Lie for Me or I Won't Be Your Friend

Back in the 1970s your humble servant was a late night attendant at a self-serve gas station. In addition to gas, oil, transmission fluid, and such, we sold a number of snack items, including gallon-sized cans of potato chips.

One evening two young men came into the station. One paid for the gas he had just pumped, and the other grabbed one of the large potato chip cans. The one who was paying for the gas told his buddy to steal the potato chips. Because a theft conducted in such a manner would be so brazen, I thought he was kidding.

I was wrong. Surprised to see that they were actually driving away with the potato chips, I stopped their car as they were leaving. I asked them if they were going to pay for the potato chips they had taken. They responded that they had taken no potato chips. I pointed out the large potato chip can in the back seat of their car which was in plain view. They denied the presence of any potato chip can, and insisted that I must have been “high.” It became apparent that the police would have to be called.

There was a lesson I learned from that experience, other than the obvious one that I should consider taking people at their word when they say that they’re going to steal something. There are people in the world who, for whatever reason, will look you in the eye and deny a plain and unambiguous reality that is apparent to everyone involved in the discussion. Unfortunately, sometimes governments will also do this.

A few days ago Pope Francis used the word “genocide” to describe the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks 100 years ago. [1] That should be uncontroversial given that as many as 1.5 million people were killed in the massacre. [2] But it is controversial for the simple reason that the Turkish government denies that a genocide ever happened, and this in the face of the fact that everyone knew it was going on while it was taking place.

“Before World War I, Americans knew exactly what had occurred. During the 1890s, American reformers launched a human-rights campaign to protest repeated massacres of the Armenian people. In September 1895, the New York Times headlined a story as ‘Another Armenian Holocaust.’ During 1915, that paper published 145 articles about the mass murder of the Armenian people, describing the massacre as ‘systematic, ‘authorized’ and ‘organized by the government.’ In 1918, Theodore Roosevelt called it ‘the greatest crime of the war.’

“The rest of the world also knew what had happened. In May 1915, the Allies conceived of the term ‘crimes against humanity’ to describe the Ottoman government’s massacres of the Armenian people. When the Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide in the 1940s, he said that his definition was based on what the Armenian people had suffered.” [3] 

Referring to the slaughter as genocide has been a political issue for years, and U.S. administrations from both parties have refused to use the term out of deference for Turkey, a NATO ally. [4] Turkey has spent millions lobbying Congress on this issue and takes the position that the massacre doesn’t meet the legal definition of genocide because, it claims, there was no deliberate plan to eliminate its Armenian population.

When President Obama ran for president in 2008 he promised to reverse this perverse abstention. “Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence,” he said. “The facts are undeniable. An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy.”

But now the White House has announced that the President will not use the term when he commemorates the deaths on Friday. White House officials are defending this as necessary to maintain Turkey’s cooperation with U.S. involvement in the Middle East. In other words, unless the United States denies reality, Turkey will cease acting as an ally, even though it is a member of NATO. 

Turkey’s denial of the genocidal nature of the Ottoman actions against the Armenians is simply absurd. The decision of the American administration to acquiesce to the absurdity is craven. Suppression of truth cannot be justified in terms of pragmatism. Whatever short term inconveniences may attend angering the Turkish government by stating a simple fact, the United States, in the long term, doesn’t need an ally that refuses to face reality. NATO doesn’t need a member like that either. 

Jack Quirk