On April 24, the world recognized the 102nd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, a campaign of murder, rape and forced displacement carried out against the Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire. There is no historical doubt that the Genocide occurred. It took the lives of 1.5 million men, women and children and obliterated the Armenian population within the Empire’s borders.
For years, I have fought for proper recognition of the Genocide by the United States government, both through a Congressional resolution and by the President. This was President Trump’s first year in office and first chance to properly recognize the Genocide and, despite a bipartisan effort to call on him to do so, he stopped short of describing the extermination of 1.5 million people for what it was. This was a bitter disappointment, but it will not deter us from speaking the truth, and redoubling our efforts to pass a resolution in the Congress recognizing the Armenian Genocide.
The Genocide occurred a century ago, but as William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The issue of recognition is alive as ever, and the Turkish government is waging a fevered campaign of denial, badgering and bullying countries that recognize the Genocide. So heated is the campaign that Turkish Internet trolls even took to movie review websites like IMBD and Rotten Tomatoes to spam tens of thousands of negative reviews of the new film “The Promise” because of its factual depiction of the Genocide.
The United States is left with a choice – whether to be cowed by the forces of denial or whether to speak clearly and respectfully about historic facts. The U.S. has proudly stood for fundamental human rights, and indeed played a heroic role in saving hundreds of thousands of Armenian refugees following the Genocide. I see recognition of the Genocide as not only a moral imperative but yet another test of whether we will hold true to our values and to the truth, or forsake both for some transient and illusory benefit.
Indeed, recent events in Turkey exemplify the choice that continually confronts our nation as we aspire to moral leadership. On April 16, in a flawed election, the Turkish people may have narrowly approved making wholesale changes to their government, moving from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The changes have the effect of empowering one man – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan – who has systematically seized all political power in the country and marginalized or imprisoned his critics.
Turkish democracy, once pluralistic, freewheeling and possessed of a free press, has been effectively crushed. The campaign for the referendum took place under an atmosphere of fear. Independent voices in the media and minority groups, like the Kurds, were silenced through intimidation and politically-motivated prosecutions. Election monitors and opposition parties also noted widespread voting irregularities, which call into question the validity of Erdogan’s narrow victory.
It was therefore gravely disappointing that rather than voice concerns about the election irregularities and the state of Turkish democracy, President Trump called Erdogan to congratulate him on his victory.
I will continue to push the President and Congress to show more courage and resolve when it comes to Genocide recognition. While Turkey will surely react angrily to a move to recognize the Genocide, Turkey will ultimately pursue its own self-interest, just as it has in all its dealings with the United States.
And we should be clear-eyed that there is a cost, harder to quantify but still quite real, to the policy of Genocide denial or quiet acquiescence to the extinguishing of a democracy. The cost is our moral standing and our role as a beacon for oppressed peoples around the world.
The world is full of difficult choices and imperfect allies. I am not so naïve as to think the answer to each question is obvious or that America has always lived up to the values we espouse. But complexity cannot give way to cynicism. America’s power does not come simply from jets or ships, but from ideas, among them the idea that truth and justice are the birthright of all men and women. We cast aside that idea at our own peril. Recognizing the Armenian Genocide, declaring we will no longer be party to denial, is one place to reaffirm our commitment to that ideal.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) represents California’s 28th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.