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'Genocide' Is A Matter Of Opinion

When President Obama was beginning his run for office, he said he believed the 1915 slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians by Turkey was not war but genocide and that the American people deserved "a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides."

But when Obama addressed the Turkish parliament this week, he referred only to "the terrible events of 1915."

I was part of a PBS program called The Armenian Genocide. There was no question mark in the title. I think there are times when you have to say "genocide" to be accurate about mass murder that tries to extinguish a whole group. That's why slaughter of a million Tutsis in Rwanda is not called merely mass murder. An American politician who got to Germany, for example, and called the Holocaust of European Jews merely "killings" would be mocked.

I don't doubt that Obama is still outraged by the Armenian genocide. But when he ran in the presidential primaries, it was important to win support from people concerned about human rights and, perhaps, Armenian-Americans in California.

Now, Obama may feel that it is more important for the United States to win Turkey's cooperation on a range of issues than it is for him to be consistent on a controversy that may seem like old history.

But it's not. Almost every year, the Turkish government has charged reporters and writers, including the Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk, for "insulting national identity" by referring to the massacres of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide.

Peter Balakian, the pre-eminent scholar of the genocide and co-translator of a new, widely lauded family memoir called Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, told us this week that he admires President Obama for telling Turkish leaders that confronting the past and restoring good relations with Armenia is important.

But he believes Turkey's campaign against acknowledging its genocide raises questions about reliability.

Balakian told us, "A country that spends millions of dollars a year in an effort stop the facts about the Armenian genocide from being known and that persecutes and prosecutes its own citizens for speaking truthfully about the extermination of the Armenians is hardly a government to trust to broker honest and just foreign policy."

In a way, the president's choice to say "killings" in front of his hosts may remind us that it might be wise to regard what any politician says as the words of a suitor who coos "I love you" during courtship. They mean it in the moment. But any adult should know that they may not mean it in just a few weeks.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small