When T.S. Elliot penned that line in his 1922 poem “The Waste Land,” he certainly reflected feelings of death and despair. However, he couldn’t have known just how poignant those themes would be throughout the remainder of the 20th century.
Referred to by some academics as “the century of genocide,” the 1900s saw mass atrocities in places like Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur and Eastern Europe—all with significant dates in April to mark either the beginning or height of mass killing. However, a long-time alliance with Turkey has restrained U.S. recognition of the genocide of more than 1 million Armenians in 1915 by Ottoman Turks who continue to deny such accusations.
One hundred years later, even if we are not concerned with holding the Turkish government accountable, perhaps we should cash in on more recent promises made by our very own presidential office.
“My firmly held conviction [is] that the Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence,” President Barack Obama said in a 2008 presidential campaign statement. “The facts are undeniable. As President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.”
That leaves little room for interpretation, if you ask us. Yet somehow Obama has escaped seven April Armenian Genocide anniversaries without the acknowledgement he promised.
There is similarly small room for interpretation regarding whether there was genocide against the Armenians.
“We have I think incontrovertible evidence that the Armenian massacres of the First World War constitute the first modern genocide,” historian Eugene Rogan told National Public Radio in a Morning Edition interview. “But it remains something of an official refusal.”
Rogan, who wrote a book called “The Fall of the Ottomans,” says that even the Ottoman Turks recognized the deliberate and murderous actions they were committing at the time.
“In 1919, members of the Ottoman Parliament were talking about the deliberate mass murder of Armenians,” Rogan said. “But the word genocide hadn’t been coined yet. They used the word massacres.”
Moreover, a decision to recognize the plight of the Armenians would not be completely out of the interest of foreign policy officials. In fact, the acknowledgment and prevention of genocide is apparently a norm that Capitol Hill takes quite seriously.
“Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America,” President Barack Obama said in a 2012 speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “This is not an afterthought. This is not a sideline in our foreign policy.”
And as British House of Lords member Baroness Cox articulates, prevention beings with recognition.
“If nations are allowed to commit genocide with impunity, to hide their guilt in a camouflage of lies and denials, there is a real danger that other brutal regimes will be encouraged to attempt genocides,” Cox said.
In formally acknowledging the genocide, the U.S. government would join 43 of the 50 U.S. states and more than two dozen countries including France, Italy, Russia, Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, Argentina, Lebanon, Poland and Venezuela.
It also would not be the first time that members of the U.S. government recognize such historical facts. Obama’s recognition would follow acknowledgement by The House of Representatives in 1975 and 1984, as well as by President Ronald Reagan in a Presidential Proclamation issued on April 22, 1981. Congressional resolutions aimed at doing the same officially at the national level have never become law.
But with the centennial anniversary of the massacres approaching on April 24, it is time to put this case to rest—if not in honor of the hundreds of thousands of victims, then for the legitimacy of the U.S. government’s commitment to genocide prevention.
It’s true; April’s track record on genocide has not been good. However, this April there is an historic chance for human rights to triumph, if only our commitment to human dignity comes before our commitment to Turkish denial.
A version of this post was submitted as part of an assignment for a J404: Interpretation of Contemporary Affairs course with Professor James Baughman.