It's an old phenomenon: When the dispossessed get clout, the past becomes a battleground. Often the stakes in the present are extraordinarily high.
An exemplary skirmish over very bad history is taking place in the U.S. Congress -- in this case, the World War I slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turkey.
Whether or not the Ottomans' mass deportation and murder of Armenians in 1915 and 1916 reaches the formulaic, industrial magnitude of the Nazis' genocide or Stalin's decimation of Ukraine is a debating point for lawyers and apologists. The Ottoman "Young Turk" government took a systematic approach that stinks of classic tribal "ethnic cleansing." The Ottomans disarmed Armenian soldiers and removed them from the ranks of the Turkish army. Suspect loyalty and connivance with the Orthodox Christian enemy, Russia, was the ostensible rationale.
After confiscating Armenian guns, Ottoman knives appeared. Mobs murdered Armenian intellectuals and leaders -- killing communicators silences a community. Then the deportations began, featuring long marches where starvation and sunstroke killed as many as the attacks of "thieves and raiders." One-and-a-half million Armenians (out of a population of approximately 2.5 million) died in this directed chaos. Darfur and the Congo are contemporary examples of this hideous technique.
WWI ended. After a bout of internal chaos and a war with Greece, republican Turkey emerged from the Ottoman wreckage. Its political architect, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, launched political and cultural revolutions, creating a secular Turkey and with it a possible Islamic bridge to modernity. Turkey adopted Latin script, a visual, literary break with the Ottoman Empire and caliphate. It's one reason al-Qaida fanatics despise Ataturk more than they do George Bush.
Modern Turks can make a case they aren't the Ottomans.
Diaspora Armenians, however, now have influence and a voice. The once dispossessed have earned it. Armenians have had extraordinary political and economic success in Western Europe and the United States.
Only the heartless would dismiss their desire to recognize the great wrong. Yet historical verification and vindication aren't the only goals -- the U.S. House resolution backed by Armenian-Americans demands punishment of the perpetrators.
The perpetrators, however, are long dead. The Turkish government thus sees the resolution as a political attack on Turkey.
At a less volatile moment one can imagine Congress passing the nonbinding resolution. I would support it, particularly if it promoted Turkish and Armenian reconciliation.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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