We Must Learn from the Armenian Genocide

The recent film titled The Promise introduces the Armenian Genocide as an event that quickly turns from institutional discrimination to mass slaughter. As a story of xenophobia, nationalism, and modernity, it serves as a cautionary tale for today’s policies.

Set in the early part of the 20th century, during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, greatness is defined against an internal population. In this vision, for the Ottomans to be great, the Armenians must be destroyed. They are described as an internal cancer that is eating away at the nation.

Ottoman troops marching Armenians to a nearby prison in Mezireh.

Yet, as we see, the disease is not cancer, but autoimmune. The desire to create a nation-state causes the population to turn against itself, resulting in a body that is weakened and must collapse because of the lack of healthy, diverse cells. Armenians are part of the Turkish nation and present in every strata of society. However, because they are ethnically distinct, they are targeted by the Ottomans, who hold no claim to greatness at the end of World War I. The Ottomans inflict the powerlessness they feel onto a minority population within their own borders.

The Armenians are essentially presented as foreign, and questions of class and education do not protect them from the violence unleashed by the Empire. The Empire consequently destroys its economic and educated classes. For a horror of this magnitude to happen, the people who can see it happening and speak out against it — the artists, the intellectuals, and the media — must all be silenced. In any autocratic purge, these groups are always among the first targeted. In the film, for instance, the journalist played by Christian Bale is imprisoned because he is reporting on the genocide, causing the Ottomans to worry about the truths he would tell about them to the world.

These lessons are being repeated in modern Turkey. President Erdoğan is striking out against the same groups of artists, intellectuals, and media in order to consolidate his power in Turkey today.

Victims of the genocide.

History repeats itself because there was no recognition and contrition for the Armenian Genocide. A change in behavior only comes when the behavior is recognized as wrong. Turkey has never acknowledged the crimes against the Armenians, and so they will repeat the same behaviors over and over again.

Unfortunately, Turkey is not unique in this regard. The United States is prone to the same repetition. We have never offered reparations for the Atlantic Slave Trade or the decimation of Native Americans. We decry it as a shame, but show no contrition. As a result, we have visited the same violence on successive generations of immigrants. We attack people because of their race and religion: Irish, German, Italian, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh.

Each generation we repeat the same actions, it gets more intense, and after it passes, our regret is proportionately intense, but we never repent. Right now, our animus to immigrants is so intense that we are debasing our moral commitments as a nation to demonize them.

We are splitting families up. We are going after companies that offer jobs to immigrants and refugees. We ban children from coming into this country who are now being bombed to death with chemical weapons. That responsibility is on us as a nation.

To defend this all, to mask the policies of hatred and dehumanization, President Trump is already going after artists, intellectuals, and the media. It is the first move for any autocrat, once a part of the country is demonized. Whether he decries “fake news,” defunds the National Endowment for the Arts, or decimates higher education programs, he is narrowing places for free thought and criticism.

Our obligation now is to stand for all those people who are being told that they are not part of the American story: immigrants, African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Native Americans, women, homosexual, and trans communities. As a population, we can take responsibility when our nation will not.

We are the first ones who need to recognize when something is wrong with our body politic and to fix it before it destroys us. We must stand and defend our neighbors and our ideals. We should learn from others that, without contrition, we will always harm others, and thus ourselves.

We can look at The Promise as a historical movie about the Armenian Genocide. We could see it as a way to understand the authoritarian tilt of Erdoğan today. More importantly, we should understand it as a reflection on the American psyche. It is not a far reach to go from the President of the United States decrying people in the country to violence against Americans in the name of a racial and national purity.

Hussein Rashid, PhD, is a professor of Religion at Barnard College and a Fellow at Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are his own.

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