It’s sometimes said that the obstruction of truth and justice for the Armenian Genocide is the result of actions by the Turkish state, not a reflection of the values of Turkish society.
On the surface, this explanation might have some superficial appeal.
But upon any meaningful examination, this formulation falls apart. It dramatically oversimplifies the complex reality on the ground in Turkey, at so many levels, and ignores the deep historical and societal roots of anti-Armenian racism and violence in modern Turkish culture.
An imperfect (but perhaps useful) analogy may help shed some light on this issue: America’s brutal treatment of African Americans and Native Americans was not simply the function of governmental policy driven from above, but rather a reflection and a direct result, sadly, of very toxic and hateful cultural attitudes on race. Attitudes that created the very basis for the horrors of slavery and the genocidal massacres and ethnic-cleansing of American Indian tribes from their ancient homelands. Reading our Declaration of Independence (and its reference to “merciless Indian Savages”) or our Constitution (and its inhuman description of African Americans as three-fifths of a human being) just scratches the surface of the untold terror visited upon these peoples.
Add to this intolerance the vast American wealth drawn from centuries of slave labor and the massive theft of native lands—a parallel to the foundation of the modern Turkish economy, built upon the wealth and properties of literally hundreds of thousands of Armenian families and businesses stolen during the Armenian Genocide era—and you compound racial discrimination with deeply rooted and highly influential economic interests. A powerful combination. Hard, but not impossible, to challenge.
To our credit, as Americans—after decades of denial, demonstrations and, eventually, dialogue—we are today openly struggling with these deeply intense issues that are so closely tied to our very foundation, growth, and future as a nation. In Turkey, it is still illegal to talk about them.
Imagine Birmingham or Montgomery, Ala., at the height of Jim Crow.
Imagine a time in American history, thankfully behind us now, when segregationists openly celebrated Klan lynchings, and school children were raised to revel in old-school Westerns that demonized American Indians and glorified their destruction.
Well, sadly, that is where Turkey stands today.
In modern Turkey, Hrant Dink’s killer is treated like a hero, and those guilty of his assassination are let free. Armenians are regularly threatened with renewed deportations, the remaining Christian heritage of Anatolia is being systematically erased, and the country’s most popular films and books are about scapegoating and striking down treasonous minorities.
There are, of course, Turks who line up on the side of the angels. Unfortunately, however, U.S. policy toward Ankara has long been to play to the lowest common denominator, backing demagogues who appeal to their population’s basest instincts, at the expense of the small but growing number of brave souls who are struggling and sacrificing for the simple freedom to speak and act in pursuit of their country’s highest aspirations.
Turkey today is not a post-genocidal state, but a pre-genocidal society, angrily lashing out at its imagined enemies and, it would seem, seeking out its next target. The remaining Armenians on the soil of present-day Turkey – reminders of the unfinished work of Turkey’s last genocide – are high on this list, as, of course, are the Kurds, the most likely victim of its next.
The bottom line is that what is needed is not simply a change in Turkey’s policies, but rather a profound, long-term movement driven by both international and domestic pressure to rehabilitate Turkey into a modern, tolerant, and pluralist society that—as proof of its reform—willingly forfeits the fruits of its genocidal crimes.
Any less would be a disservice to Turkey’s victims, to Turkey’s neighbors, and to Turkey’s own citizens.