On April 24th, millions of people around the world will mourn the implementation of a plan—devised by Ottoman officials a hundred years ago, amid the chaos of the First World War—to annihilate the Armenian people in their native homeland. Initiated in 1915, the policy was brutally effective; by the war’s end, it had resulted in the destruction of virtually every Armenian community outside Constantinople, and the elimination of more than a million people from territory in what is now modern Turkey. This is what is meant by the term “Armenian genocide.” In any context, one would expect that such an event would cause lasting collective trauma. For many Armenians living around the world, in a state of post-Ottoman diaspora, that trauma has been compounded by the lack of official recognition and reconciliation. To this day, the Turkish state denies that a systematic annihilation ever occurred (by the name of genocide, or any other). And Armenians continue to struggle with the official negation: to endlessly combat it is its own form of prison, but to try moving past it unilaterally, abandoning the horrific events of 1915 in the shadows of denial, is to succumb to willful blindness and injustice. Decades ago, The New Yorker published a short story by William Saroyan, titled “The Duel,” which offered the possibility of magical self-release from this dilemma: its protagonist, a trash-talking teen-age Armenian-American, decides in a moment of delirious oratory that he’ll simply turn his eyes from any Turks in the world, and thus be free from the need to engage in the ceaseless duelling. But, of course, one side on its own cannot heal the scars of genocide. As Pope Francis noted in a recent sermon on 1915, “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”
Recently, however, there has been cause for optimism. Haltingly, and with difficulty, well beneath the upper strata of government in Ankara, a reckoning with history is edging forward in Turkey. For the first time in decades, it is possible to utter the words “Armenian genocide” there without facing certain criminal prosecution. Liberal-minded Turks in increasing numbers are challenging the old taboos, and many Kurds living in Turkey now speak with plain remorse about their ancestors’ complicity in the massacres. At the municipal level, some cities have even taken steps toward reconciliation. Reactionary forces certainly push against these changes—the word “Armenian” remains a slur, apparently even for Turkey’s President—but, in a way that feels new and genuine, one can now map the direction of progress: within a decade or two, denying the effort to exterminate Armenians may well become untenable in Turkey.
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