The Armenian Genocide: Agreeing on the boilerplate

You know someone who died from cancer. Imagine that every time you tell somebody how your friend died, you have to explain the concept of cancer and wonder if they believe you. You also find vitriolic arguments all over the Internet saying cancer doesn’t exist and it didn’t kill your friend.

American Red Cross archive photo of a forced march of Armenians out of their homeland in the Ottoman Empire.

Now imagine that people blame your company for creating cancer. You want to say, “Yes, but that was a different company and different people a long time ago.” The CEO says you have to keep denying it. You have to perform increasingly elaborate contortions to deny your company’s complicity.

Replace cancer with “the Armenian genocide” and consider the psychic damage of genocide denial.Most Armenians, particularly in the diaspora, are direct descendents of genocide victims, but they are told the genocide never happened. In Turkey, many scholars and others want their government to acknowledge that the Ottoman Turks committed the genocide. The Turkish government instead continues to lie, hide and spin.

On April 24, 1915, Ottoman authorities arrested 250 Armenian intellectuals and leaders, beginning the Armenian genocide. Why does it matter if President Obama pins the “genocide” label on events from 95 years ago and half a world away? Because Armenians need to hear it. Because Turkey needs to hear it.

Without an official recognition of historic reality, there can be no healing or honest dialogue. The United States and, more importantly, Turkey must acknowledge that Turkish forces massacred and deported more than one million Armenians from their homeland, a province of the Ottoman Empire.

An Armenian genocide refugee and her son, in a photo published in 1919.

That fact needs to be the rational starting point for any factual discussion of the Armenian genocide. In journalism-speak, it should be the boilerplate.

Boilerplates are blocks of standard text that are plugged into ongoing news stories to give the basic context. Cancer doesn’t even need a boilerplate. Obituaries and stories about research breakthroughs don’t need to say, “Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the body.” Likewise for the Nazi Holocaust.

When I covered news in Jefferson County, Colorado, I wrote about the Columbine High School shootings regularly for several years. On my computer desktop, I kept a boilerplate summary of the tragedy to plug into each piece. It was something along the lines of “On April 20, 1999, two students at Columbine High School in unincorporated Jefferson County killed 12 students and one teacher before turning the guns on themselves.”

I knew 95 percent of readers skipped over this paragraph, already knowing the basic historic context. Nobody ever called to say I had the boilerplate wrong. Heated debate still continues about the actions of the school and law enforcement, but Columbine parents don’t have to justify their rage and grief. Everybody understands the event happened.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks also have a standard boilerplate. “Truthers” and conspiracy theorists may argue the U.S. government was behind the attacks, but even this fringe group agrees on the core facts: three planes were hijacked and deliberately flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked plane crashed in Pennsylvania.

It is so well understood that the event doesn’t even have a name; only a date. The words “Sept. 11” automatically evoke this boilerplate.

Of course, the Armenian genocide is not as well known or vividly remembered, but the two groups closest to the story have different boilerplates. We need to bury the fictional one.

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