Monday, October 12, 2009

Recognizing Genocide

Quite a few years ago I read a book that opened my eyes to an event in world history that I have never encountered in an academic setting. The book was Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian and the event was the Armenian genocide during World War I. The book, which is definitely a worthwhile read, tells the story of a young boy who survived the genocide after watching as his family was massacred.

You may not know of this genocide; in my experience it is not taught in general history courses in high school. I think this is a deficiency in our textbooks. The massacre was by no means a small one (although the number of people killed shouldn’t really matter in the context of genocide): Ottoman Turks murdered nearly three-quarters of the Armenian Turkish population – that’s around one and a half million people.

Today, Turkey and Armenia are attempting to end a “century of hostility” with an agreement to open the border between the two countries and normalize ties that they signed on Saturday, October 11th. The agreement also provides for the creation of a “bilateral commission” to study the events of 1915 which Turkey refuses to recognize as genocide. Twenty other countries have recognized it as such, so why won’t Turkey do so?

In general, why are countries so reluctant to admit they have done something wrong? We all know what happened in Tiananmen Square, for example, but the People’s Republic of China still refuses to recognize it for what it was: violent suppression and massacre of peaceful demonstrators. The genocide in Turkey took place 70 years before Tiananmen, Turkey should be willing to admit the truth and the mistakes that were made. By admitting that it was genocide, admitting that it was a terrible occurrence, Turkey would help and not hurt their image.

Acknowledging mistakes is part of learning and part of becoming better, whether as a student, a country, or just as a person. I am much more likely to respect someone who admits they are wrong in an argument than someone who insists they are right after evidence to the contrary has been brought to light. In the same way, a country that admits there are horrendous occurrences in its past is more respectable than one who denies those occurrences. Germany does not deny the occurrence of the Holocaust during WWII; in fact it is considered a crime to deny it happened. Turkey needs to officially recognize what happened during WWI as genocide.

We all know George Santayana’s famous quote, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Those who deny history cannot learn from it, so what’s to stop them from repeating it?

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