No excuses when acknowledging historical truths

No excuses when acknowledging historical truths

This image shows lines of Armenian orphans being deported from Turkey. (File/Shutterstock)

When the US Congress voted on a resolution to formally recognize the Armenian genocide last week, it passed overwhelmingly. It should not have been a difficult decision for the representatives in Congress, given that we know the Ottoman empire slaughtered at least a million — and possible up to 1.5 million — Armenians 100 years ago. The resolution was purely symbolic, but it made a statement for the Armenian people and the entire world.

Until now, diplomatic and geopolitical concerns have prevented the US government from formally recognizing this past atrocity. However, the sentiment in Washington is less supportive of Turkey these days. Most American political leaders are eager to take a stand against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has imprisoned journalists and others, overseen the deterioration of relations with Israel, and now attacked Kurds in Syria.

The US executive branch, which is led by the president, is still unable to formally recognize the genocide. In the American system, the president sets and enacts foreign policy, so he must be diplomatic. The president of the US must ignore the historical truths about the Armenian genocide just as he ignores the reality that Taiwan is an independent country. This is because Turkey and China, respectively, obstinately continue to deny the truth. And both are powerful countries, with top militaries, strategically important geography and large economies.

Compare this to the official US recognition of the Holocaust, which is easy to do because Germany has accepted its past and acknowledges the atrocities it committed. US presidents are hampered by their need to protect the interests of US citizens, so they cannot recognize the Armenian genocide or Taiwan. Turkey and China try to bend facts, so the president must remain generally silent.

The US deals with its own sins on a regular basis, teaching about them in school and building museums and monuments

Ellen R. Wald

Most Americans can accept and appreciate that US presidents must sacrifice some basic truths to remain diplomatic. But Congress does not have to. That is why it passed this nonbinding resolution. Nevertheless, some representatives refused to vote for it — 405 voted in favor, 11 against and 19 either abstained or voted “present,” meaning they refused to take a position. Some representatives voted against the resolution because they thought it was more important to remain diplomatic with Turkey for the sake of America’s interests. That is a legitimate argument, comparable to the argument made above that a president cannot take this stand.

One congresswoman, however, gave a series of absurd explanations for her refusal to support the resolution. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, voted “present,” perhaps because she is ideologically and politically aligned with Erdogan. Her explanations, however, were nonsensical and hurtful. She falsely implied that it is not actually known that the Armenian genocide occurred. She said there was no “academic consensus,” but the Armenian genocide is not disputed among reputable historians. She also, amazingly, claimed that the US could not condemn this 100-year-old crime against humanity without first addressing its own sins of slavery and the slaughter and mistreatment of Native Americans. Of course, the US has long recognized its own sins. The US deals with its sins on a regular basis, teaching about them in school and building museums and monuments to educate the population about them. In the case of slavery, the US fought a very bloody civil war to end the abominable practice. In other words, Omar was just making excuses to cover for deniers of the Armenian genocide.

This is a pattern with Omar. She says hurtful things that cannot be excused. Of course, she has the right to say these things, but it is shocking that an American political leader would have these views. For instance, she once claimed that “Israel has hypnotized the world,” making an explicit reference to ancient anti-Semitic claims of Jewish power. She also angered a large portion of the US when, earlier this year, she referred to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as “some people did something.” To many Americans, her dismissal of Al-Qaeda’s responsibility was reminiscent of the outrageous and offensive claims made by some conspiracy theorists and global leaders in the months after the attacks. They said that the attacks were faked, perpetrated by Israel or launched by the US government itself. The people who made these utterly depraved claims were wrong at the time, just as Omar has been wrong so often since she was elected to Congress. Americans expect more from their elected leaders.

It is reassuring that the US Congress would pass this resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide, even if it comes a century after the atrocities. Perhaps it was the current political climate and the very recent concern for Kurds that brought about this action, but it is never wrong to acknowledge history and truth. Yet it is upsetting and unsettling that many people in this world continue to cover up human rights abuses to assist their preferred ideologies.

  • Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy
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