Friday, April 24, 2015

Perspectives on genocide

Today is the centenary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide, when as many as 1.5 million Armenians were murdered by the Ottoman government. Using the word “genocide” here is a bit controversial, and by “controversial” I mean that it pisses off Turkish nationalists.
The Hürriyet Daily News ran a column arguing that the Turkish nationalist perspective on the “Armenian issue” should not be ignored, and so I’m only going to talk about that. The Council of Turkish Canadians ran a chilling ad in this morning’s Globe and Mail. Here is an excerpt of a news release from their website that has almost the same text:

Reconciliation – Not Hatred, Fairness – Not Insult
This year, once again we remember and respect the memory of victims of the Ottoman-Armenian conflict during the First World War. The conflict started with  well-documented armed revolt of Armenian nationalist groups (Dashnaks and Hunchaks) against the empire. They committed high treason by collaborating and joining the invading Russian forces. This resulted in their relocation from the war zone. The relocation was a military measure in self-defense, and also to protect all civilians of eastern Anatolia from commencing inter-communal retaliations. Most of the deaths during the relocation resulted from famine of war era, spread of diseases, attacks by bandits, and breakdown of authority in poor war conditions. Both sides committed massacres, both sides suffered tremendously, Armenians and non-Armenians alike. It was a tragic war that has engulfed every corner of the world, including Anatolia!

Now, even if this version of events were true – it ain’t – a monstrous crime would have been committed. The claim here is that because certain Armenian nationalist groups revolted, the civilian population was forced from their homes. This is the mass deportation of civilians as collective punishment – a war crime. And it’s acknowledged that the result was huge numbers of deaths – even the Turkish government says half a million – from famine, disease, banditry, and whatever “breakdown of authority” is supposed to mean.
If this was really all that happened, it would be unconscionable.
I guess what’s supposed to make this a defense of the Ottomans, not a condemnation, is the claim that this atrocity was committed out of “self-defense” and to “protect all citizens”. But you cannot claim that driving civilians out of their homes to die is self-defense. If someone tried to mug me at gunpoint and I shot him, I could claim it was self-defense. If someone mugged me, then ran off and I couldn’t catch him because no one in the neighbourhood would tell me where he was hiding so I drove the entire neighbourhood out of their homes – not self-defense.
As for forcibly relocating civilians to protect them – well, in hindsight, the strategy didn’t work too well, what with the bandit attacks and the starvation. And in foresight, it’d have been obvious the strategy would not work too well. The kind of obvious that makes someone legally and morally culpable for going through with it anyway.
And finally, there is the claim that both sides suffered terribly. I think this is supposed to be the centrepiece of the argument – mistakes were made, nobody’s perfect, lots of horrible things happened in World War I. It’s also specious. Even if Armenian groups had revolted and were committing massacres, massacring different members of the same ethnic group could not be justified.

So if the genocide deniers are right, the Ottoman Empire was guilty of horrible atrocities against the Armenian population. And that’s the best story the deniers can come up with. The truth, as we know, was worse. 

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