SCOTT SIMON, host:
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, that the American people deserve, quote, "a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides."
But when President Obama addressed the Turkish parliament this, he referred only to, quote, "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 the 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.
Now, I don't doubt that President Obama is still outraged by the Armenian genocide. 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, President Obama may feel 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 massacre of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide.
Peter Balakian, the preeminent 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 he admires President Obama for telling Turkish leaders that confronting the past and restoring good relations with Armenia is important. But he believes that Turkey's campaign against acknowledging its genocide raises questions about their reliability.
Mr. Balakian told us a country that spends millions of dollars a year in an effort to 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 host may just remind us 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 at the moment, but any adult should know they may not mean it in just a few weeks.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.