink--for calling the killings of Armenians during the first world war a genocide--was dropped when he was shot dead in January, but the court continued with the prosecution of the other men under article 301 of Turkish law. Hrant Dink had been convicted and was appealing against the decision when he was killed by a Turkish youth.

Other journalists and historians have actually spent time in prison for "insulting Turkishness." Wherever one stands on the underlying question of whether the events of 1915 constitute genocide--and this column is with Jack Murtha in acknowledging that we don't know enough to have an informed opinion--Ankara's illiberal treatment of dissenters is hard to defend.

So it is not just a ninety-plus year old event. Hrant Dink died this past January. Had the world acted sooner in leading Turkey to a table of reconciliation and forgiveness -- which at this point is all that can happen, though some Armenians still think there can be more -- would he still be alive? Or was his it Dink's own fault -- was his statement "counterproductive"?