President Joe Biden on Saturday issued the document Armenian Americans have pursued for decades: a declaration that the Ottoman Empire’s slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million Armenian civilians was genocide.
It’s a deceptively simple action, carrying no force of law. Yet it’s a bold move for Biden, who has gone beyond what any American president has ever been willing to do. Until now, presidents have declined to formally apply the term “genocide” for fear of sparking a backlash from Turkey, which vigorously denies it. According to the Turkish account, World War I-era violence between Muslim Ottomans and Christian Armenians led to large casualties on both sides. According to most historians, however, the evidence is clear the Turks engaged in a years-long ethnic cleansing campaign that included forced death marches and mass starvation.
Biden’s declaration represents an important step toward fulfilling America’s commitment to human rights across the world. At home, it begins to close the open wound at the center of the Armenian American experience.
Every American of Armenian descent — indeed, every Armenian in the global diaspora — lives with the ghosts of the Armenian Genocide. We learn the harrowing family stories at an early age. We’re shown photographs that we can never forget. The soundtrack to our lives is Der Voghormia, the haunting liturgical hymn “Lord have mercy.”
What binds us together is a pride and joy in our ancient heritage, but also a sense of shared sadness over this brutal piece of unfinished historical business. Whether it’s the Armenian American communities of California or Boston or Chicago or Detroit or Philadelphia or anywhere else, we have been trapped in a mourning period with no end, a funeral cortege with no destination, so long as the truth of what happened in 1915 was denied and the searing experiences of loved ones went unrecognized. [Continue reading…]