Call the Crime by its Name

President Biden used the G-word. It matters

Armenian Genocide memorial in Yerevan, Armenia: Photo by Amir Kh on Unsplash
On April 24, 2021, President Biden kept a campaign promise

He became the first U.S. president to call the massacre of Armenians by the Turkish government between 1915 and 1923 what it was: a genocide. 

There is a lot of power in a word. Though the United States has long decried the wholesale murder, torture, starvation, and forced deportation of hundreds of thousands of Armenians — up to 1.5 million perished during those eight years — no U.S. leader has been willing to risk rupturing ties with Turkey. Its location at the confluence of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, its status as a key NATO member, and its Incirlik Air Base have made it a key strategic partner. 

So much so, that even President Obama was reluctant to ruffle Turkey’s feathers on the 100th anniversary of what Armenians call the Meds Yeghern, “great evil crime.” He tiptoed away from fulfilling his 2008 promise to recognize it as genocide, referring to instead as “the first mass atrocity of the 20th century.” It was a bitter disappointment for Armenians in America and around the world. Aram Hamparian, head of the Armenian National Committee of America, commented at the time, “It’s like (President Recep Tayyip)Erdogan imposing a gag rule very publicly and an American president enforcing that gag rule.”

In Turkey, genocide denial is a matter of national policy. You can get in real trouble there for employing the G-word, despite the abundant documentation and evidence that supports its use. In December 2008, two hundred Turkish intellectuals signed a public apology to the Armenian people but were necessarily constrained, referring to what happened as “the great catastrophe of 1915.”

Here’s why it’s a big deal

To this day, the vast majority of non-Armenians are only dimly aware of the first state-sponsored genocide of the 20th century, if they’ve heard of it at all. Personally, I knew nothing of this critical historical episode until I was in my mid-twenties — it wasn’t taught in any history class I took. And yet it became the template for what came after, over and over again, throughout the world. Before invading Poland in 1939, Adolf Hitler said,

“ . . . I have placed my death-head formations in readiness for the present only in the East with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. . . Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?

You can find whole websites that will deny Hitler even said that. You can find whole websites devoted to “debating” the question of the Armenian genocide. The virulence of the denial even now, a hundred and six years after the fact, is impressive. It’s also effective and toxic. 

The point of acknowledging a wrong is not to invite punishment. Nobody alive in Turkey today carried out these acts. But their effect lives on in the families of those who survived, and wounds don’t heal in the dark. Nor do those who are identified with the ones who did the wounding given the chance to find peace. 

Germany openly acknowledges the Jewish Holocaust

 In so doing, Germany has moved on and reclaimed its place as a leading nation, its own moral authority. It is one of the countries that has called on Turkey, its ally in both World Wars, to do the same. Germany’s reconciliation with its darkest period is a model I deeply wish America would follow with respect to our own foundational wounds: slavery and the attempted erasure of our indigenous population.

Remembrance, acknowledgment, and correctly labeling what happened becomes even more critical as genocide denial outlives survivors who are able to tell their stories firsthand. When I embarked on writing a novel, The Moon Ran After Her, I worried I was unequal to the task but felt called to see it through. It’s a work of fiction but based closely on the experiences of my late husband’s Armenian grandmother. 

As a teenage girl in the eastern part of the Ottoman Empire in 1915, Grandma narrowly escaped a death march — her sisters were not as fortunate —but her survival came at the cost of heartbreaking losses. When she was in her 80’s, my husband and I recorded her story and I transcribed it for family members. Until her death at 98, never once did I hear Grandma utter a harsh word against Turks or Turkey. She was a woman who understood forgiveness.

But I’d never felt done with her story. It wanted out, to reach an audience beyond her descendants, beyond even those of Armenian heritage. Like any narrative set in a time of historical cataclysm, it’s a tale of survival, of endurance, and finally of triumph. 

Seeing it published would be the culmination of a dream that has more to do with her legacy, and the vibrancy of the Armenian diaspora, than my ambitions as a writer. I hope one day to do Grandma proud.

4 Replies to “Call the Crime by its Name”

  1. Anni

    I look forward to your telling of a story that needs to be heard. Even though I know it will make me weep.

  2. Laurie

    Jan, I think you have already done Grandma proud. By telling her story, you are keeping her memory alive. I can’t wait to read it.

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