It’s no coincidence that I’ve been thinking of Sigmund Freud during the debate over whether our nation should recognize Turkey’s murder of 1.5 million Armenians during World War I as “genocide.” Like Freud’s theories, Turkey’s denials have remarkable staying power, despite overwhelming evidence against them.
Freud’s longevity, however, stems from his desire to reveal rather than conceal truths about human nature. Although most of his specific theories have been questioned (if not disproven), Freud’s insights into the way people—and nations—lie to themselves remain chillingly relevant.
It is not my intent here to debate whether genocide technically occurred; the evidence is simply overwhelming, conclusive and has already been eloquently and decisively discussed. Indeed, the term genocide was coined with the Armenian holocaust in mind. Beyond the reach of Turkey’s propaganda machine semantics are not really an issue; voices opposing recognition do so not because they believe Turkey, but to avoid angering an already testy nation.
Rather, it is my contention that we should not placate those that cannot seem to acknowledge the obvious. U.S. efforts to keep diplomatic relations through convenient forgetfulness, shameless ignorance of the facts and staged friendliness make us look weak and desperate. Therapists call this enabling.
The primary objection, of course, is that if the U.S. recognizes “genocide” Turkey could disrupt what is left of our regional influence. This threat is real. Christopher Hitchens recently reminded us that the Iraq war, though deeply flawed, is far more complex than we are led to believe and not all is lost. Al-Qaida has lost credibility, Iraqis are weary of the mounting death toll (most casualties are not directly caused by U.S. troops) and America is still the sole source of hope for many. If America can manage an organized and humane presence in Iraq we may yet win over what President Bush calls “freedom-loving people.” Why, then, endanger this opportunity by angering a strategic ally?
The reasons are several:
- The truth. If America believes what took place was not genocide that is one thing. If it knows otherwise but keeps the truth under wraps that is another. This issue cannot survive efforts to silence it. Freud likens this to trying to submerge an iceberg beneath the waterline of consciousness: the bigger the iceberg and the greater the effort dedicated to sinking it, the more powerfully it resists.
- Cultural sensitivity. We rightfully excoriate the holocaust denials of Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, but forget that merely speaking about the Armenian genocide is illegal in Turkey. Imagine how our hypocrisy looks to Armenians. Would we tolerate a German state that denied the Jewish holocaust? Would they be our allies?
- Mutual Healing. Nothing can atone for 1.5 million deaths, but formal recognition and an apology constitute a symbolically powerful start. Ironically, in the long run, Turkey’s failure to come clean hurts itself more than the victims, who after all have a 93-year head start in coming to terms with their grief. Turkey, like so many in denial, now blames the victim (some now claim a Turkish genocide at the hands of Armenians) as a defense against accepting the pain of culpability. A good measure of the extent of a person’s (or a nation’s) denial is the vigor it demonstrates in defending itself and the aggression it levies against those who pry. It has been 90-plus years since Freud argued that the guiltiest among us take it out on others the strongest.
- Mending relations with Christians. One could argue that the Iraq war has been more disastrous for Christians than for Muslims. During the war over 750,000 Christians have become refugees in Jordan or Syria. Their status in these countries is marginal, at best. Over the last half-century the numbers of Christians in Israel/Palestine, Lebanon and other nations have also dwindled as a direct or indirect result of U.S. policy. And Christian missions in these countries? Don’t ask. The baby-step of genocide recognition can show that our aim in Iraq is not to punish global Christianity.
- Tough love. America has a sordid history of forging politically advantageous alliances with regimes not aligned with American values. Turkey, which restricts free speech, is bitterly divided between secular and Islamist rule, strangleholds its press and arrests critics, is such a regime. Aren’t they trying to get into the European Union? Aren’t they supposed to be a democracy? Why are we bailing them out? The problem with enabling troubled friends and relatives is that ultimately, they don’t appreciate our gestures. They resent them.
In truth, the U.S. has more to gain than lose in acknowledging the Armenian genocide. We can re-establish credibility in the minds of the many nations (and 40 U.S. states) that have already formally recognized it. We can demonstrate courage because of the inevitable and substantial short-term cost we would endure. We can strengthen ties with Christians (Armenians being the most ancient) and allow for many to heal. We can also hasten Turkey’s road to healing, liberalization and freedom.
Time for an intervention: therapy gets more expensive the longer it gets put off.
Jay Pope is a psychology professor at Fresno Pacific University. He is also a therapist at Link Care Center in Fresno, where he treats a variety of psychological disorders, specializing in treating pastors and missionaries.