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Biden May Make Genocide Declaration On Armenian Remembrance Day


President Biden has called the killing of a million and a half Armenians in 1915 and 1916 by Ottoman Turkish forces genocide. We're joined now by Peter Balakian, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and author of the honored memoir "Black Dog Of Fate" and the history "The Burning Tigris" about the Armenian genocide. He teaches at Colgate, where he was the first director of the Center for Ethics and World Societies. And thanks very much for being with us.

PETER BALAKIAN: Thanks for having me in.

SIMON: What does it mean to you that a president of the United States now says the Armenian genocide?

BALAKIAN: Well, there are a number of contexts here. It's worth noting, of course, that no president has had the courage to use the proper historical term. No president has been courageous enough to say these words because of fear of harming foreign relations with Turkey - ironically, Turkey, a government with one of the worst human rights records in the world over the course of the past several decades.

So it means a lot for President Biden to come forward and own the truth of this event. And it's significant also because the Turkish government campaign of denial has been so protracted, so extreme, so persistent over the course of so many decades that there has to be redress to this kind of persistent dishonesty and corruption.

SIMON: You are the great-grandnephew of Grigoris Balakian, a bishop and who was a survivor of the Armenian Holocaust. Can you tell us something of his story? What might be going through your mind today? I believe you also translated his memoir.

BALAKIAN: Yes, I collaboratively translated it. You know, what's so important about the memoir "Armenian Golgotha" is its vivid description of the arrest of the 250 intellectual and cultural leaders, Armenian cultural leaders, on the night of April 24. And it's on this day that we commemorate the Armenian genocide worldwide because of the significance of that act, that planned act that began a very planned government, systematic roundup, arrest and extermination of an entire ethnic group across Turkey.

What happened on the night of April 24 not only set things in motion, but it also allows us to understand how perpetrators often go after cultural leaders to silence the group, to silence the nation, to silence the culture, to tear its tongue out. And that is very informative. And it's important that April 24 be the day that it is in this commemoration.

SIMON: Turkey has been a valuable strategic partner to the United States. What might you say to those Americans who might say, look; what happened was tragic, it was a crime, but it was more than a century ago, and it doesn't serve this country now to fall out with a strategic ally over a word?

BALAKIAN: Well, I think in many ways, the continued U.S. affirmation of the historical record of the Armenian genocide - and I want to note that both the House and the Senate passed Armenian genocide resolutions in the fall of 2019. So President Biden adds to what has already been done. But I think that this continued redress to Turkish government denial helps Turkey in the long run.

The Turkish state is locked in a bad place. Its human rights record has gotten worse over the past decade. And if Turkey is going to be a strong U.S. ally, it needs to have a genuine democratic culture, a culture that is defined by the ability to critique oneself, to do critical studies in your educational system, to honor human rights and minority rights. We want our allies to have those strong foundations, and Turkey does not.

And I also feel that the U.S. has followed the responses by the Turkish state to the two dozen or more countries that have done Armenian genocide acknowledgements. And they realize that, you know, Turkey lets off some hot air. But in the end, Turkey needs its democratic allies. And I think Turkey continues to do business, notwithstanding this brief moment of small tension. I don't think there's a lot at stake here.

SIMON: Peter Balakian - Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and author of "The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide And America's Response." Thank you so much for being with us.

BALAKIAN: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.