Man’s inhumanity to man continues unabated, from Islamic State rebels to terrorists the world over. The onslaught on innocent people in Europe, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and other places seems to be endless. People are being targeted solely on account of their faith. Tens of thousands of human beings live with fear, subjugation, humiliation, starvation and brutal murder.
Obviously, we have not learned from experiences of the past.
Beginning at sunset today and continuing Thursday, Jews around the world observe Holocaust Remembrance Day — a day to remember an event in history that saw the murder of some 12 million human beings. About 6 million were Jewish men, women and children who were sent to the gas chambers or shot in cold blood simply because they were Jews. Leading this carnage was Adolph Hitler, the personification of evil, who early in his rise to power declared that his actions “were in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.”
Clearly, it takes more than a leader such as Hitler to commit these acts of horror. Are humans a herd of sheep who too often follow a leader no matter what? Where were the highly educated citizens of Germany? Apparently, with a highly effective propaganda machine and the Brown Shirts, Hitler was able to control and manipulate his people through fear, intimidation and misinformation.
We still don’t appear to have learned the lessons of history.
On April 24, Armenians around the globe commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, when well over a million Armenians were massacred and forced out of their homes to walk through the forbidding Syrian Desert. In the process, thousands died of thirst and starvation. The genocide, perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, represents the largest number of Christians in history targeted and massacred because of their religion and ethnicity.
Is the Armenian Genocide fact or fiction? The government of Turkey rejects this fact of history. Why the denial? For the right to use bases in Turkey, and political expediency, even our government does not officially recognize this dark side of history. However, the evidence is overwhelming. For example, when Hitler was planning his takeover of Poland and the murder of Jews, to his critics he said, “Who after all speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
As a child growing up in Jerusalem I heard many accounts of brutality experienced by Armenian survivors perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks at the beginning of the last century. To this day, I recall with horror the tale of one woman who lived in an Armenian village in present-day Turkey. Soldiers broke into their home, shot her husband on sight, then turned on her six children and beheaded each in front of her. She, along with other women, with no food or water, was forced to leave her home and march through the Syrian Desert. She was among the few who survived and, with tears in her eyes, would ask, “Why?”
Did the Armenian Genocide take place? Newspapers of the era, including The New York Times, as well as Western diplomats, were reporting on the “massacres” and “slaughter” of Armenians being committed by the Ottoman Empire under the Young Turk regime. “800,000 Armenians Counted Destroyed” read a headline on October 7, 1915. Arnold J. Toynbee, the renowned British historian, wrote about the massacres in a book titled “The Armenian Atrocities: The Murder of a Nation.”
Why, then, the denial?
When the Young Turks assumed power, their policy to rid Ottoman Turkey of its Christian population intensified in 1915. Armenian men of all ages were murdered, young and old women were raped, priests and their parishioners were herded into churches and burned alive, and hundreds of thousands were forced to march through the desert with no food or water. In the words of Talaat Pasha, the Turkish minister of interior at the time, “We are ensuring their eternal rest.”
Why, then, the denial? Instead, I suggest we learn from past mistakes.
During Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, the U.S. Department of State instructed Henry Morgenthau, U.S. ambassador to Turkey, to deliver a message warning the Young Turks that they would be held liable for crimes against humanity for their treatment of the Armenians. Theodore Roosevelt, in a letter to Cleveland H. Dodge, Wilson’s adviser, dated May 11, 1918, stated, “The Armenian massacre was the greatest crime of the war and the failure to act against Turkey is to condone it.”
In 1919 and 1920, the Turkish Courts-Martial, with a unanimous vote, found the leadership of the Committee of Union and Progress Party guilty of the massacres of the Christians. Talaat Pasha, Enver Pasha and Cemal Pasha were sentenced to death. But Pasha sought asylum in Germany. Why the denial?
An Armenian survivor, Soghomon Tehlirian, who witnessed the rape of his 15- and 16-year-old sisters and the beheading of his older brother, caught up with Talaat. On a street in Berlin, Soghomon took out his revolver and shot Talaat dead. He was quickly apprehended, tried and found guilty of murder.
A Jewish law student in Poland, Raphael Lemkin, saw the headlines about Soghomon and asked his professor: “Is it a crime to kill a man, but it is not a crime for his oppressor to kill more than a million?” His professor answered: “There is no law against mass murder.”
Thus began Lemkin’s relentless journey appealing to the world community to address and hold responsible perpetrators of mass murder. Using the Greek term “geno,” meaning “race,” and the Latin “caedere,” meaning “killing,” Lemkin created the word “genocide” — the murder of a tribe or race. It took Lemkin decades to finally help establish the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
With this evidence, why the denial?
Just last Sunday at Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis said: “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.” And he called the massacre of the Armenians by its rightful name — the “first genocide of the 20th century.”
It is time for President Obama and the U.S. Congress to recognize this fact of history, and hopefully the Israeli government and Turkey will boldly step forward and officially recognize the Armenian Genocide.
Sadly, man’s inhumanity to man shows no signs of slowing down, be it beheadings at the hands of ISIS to the rampant killings on our streets.
There was a time in history when Muslims, Christians and Jews worked together on the Iberian Peninsula promoting art, architecture, medicine, mathematics and science, and they enjoyed peaceful coexistence. If it happened then, it can be done again.
The solution to our global problems of violence depends on educating youth. Peace through education will provide a catalyst by which young people will learn to treat each other with respect and develop a spirit of cooperation, tolerance and peaceful coexistence. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “Peace is the way.”
Manoug Manougian, Ph.D., is professor/director of the STEM Education Center, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, at the University of South Florida in Tampa.