Monday, April 24, 2006

April 24

The heiress to my vast misfortune has once again defiantly extended her tiny middle finger to the world, refusing to make her grand entrance on a date whose historical importance is freighted with such horror.

On this date in 1915 Mehmed Talaat, interior minister for the Ottoman Empire, ordered the arrest and execution of nearly 300 Armenian intellectuals living in Constantinople. The arrests, which came three months after Talaat advised Armenians and other Christians to leave the empire, were accompanied by similar purges of teachers and other leaders in towns and cities across eastern Anatolia. Under the pretext of defending his nation against enemy collaborators accused of conspiring with Russian invaders, Talaat soon ordered the mass relocation of all Armenians to the Syrian desert of Der Zor. So began the 20th century's first genocide -- a crime so unthinkable that it indeed had no name. Over the next six months, press accounts in the United States and elsewhere struggled to describe the scale of the atrocity that befell the Armenians along the route to Der Zor, as foreign correspondents, ambassadors, Red Cross workers and missionaries described "massacres" and "slaughters" that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. By July 1915 the New York Times warned in a headline that Turkish policies were leading to the "extinction" of the Armenian people. Hewing closely to its stance of neutrality toward the belligerants of the Great War, the Wilson administration elected to remain silent. Secretary of State Robert Lansing advised Turkish authorities that while the mass killing of Armenians would "jeopardize the good feeling" that existed between the two nations, he understood that the compulsory evaluation was "more or less justifiable" due to the Armenians' "well-known disloyalty" and their location "within the zone of military operations." Anticipating the logic of his own nation's internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, Lansing was merely one of many Americans who lost themselves in a haze of discourse. By 1917, as many as 1.5 million Armenians had been killed.

Several years later, one eyewitness recalled the manner in which the "disloyal" were dispached:
While we were being plundered, they started firing on us from the front of the caravan. At that time, one of the gendarmes pulled my sister out and took her with him. My mother cried out, “May I go blind.” I cannot remember that day any longer. I do not want to be reminded of that day. It is better for me to die than describe the events of that black day. I cannot say everything. Every time I relive those events . . . They took everyone away . . . and they struck me. Then I saw how they struck and cracked my brother's skull with an axe. As soon as the soldiers and the gendarmes began the massacres, the mob was upon us too and my brother's head was cracked open. Then my mother fell. I did not see my father; he was in another group ahead of us, but there was fighting going on there too. I was struck on the head and fell to the ground. I have no recollection of what happened after that. I do not know how long I stayed there. Maybe it was two days. When I opened my eyes, I saw myself surrounded by corpses. All the members of the caravan had been killed. Because of the darkness I could not distinguish everything. At first I did not know where I was then I began to realize that I was surrounded by corpses. I saw my mother's body; she had fallen face down. My brother's body had fallen on top of me. I could not ascertain anything more.

This eyewitness, whose name was Soghomon Tehlirian, escaped through the Caucasus to Persia with several other fugitives. On 14 March 1921, the 24-year-old Tehlirian approached Mehmed Talaat -- who had escaped to Berlin after the war and had set to work writing his memoirs -- and killed him with a single shot to the back of the head.

To this day, the government of Turkey steadfastly maintains that genocide did not take place against the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire; its officials instead refer obliquely -- in language all but pilfered from Talaat's unfinished memoirs -- to the "tragic" and "regrettable" consequences of war, to "tragedies" and "disasters" and assorted "misfortunes." The United States, for its part, continues as well to avoid recognition of the Armenian genocide, resorting instead to comfortable obfuscations calculated not to offend an important economic, political and military ally.