Recognizing “A Problem from Hell”

My Ethics and World Politics class is reading Samantha Power’s book “A Problem from Hell” about America’s reaction (or lack thereof) to genocide. It’s a fascinating read, but I was especially intrigued because the first few chapters deal with the Armenian genocide, which occurred before the word ‘genocide’ even existed. At the time, there was a large-scale and highly visible grass roots movement in Europe and America to provide aid to Armenian refugees. However, while this helped the few Armenians who survived, it did nothing to stop more from dying. States were the only entities with any power to actually stop the Turks from killing Armenians, and not a single government stepped in. The U.S. refused to even symbolically condemn Turkey’s actions. When World War I ended, none of the perpetrators of the genocide, from the officials who crafted the policy to the soldiers who carried it out, were punished or even condemned.

One passage that particularly stuck in my mind is when Power quotes Hitler as saying, “Who remembers the Armenians?” before the Holocaust even began. The Armenian genocide taught Hitler a clear lesson; not only would states look the other way while genocide was occurring, they would not seek justice or retribution afterwards. This lesson had far-reaching effects, not only for Hitler’s victims but for the victims of future tyrants, the Milosevics and Pol Pots of the world. I believe that even a superficial acknowledgement that a state is committing genocide (ideally but not necessarily combined with concrete actions to stop it) can  have important consequences. At the very least, perpetrators of genocide would know that the world saw what they were doing and found it unacceptable and abhorrent.

This leads me to my current disgust over the U.S. government’s continued refusal, almost 100 years later, to recognize the Armenian genocide. Yes, I recognize that there are important geopolitical implications and that it is in the U.S.’s interests not to offend Turkey. Turkey is a key ally in a volatile region, a relatively secular and democratic state in the Middle East, etc, etc. Yet on a purely human level, I cannot help but feel that genocides will continue to occur until governments decide that there are more important things than “offending” allies.

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Published in: on March 26, 2009 at 2:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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