NEW YORK – One hundred years ago, on April 24, 1915, officials of the Ottoman Empire rounded up some 250 Armenian leaders and intellectuals in Constantinople and prepared them for deportation. It was the beginning of a historic massacre, in which as many as 1.5 million of the two million Armenians living in the empire were killed.
In the weeks leading up to the tragedy’s centenary, the debate over whether the killings amounted to genocide has predictably flared anew. Pope Francis and the European Parliament are among those who have lent their voices to those who say they did – drawing the condemnation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and others in his government.
Reactions like Erdoğan’s are unfortunate. Turkey has long portrayed the massacre of the Armenians as uncoordinated and unfortunate acts resulting from the chaos of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. It would be wise to reconsider this position. The stance taken by Erdoğan and others fosters anti-Turkish sentiment in Europe and elsewhere, by encouraging the impression that modern Turkey’s leaders and people, though not responsible for the crimes themselves, are guilty of denying them.
Whether or not the use of the word “genocide” is appropriate, Turkey should recognize that it is not alone among great states with a history of committing great crimes. For nearly a century after the United States was founded, slavery remained legal; untold numbers of Africans and their descendants suffered in bondage or died horrifying deaths. For another century, legalized racial segregation was maintained in much of the country. Many aspects of the nineteenth-century slaughter of the indigenous population in the US were genocidal in nature.