Opinion: By combating genocide denial, President Biden upholds democracy

The Armenian Genocide Committee holds its March for Justice demonstration in commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in Los Angeles in 2018.

The Armenian Genocide Committee holds its March for Justice demonstration in commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in Los Angeles in 2018.

File photo

Every April 24, Armenians around the world gather to honor their ancestors who perished at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish state in the genocide of 1915 to 1923. Armenian Americans anxiously await the annual proclamation from the White House marking this date. They are anxious because, despite much effort on the part of Armenian Americans and their friends, no American president had used the word “genocide” to properly name this crime against humanity.

Starting with George H.W. Bush, euphemisms such as tragedy, massacres, annihilation, mass killings and great atrocities have peppered these annual proclamations. Barack Obama and Donald Trump adopted a transliterated Armenian word, Meds Yeghern, to identify this crime — a word often mistranslated as “the great calamity,” thus removing all agency from the concept.

Armenian Americans will now no longer approach April 24 with anxiety and frustration. President Joe Biden used “genocide” in his proclamation, not once but twice.

This long-practiced omission of the correct word was a reflection of a geopolitical calculus to placate the “sensitivities” of our erstwhile yet untrustworthy NATO partner, Turkey. As most genocide and Holocaust scholars know, Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish jurist who created the word “genocide,” was initially motivated by the fact of Turkish impunity for their crimes when he sat down to craft an international law to prevent and punish genocide. For Lemkin, the annihilation of the Armenians was a preview of what was to come in the Holocaust. He freely used the term “genocide” — this crime of crimes — to describe the fate of the Armenians. Yet ironically, American presidents continued to dance around the word for more than 30 years.

Joe Biden was the first president who ended this charade of obfuscation. As a senator he had no hesitation in characterizing the extermination of the Armenians as genocide. After Congress overwhelmingly voted to recognize the Armenian genocide in December 2019, the White House was bolstered in its effort to speak the truth, a value that Biden has taken as a mantra of his administration.

Yes, the autocratic Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his surrogates have complained most vociferously, pointing to American hypocrisy with regard to our own ill-treatment of African Americans and Indigenous peoples. But unlike Turkey, the United States has constructed on Washington, D.C.,’s National Mall museums of African American History and Culture and of the American Indian. Included in their halls are exhibitions that do not whitewash American oppression of these groups.

Unlike in Turkey, the word “genocide” is not censored in displays that describe the destruction of Native peoples. Yes, our journey of coming to terms with our history has only begun, but Turkey has done the opposite, continuing on the path they began in 1915.

Impunity and genocide denial have contributed to cycles of violence perpetrated by the Turkish state and their ultra-nationalist partners both domestically and internationally. Within Turkey, the destruction and oppression of minorities — including Greeks, Assyrians, Alevi Muslims, Kurds and most recently the LGBTQ community — continues to this day. President Erdoğan has now exported violence across international borders into Syria, Iraq, Libya, and the Caucasus.

The 44-day war of aggression in the fall of 2020 by Turkey and Azerbaijan against the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) continues this cycle of violence. The anti-democratic and authoritarian regimes of Erdoğan and Azeri president Ilham Aliyev make no pretense that their goal is the elimination of all Armenians from their indigenous homelands.

If President Biden is truly committed to combating authoritarianism and strengthening democracy abroad then he could have found no better place to start than by speaking the truth about the Armenian Genocide. We applaud him for having done so.

Armen T. Marsoobian is first vice president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars and a professor of philosophy at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.