President Obama should say the word: Genocide.
That is what it was a century ago when nearly 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered by Ottoman Turks. On this, historians overwhelmingly agree.
And that is what candidate Barack Obama, when he first ran for president in 2008, vowed to do once he got to the White House. He would call it what it was — genocide.
But now the president, for the sixth time in six years, is reneging. On Friday, the official 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, he will not utter that word. He does not want to offend Turkey, an important American ally. He has bigger fish to fry.
President Obama is wrong. The history of the world is steeped in denial, an unwillingness to own up to humanity’s bloodiest sins.
Turkey denies the Armenian genocide. The old Khmer Rouge denies the mass killings in Cambodia. The United States, often to this day, fails to come to terms fully with the horrors inflicted on Native Americans.
But there can be no healing without admission. Only then can we hope, in the words of a Jewish prayer, to “repair the world.”
Two weeks ago, Pope Francis showed Obama how it’s done. The pope called the Armenian massacres “the first genocide of the 20th century” and likened them to the work of the Nazis.
“Concealing or denying evil,” he said, “is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”
The Turkish government rejects the accusation of genocide, saying many peoples, including Turks, suffered greatly during World War I and the declining days of the Ottoman Empire.
But the consensus among historians is that it was indeed genocide, and nothing less. For fear they might align themselves with the Russian enemy, a whole people was targeted for elimination.
“Those who were not killed at once were driven through mountains and deserts without food, drink or shelter,” historian David Fromkin writes in “A Peace to End All Peace,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the fall of the Ottoman Empire. “Hundreds of thousands of Armenians eventually succumbed or were killed.”
Earlier this week, Obama urged a “full, frank and just acknowledgement” of the atrocities that occurred, but left it at that.
And on Friday, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, representing the president, will attend a commemorative ceremony in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, where he also will not utter the offending word.
Once again, short-term diplomatic concerns trump a moral imperative.