The Turkish government’s furor over the House Foreign Relations Committee’s recent passage of HR106, a bill which recognizes and condemns the Armenian genocide by the Turkish Ottoman Empire almost a century ago, has cast a spotlight on a lesser known genocide to the public at large.
The earliest references to genocide, defined as the “deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group,” date back to the bible: “However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. (Deuteronomy 20:16-17.)”
Much later in history, and coincidentally also biblically inspired, Christopher Columbus sparked the subjugation of Native Americans that would lead to eventual genocide under the guise of national progress in the Manifest Destiny. Though some scholars argue that the largest portion of Native Americans killed under colonialism died from disease more than conflict, the numbers are still staggering. According to David E. Stannard in his book: American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World: in the first 400 years after Columbus discovered natives on the Bahaman Islands “the native population of the Western Hemisphere declined by as many as 100 million people.”
In the last century alone, there have been a handful of state sponsored mass killings that come close to fitting the description of genocide if not being universally accepted as such. Genocides that fall into the former category have occurred in countries like Chile, Guatemala, Argentina, East Timor, and more recently, the Darfur region in Sudan. Genocides that fall into the latter category—those universally accepted—include the Jewish Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, the Khmer Rouge sponsored Cambodian Genocide, and the Rwandan Genocide.
Of the universally accepted instances of genocide, the Jewish Holocaust stands out as the most documented and presented case to the public, with the Armenian and Rwandan Genocides probably tied for garnering the least amount of public awareness. Though ironically, during the time of the Armenian genocide initially, there was a large amount of public awareness in the United States and even support for a mandate to recognize the Republic of Armenia after World War I. Republicans ultimately voted down the mandate, and the discovery of oil in Turkey changed the US tune, thus destining the Armenian Genocide to the memory hole.
Some of the genocide imbalance undoubtedly stems from the uniquely American perspective of world history that students are indoctrinated with in US public schools. That is, the perspective where the United States is portrayed as fighting for the freedom of its inhabitants or mercifully liberating people denied freedom elsewhere. The liberation of the Jews in World War II epitomizes the crux of this storyline. The only problem is that it isn’t true.
The United States didn’t enter World War II until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. London had already been bombed to the stone-age by Germany, and tens of thousands of Jews had been murdered by the time the US “came to the rescue.” In fact, Jewish refugees had even been denied entry into the United States, as was the case for 937 passengers aboard the St. Louis. And in an even more shameful act, the US congress turned away 20,000 Jewish German children by letting the Wagner-Rogers bill expire in committee. Even when war was declared it was only against Japan.
But these events don’t take up much, if any space in school textbooks, nor do genocides where the US didn’t come to the rescue. The ideological story-line of the United States’ benevolence and assistance to the Jews in the holocaust serves as partial reason for the public’s myopia on the largest genocides in the past century.
Another likely contribution to this myopia is depictions of genocides in film and television, overwhelmingly the two greatest sources of public news dissemination over the last fifty years. According to Annette Insdorf’s Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust, considered the standard on the subject, 442 holocaust films have been made as of 2002. By comparison, Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Program lists 11 films on its subject, the Internet Movie Database lists 20 on the Rwandan Genocide, and according to Jerry Papazian of the Armenian Film Foundation, there are two feature films on the Armenian Genocide.
Inequalities in these numbers point to a bias in Hollywood that leads some to develop conspiracy theories of the media being controlled by “Jews.” Though, the most likely cause behind the lopsidedness in Hollywood is probably due to a culture of taste that’s shaped by the same ideological storyline of the United States as rescuer that permeates school textbooks. Hollywood is utmost concerned with its bottom line as opposed to educating the public. Movies about the Jewish Holocaust have proved a wise marketing decision since they satiate desires to understand the worst and best of humanity, while allowing Americans to feel emotionally vindicated as the “rescuers.”
Finally, when considering the imbalance of public awareness concerning different genocides, one can’t overlook the factor of lobbying power in Washington. Though the Armenian lobby appears to have persuaded a tenuous majority in congress to support official US recognition of its holocaust, its influence is dwarfed by that of the Israel lobby, AIPAC. While Turkey’s denial and threats to invade northern Iraq may ultimately thwart the Armenian Genocide resolution, the Israel Lobby received recognition of its genocide, and rightly so, decades ago. It would be unthinkable to imagine a scenario where congress would equivocate on condemning any aspect of the Jewish Holocaust because it wasn’t politically expedient. Rightly or wrongly, the close relationship between the US and Israel attributes to the American perception of the importance of different genocides.
Despite all these reasons listed for unevenness in public awareness of genocides, there is one which stands out most important amongst them all. And that is the United States own hand in committing genocide. It has directly done so in Vietnam, Japan, its own backyard during colonial times, and now in Iraq. To be sure, there are differences that critics will highlight. But whether the dead are lined up and shot or the unfortunate victims of “collateral damage,” the effect is the same: destruction of human lives on a massive scale. And until life abroad is valued equally with life at home, imparity over recognition of different genocides will not only continue, but genocide itself will.