Archive | May, 2015

America at Its Best is Strange

31 May

America at Its Best

 

America even at its best is a strange place, alive with contradictions, a Teflon political culture that has an unshakable faith in its innocent and virtuous national character and its overall impact on the world, impervious to the ghosts of slavery and of ethnic cleansing of native Americans that should be tormenting our sleep and darkening our dreams, comfortable with its robust gun culture, and with its promiscuous reliance on rogue drones engineered to kill on command and on the brutal happenings that take place in black sites immorally situated in countries whose leaders agree to avert their gaze from the dirty work taking place. Looked at from a short distance this is not a pretty picture.

 

Yet there are still those rare moments when this unsavory national profile seems not to be telling the whole story. For instance, I felt heartened by a recent news item reporting that the conservative Nebraska Legislature voted to abolish capital punishment, and in doing so went so far as to override the governor’s veto. That’s right, Nebraska!

 

Unfortunately, the welcome Nebraska move may not survive the backlash in the making. The Republican state governor, Pete Ricketts, vows to overturn the new law: “My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical law to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families.” He is supported in this lethal passion by a pro-capital punishment legislator who proposes arranging a ballot initiative that supposedly will allow Nebraskans to reinstate the death penalty. It is not yet certain whether this is a legally permissible tactic.

 

While the abolitionist move stands there is a strong temptation to commend Nebraska for such an unexpected show of humanistic sensitivity, but that would be misleading, overlooking what actually swayed the majority to vote the way they did. Speaking for this majority, Peter Collins put it this way, “We went into it wanting to remain objective. This is purely about costs.” And sure enough, it seems that it was primarily conservatives, not liberals, that pushed hardest for abolition on the amoral grounds of fiscal conservatism and a commitment to “philosophical consistency” when it comes to entrusting the government with authority over life and death. As a Republican legislator, Laure Elke, insisted the bill was “a matter of conscience,” because if you are not able to trust the government on health care, how can it be trusted on such irrevocable life/death decisions. A few other conservatives were apparently troubled by the seeming contradiction between supporting the right to life for the unborn as a sacred matter while permitting a state government to impose death on a life in being.

 

The main crusader for the bill was a Democrat, Senator Ernie Chambers who had tried 37 times during his forty years in the Nebraska Legislature to get rid of the death penalty before achieving this notable victory. Even Chambers was forced to acknowledge that it was ‘conservative pragmatism’ not liberal idealism that made the difference, taking note of a growing Republican trend to oppose capital punishment because it is viewed as costly, inefficient, and for some, un-Christian. On one level, who cares why capital punishment was abolished. It is the outcome that counts. Yet on a second level, it is worth caring, because if the decision reflects cost/benefit assessments rather than a principled ethical stand, it could be quickly reversed when calculations changed.

 

It is indeed a strange country: rapid public strides in the direction of freedom to shape one’s own gender identity giving rise to a series of vindictive pushbacks by those that want to impose their particular life style on those that seek to live differently in ways that do no harm. The opportunistic rants of right wing politicians on such issues as same sex marriage, trans gender identity, and abortion may not be meant to hurt and demean but they do. They hurt and demean those who want to live openly their authentic identities or deeply felt needs, which is what freedom should mean for all of us, not just for ourselves but our neighbors, that is, for every sentient being on the planet. and are so often elsewhere in our world forced to live in locked closets or face harsh criminal punishments. Is not this the deeper meta-religious significance of globalization. For all that is wrong with what the United States is doing to others throughout the world, these explorations on the frontiers of personal freedom might be the start of a better page of national history if this forward momentum can be sustained and exported in relation to personal self-determination.

 

Perhaps, and only perhaps, what we insist upon for ourselves might finally spill over with respect to what we to do to others. I don’t expect the drones to disappear anytime soon or even for capital punishment to become a bad memory, but at least more folks will begin to draw the sort of connection that to align themselves with a conservative repositioning similar to what turned a big majority of legislators against the death penalty in Nebraska. Given the political climate in the country, ‘conservative pragmatism’ may be the best we can currently hope for at this time for America. Sadly, the 99% have once again left the playing field of political life enabling the 1% to indulge their inexhaustible appetites.

 

Of course, for me the abolition of capital punishment has never been a matter of cost/benefit analysis whether measured in dollars or bureaucratic efficiency. It is a matter purely situated in the domain of values. I believe that no government should ever be given the authority to kill its own citizens, or that anyone anywhere should be vested with authority to kill without proper submission to the rule of law, whether acting domestically or internationally, and I believe it would benefit prospects for species survival if many of us as possible strive for and advocate a comprehensive ethos of nonviolence or what Glenn Paige has dubbed ‘a non-killing politics.’ For now, this is a utopian wish, but this goal has long struck me as being a time sensitive ethical and biopolitical imperative. In the domain of social practice, I feel the same way about same-sex marriage, gender self-determination, and the reproductive rights of women. Capital punishment is about wrongful death, same-sex marriage is an emotional component of the right to life, and reproductive rights recognize the sacred endowments and personal responsibility of women in relation to their own bodies.

 

America is not alone in being strange. All countries are strange reflecting the particularities of tradition and experience. Strangeness is bound up with originality and contradiction, and is not necessarily negative. We can be inspired by what is strange and wonderful, and appalled by what is strange and abusive. It is this negative strangeness that we must struggle to mitigate, whether it be capital punishment, human trafficking, or the subjugation that accompanies deep poverty and all forms of forcible dispossession.

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Parodies of Parity: Israel & Palestine

14 May

Parodies of Parity: Israel & Palestine

 

As long ago as 1998 Edward Said reminded the world that acting as if Palestinians were equally responsible with Israelis for the persisting struggle of the two peoples was not only misleading, but exhibited a fundamental in misunderstanding of the true reality facing the two peoples: “The major task of the American or Palestinian intellectual of the left is to reveal the disparity between the so-called two sides, which appears to be in perfect balance, but are not in fact. To reveal that this is an oppressed and an oppressor, a victim and a victimizer, and unless we recognize that, we’re nowhere.” [interview with Bruce Robbins published in Social Text (1998)] I would rephrase Said’s statement by substituting ‘any engaged citizen and morally sensitive intellectual’ for ‘the American or Palestinian intellectual of the left.’ We do not need to be on the left to expose the cruel hypocrisy of suppressing gross disparities of circumstances, or more to the point, blocking out the multiple diplomatic, military, material, and psychological advantages enjoyed by Israel as compared to the Palestine. “It is elementary, my dear Watson!” as Sherlock Holmes so often exclaimed, or at least it should be.

 

Unfortunately, a principal instrument of the mind numbing diplomacy of the United States is precisely aimed at avoiding any acknowledgement of the disparity that at the core of the encounter. As a result, the American public is confused as to what it is reasonable to expect from the two sides and how to interpret the failure of negotiations to get anywhere time and again. This failure is far from neutral. It is rather the disparity that has done the most damage to peace prospects ever since 1967: This pattern of delay has kept the Palestinians in bondage while allowing the Israelis build and create armed communities on occupied Palestinian land that was supposedly put aside for the future Palestinian state.

 

Beyond this appeal to intellectuals, Said’s message should be understood by everyone everywhere, and not just by Americans and Israelis, although these are the two populations most responsible for the prolonged failure to produce a peace based on justice. Elsewhere, except possibly in parts of Western Europe, such a discourse as to shared responsibility for the ongoing struggle is not so relevant because the ugly forms of Israeli exploitation of the Palestinian ordeal have become increasingly transparent in recent years. Only in America and Canada has the combined manipulations of hasbara and the Israel Lobby kept the public from sensing the extremities of Palestinian suffering. For decades Europeans gave Israel the benefit of the doubt, partly reflecting a sense of empathy for the Jewish people as victims of the Holocaust without giving much attention to the attendant displacement of the indigenous Arab population. Such an outlook, although still influential at the governmental level, loses its tenability with each passing year. 

Beyond this, there are increasing expressions of grassroots solidarity with the Palestinian struggle by most peoples in the world. It is a misfortune of the Palestinians that most political leaders in the world are rarely moved to act to overcome injustice, and are far more responsive to hegemonic structures that control world politics and their perception of narrowly conceived national interests. This pattern has become most vividly apparent in the Arab world where the people scream when Israel periodically launches its attacks on Gazan civilian society while their governments smile quietly or avert their eyes as the bombs drop and the hospitals fill up.

 

In Israel, the argument as to balance also has little resonance as Israelis, if they pause to wonder at all, tend to blame the Palestinians for failing to accept past Israeli conflict-resolving proposals initiatives made over the years. Israelis mostly believe that the Barak proposals at Camp David in 2000 and the Sharon ‘disengagement’ from Gaza in 2005 demonstrated Tel Aviv’s good faith. Even Netanyahu, at least when he is not seeking reelection, and is speaking for the benefit of an American audience disingenuously claims Israel’s continuing dedication to a peace process based on seeking a two-state solution while he explains diplomatic gridlock by contending that lacks a Palestinian partner in the search for peace, and never deigns to mention the settlement archipelago as an obstacle.

 

Looked at objectively, by assessing behavior and apparent motivation, it is the Palestinians that have no partner for genuine peace negotiations, and should have stopped long ago acting as if Israel was such a partner. That is, Israel inverts the Said disparity, contending that the public should point its finger of blame at Palestine, not Israel. Of course, this is hasbara in its impurest form. Israel never made a peace proposal that offered Palestinians a solution based on national and sovereign equality and sensitive to Palestinian rights under international law. And as for Sharon’s purported disengagement from Gaza, it was justified at the time in Israel as a way to deflect international pressures building to pursue a diplomatic solution and it was managed as a withdrawal that didn’t loosen the grip of effective control, leaving Gaza as occupied and more vulnerable than it was when the IDF soldiers patrolled the streets. Since 2005 the people of Gaza have suffered far more from Israel’s military domination than in all the years following 1967 when occupation commenced, and it should be clear, this outcome was not a reaction to Hamas and rockets. Hamas has repeated sought and upheld ceasefires that Israel has consistently violated, and offered long-term arrangements for peaceful coexistence that Israel and the United States have refused to even acknowledge.

 

Where the equivalence argument is so influential is with the Obama administration and among liberal Zionists, including such NGOs as J Street and Peace Now that are critical of Israel for blocking progress toward a two-state solution. It is a blindfold that obscures the structural reality of the relationship between the two sides, and believes that if Israel would make some small adjustments in their occupation policy, especially in relation to settlements, and if the Palestinians would do the same with respect to refugees and accepting Israel as a Jewish state, then a negotiated peace would follow as naturally as day follows night. In effect, Israel is expected to curtail unlawful settlement activity in exchange for Palestine suspending its rights under international law affecting the situation of several million Palestinian refugees. As is widely known, Jews from anywhere in the world have an unconditional right to immigrate to Israel, whereas Palestinian living abroad with deep residence roots in the country are almost totally banished from Israel including if their purpose is to resume residence so as to live with close family members.

 

In Ramallah back in March 2013, and speaking to a Palestinian gathering, President Obama did forcefully say that “The Palestinians deserve an end to occupation and the daily indignities that come with it,” and this will require “a state of their own.” Obama even then acknowledged “that the status quo isn’t really a status quo, because the situation on the ground continues to evolve in a direction that makes it harder to reach a two-state solution.” Such a display of circumlocution (“..continues to evolve in a direction”) so as to avoid clearing mentioning Israel’s continuous encroachment on the land set aside by the international consensus, is for a discerning reader all that one needs to know. The unwillingness to challenge frontally Israel’s unlawful and obstructive behavior is underscored by Obama’s reassurances given to a separate Israeli audience in Jerusalem on the same day that he spoke guardedly to the Palestinian, with such phrases as “America’s unwavering commitment,” ‘unbreakable bonds,” “our alliance is eternal, it is forever,” “unshakeable support,” and “your greatest friend.” No such language of reassurance was offered the Palestinians. His two speeches left no doubt that Israel retained its upper hand, and could continue to rest easy with this status quo of simmering conflict that had worked so long in its favor.

 

The Secretary of State, John Kerry, ploughs the same field, calling on both sides to make “painful concessions.” Obama in his Jerusalem speech illustrated what this concretely might mean, assuming that the two sides were equally called upon to act if peace were to be achieved. The Palestinians were called upon to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, while Israel was politely reminded in language so vague as to be irrelevant, “Israelis must recognize that settlement activity is counterproductive.” To ask Palestinians to recognize Israel is to affirm as legitimate the discriminatory regime under which the 20% Palestinian minority lives, while asking the Israelis to recognize that the counterproductive character of settlement expansion is to misunderstand Israeli intentions. If their goal is to avoid the establishment of a Palestinian state then being ‘counterproductive’ is exactly the result being sought. Besides asking the Palestinians to abridge their rights while requesting Israel to admit that their settlement activity is not helping the diplomatic process is to appeal to their self-interest, and avoid a demand to cease and reverse an unlawful, likely criminal, activity. The false equivalence is a metaphor for the deformed framework of diplomacy that has unfolded largely as a result of the United States being accepted as the presiding intermediary, a role for which it is totally unsuited to play. This lack of qualification is admitted by its own frequent declarations of a high profile strategic and ideological partnership with Israel, not to mention the interference of a domestic Israeli lobby that controls Congress and shapes the media allocation of blame and praise in relation to the conflict.

 

Kerry expresses the same kind of one-sidedness in the guise of fairness when he calls on the parties to make compromises: “..we seek reasonable compromises on tough complicated, emotional, and symbolic issues. I think reasonable compromises has to be a keystone of all of this effort.” What kind of compromises are the Palestinians supposed to make, given that they are already confined to less and less of the 22% of the British Mandatory territory of Palestine, and since 1988 have sought no greater proportion of the land. Kerry’s approach overlooks, as well, the defiant refusal of Israel to act in good faith in relation to the 1967 Security Council Resolution 242 that called upon Israel to withdraw without claiming territory through its use of force or by taking advantage of being the occupying power. In the interim, while being unwilling to do anything concrete to implement its view of decades that Israeli settlement activity is ‘counterproductive’ the United States proclaims and proves its readiness to oppose any Palestinian attempt to gain access to the UN to express its grievances, an effort which Obama denigrated as “unilateral attempts to bypass negotiations through the UN.” The Palestinian Authority has repeatedly made clear that it favors a resumption of direct negotiations with Israel, despite being at a great disadvantage within such a framework, and insists persuasively that there is no inconsistency between its seeking greater participation in international institutions and its continued readiness to work toward a diplomatic solution of the conflict. If Israel and the United States were sincerely dedicated to a sustainable peace, they would encourage this Palestinian turn away from violent resistance, and their increased effort to push their cause by persuasion rather than missiles, to advance their cause by gaining respectability through joining institutions and adhering to lawmaking treaties instead of being confined in a prolonged rightless lockdown euphemistically disguised as ‘occupation.’

 

In the end, we cannot see the situation for what it is without reverting to theSaid insistence that the relation between oppressor and oppressed is a paramount precondition for sustainable peace. Unless the structural distortion and illegitimacy is acknowledged, no viable political arrangement will be forthcoming. From this perspective the Kerry emphasis on ‘reasonable compromise’ is as mind numbingly irrelevant as it would have been in seeking a peaceful end to racial struggle in apartheid South Africa by demanding that ANC and Nelson Mandela become amenable to compromise with their racist overlords. Peace will come to Israel and Palestine, and be sustained, if and only if the oppressor becomes ready to dismantle its oppressive regime by withdrawing, not merely by disengaging Gaza style. At present, such a readiness is not to be found on the Israeli side, and so long as this is so, direct negotiations and these periodic calls issued by Washington to resume direct talks have one main effect–to free Israel to realize its ambition to establish ‘Greater Israel’ while keeping the Palestinians in chains. This ambition has not yet been explicitly embraced by the Israeli leadership, although only those who refuse to notice what is happening on the ground can fail to notice this expansionist pattern. Israel’s new coalition government even more rightest and pro-settler than its predecessor makes Israel’s ambition to end the conflict by self-serving unilateral action less and less a well kept state secret.

The Semantics of Struggle

9 May

Words Against the Grain

 

While reporting to the UN on Israel’s violation of basic Palestinian rights I became keenly aware of how official language is used to hide inconvenient truths. Language is a tool used by the powerful to keep unpleasant realities confined to shadow lands of incomprehension.

 

Determined to use the rather modest flashlight at my disposal to illuminate the realities of the Palestinian ordeal as best I could, meant replacing words that obscure ugly realities with words that expose as awkward truths often as possible. My best opportunity to do this was in my annual reports to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the General Assembly in New York. My courageous predecessor as Special Rapporteur, John Dugard, deserves credit for setting the stage, effectively challenging UN complacency with language that looked at the realities lurking below the oily euphemisms that diplomat seem so fond of.

 

Of course, I paid a price for such a posture as did Dugard before me. Your name is added to various black lists, and doors once open are quietly closed, if not slammed shut. If the words used touched enough raw nerves, you become a target of invective and epithets. In my case, my temporary visibility as UN Special Rapporteur meant being called ‘an anti-Semite,’ even ‘a notorious anti-Semite,’ and on occasion ‘a self-hating Jew.’ Strong Zionist pressures are now seeking to induce legislative bodies in the United States to brand advocacy of BDS or harsh criticism of Israel as prohibited forms of ‘hate speech.’ In April of this year pressures  by the British Jewish Board of Deputies led the University of Southampton to cancel a major academic conference on the Israel/Palestine conflict.

 

In relation to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the clarifying/some of the offending words are ‘apartheid,’ ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ‘settler colonialism,’ ‘annexation,’ ‘crimes against humanity,’ and ‘genocide.’ The UN evades such invasions of light by speaking of Israeli ‘occupation’ (as if a static reality without history) and without challenging certain strong normative tendencies, including the criminalization of apartheid and ethnic cleansing, the delegitimation of colonialism, and the unlawfulness of annexation (as in Jerusalem by legal diktat and the West Bank by the de facto settlement phenomenon).

 

It was my experience that using words that connect the realities with the norms changes the discourse that is used by some of those at the UN and in the media, especially among those who seek genuinely to understand the significance of what is actually happening. Right language encourages right action. What is right language follows from how convincingly the word links to the reality being pointed to, and whether ideological obstacles can be overcome. The weakness of Israel’s position from the perspective of controversy is being expressed by their avoidance of substantive debate, for instance, challenging the labeling of occupation as apartheid, and recourse instead to character assassination of those who dared to connect these dots.

 

I feel that Israel is losing this struggle to obscure the true nature of their activities, and its devastating effects on Palestinian lives and rights. Whether this will mean that Israel will alter its policies is far less clear, and certainly not assured, and the outcome of the 2015 Israeli elections and formation of the new coalition government would suggest that the most extremist Israeli government ever has been installed under the leadership of Netanyahu and the Likud Party.

 

Nothing should be more shocking to Western liberal sensibilities than the appointment of Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home Party as the Minister of Justice in Netanyahu’s newly formed coalition government. Ms. Shaked, while being a member of the Knesset, became globally notorious as a result of her post sent around during the Israeli attack on Gaza in the summer of 2014 in which she called the entire Palestinian population the “enemy” that “should be destroyed.” Leaving no room doubt she went on to say that even that even “its elderly and and its women” should not be spared, and that the killing of Palestinian mothers is justified because they give birth “to little snakes.” Ali Abunimah asks rhetorically, “If Shaked’s post does not meet the legal definition of genocide then nothing does.” What is as shocking as these sentiments of Shaked is the silence of the Western media and leaders in the face of such an appointment in the only democracy in the region. Imagine the self-righteous angry posturing from liberals in the West if Hamas dared to select such a personality from their ranks to serve as the Minister of Justice. As it is the Hamas Covenant is invoked to confirm genocidal sentiments although subsequent behavior and political initiatives have moved in a far more accommodating direction. What is at stake is the discriminatory manner of either noticing or not noticing the elevation of adherents of ‘genocide’ to the pinnacles of state power. This two-way approach to language is fully displayed in the political discourse surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflict. And closer to home, compare Ayelet’s selection as Minister of Justice after her offensive tweet with the University of Illinois’ breach of Steven Salaita’s contract to become a tenured professor in reaction to his tweets expressing his outrage about Israel’s 51 day criminal assault on Gaza last summer. It conveys a lively sense of the extremity to which double standards are carried when it comes to Israeli behavior. 

 

There is another set of intense struggles around language that arise when a single word is insisted upon because of its emotive value, and possibly its legal ramifications. I am referring to the unconditional insistence of the Armenian diaspora that the catastrophic events that climaxed in the 1915 massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians should be acknowledged as ‘genocide’ by Turkey in the form of an official apology by the government and its leaders. The Armenian insistence stems from several motivations, it seems. Above all, the fact that once ‘genocide’ is admitted, then the link to ultimate evil is established beyond controversy, the Armenian narrative is validated beyond controversy, descendants of victims are granted a kind of clisure, and what happened to the Armenians is implicitly equated with what later happened to the Jews as a result of Naziism. It is psychologically important to prevail with respect to how these events are described so as to alleviate the pain endured over the years by the Armenian people because of what they have experienced as ‘genocide denial’ on the part of Turkey.

 

Turkey’s response to the Armenian allegations has evolved over the years, but it remains somewhat edgy. The 2014 statement of Erdogan seemed to accept the Armenian narrative to the extent of acknowledging the massacres and wrongdoings of 1915, while stopping well short of using the G-word. A few weeks ago, Prior to the centenary of April 24, Pope Francis brought his moral authority to bear by describing in a solemn mass as ‘genocide’ what happened to the Armenian people, and called upon Turkey to recognize these events for what they were. In reaction, Erdogan and other Turkish leaders stepped back, declaring that the issue of what happened in 1915 has not yet been sufficiently resolved by historians to justify attaching the word ‘genocide’ to this horrific set of events, that wrongdoing was not as one-sided as Armenians claim, and that the pope stepped out of line by issuing such an ill-informed and partisan statement concerning historical events that are complex and contested. 

 

Taking a different tack than that of Pope Francis, Barack Obama angered Armenians (even more than the pope angered Turks) by refusing to include the word ‘genocide’ in his centenary message to the Armenian people, instead using the Armenian descriptive Meds Yegham (the great calamity). Obama added that the 1915 events constituted a ‘massacre,’ produced ‘a terrible carnage,’ and were ‘a dark chapter of history.’ It seemed meant to be a strong statement of solidarity with the Armenian campaign, omitting only the word ‘genocide,’ but this omission was all that was needed to turn this expression of solidarity with the Armenian call for redress of grievances into an anti-Armenian statement that was unwelcome because it refused to show its support for all that now mattered to the Armenians, namely, that their victimization be regarded as ‘genocide’ beyond any doubt. For this goal to be reached, the endorsement by the U.S. Government is deemed to be necessary, and hence the Obama formulation fell decisively short.  No denunciation of the 1915 events that did not adopt the descriptive label of genocide was acceptable for the aggrieved and mobilized Armenian diaspora. This semantic hard line shows how much meaning can be invested in whether or not a particular word is used.

 

In response to Obama, representatives of the organized Armenian diaspora expressed their disappointment in harsh language, going so far as to say it would have been better if Obama had said nothing at all. They called ‘disgraceful’ his refusal to live up to a 2008 campaign pledge that if elected president he would identify the events of 1915 as genocide. Obama’s apparent justification for this semantic retreat is that as the head of state his primary obligation is to care for the strategic interests of the country, and Turkey as a NATO ally was too important to antagonize over such an issue. But my point here is to take account of the power of the word, as well as to notice that the language functions differently in private and public domains. To refer to 1915 as Meds Yegham is a strong affirmation of the Armenian narrative. By comparison, if Obama were to describe the dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948 as the nakba, there would be dancing in the streets of Ramallah and Gaza City. Such a designation, if ever used by an American president, would be correctly viewed as a mighty slap in Israel’s face and a great symbolic victory for the Palestinians. The point here is that the Armenians have been able to raise the threshold of semantic redress to the very highest level by this insistence on genocide, and accompanying sentiment that nothing else will be acceptable, while the Palestinians have yet to receive even a formal acknowledgement that they were victims of a calamity in the less incendiary terminology of Arabic, much less that of genocide or ethnic cleansing.

 

What are we to make of this bitter fight about the words used to describe a series of events that happened 100 years ago? First, and most obviously, words matter, and are made to matter deeply by political actors, especially when the purpose is to challenge conventional wisdom. Some words achieve a charismatic stature, and none more than genocide. [As an aside, I was never more attacked by Zionist activists and the mainstream media than when in 2007 I referred in a newspaper article to Israel’s policies of punitive siege imposed on the entire civilian population of Gaza as ‘genocidal’ (not ‘genocide’) in its intent and effect, a contention given governmental endorsement by Shaked’s appointment, but still manages to slip under the radar of Western moral and political sensibilities.

 

Secondly, the alleged Turkish reason for its objection to genocide is based on the factual contention that historical realities of 1915 remain contested, and can only be resolved by an international commission composed of historians enjoying unrestricted archival access. The Armenians summarily reject such an approach as proof of Turkish bad faith, insisting that there already exists an authoritative international consensus supportive of their claim of genocide due to the establishment of systematic, one-sided, deliberate massive slaughter designed to eliminate the Armenian presence in Turkey. Thirdly, the American position is aligned with the Armenians on the facts, but with the Turks on the appropriate language at governmental levels, which seems the weakest of all rationalizations for evading the charge of genocide. Fourthly, if the search is for a way to resolve the conflict, the Armenian tactic of invoking foreign governments and moral authority figures such as the pope, is dysfunctional although it does provide strong moral support for the campaign. If, on the contrary, the mobilization of support is primarily intended to generate a heightened collective memory of victimization among Armenians, then soliciting these external expressions of solidarity from leading moral authority figures is of great value.

 

I find my own view trapped midway between the positions put forward by Pope Francis and President Erdogan. On the facts, although as Turkey argues the events occurred in wartime with the Armenians acting as adversaries and sometimes engaged in violence against Turks, still the basic character of the events  certainly seemed to be genocidal in character, with entire Armenian communities being forced to make death marches. As a lawyer, however, I would refrain from using the label genocide as there was no crime of genocide in 1915, and criminal law can never properly have a retroactive application. As I have pointed out before, even the London Agreement of 1945 setting up the Nuremberg Tribunal to assess Nazi crimes did not include ‘genocide’ among the international crimes that could be charged even though the word genocide had been coined by Rafael Lemkin in 1944, or before.

 

Yet is it not appropriate in view of the consensus on the facts, to recognize the links to catastrophes that have been definitively called genocide by affixing the term to the onslaught against Armenians planned and executed by ‘the young Turks’ acting under Ottoman authority? Surely no sane person objects to categorizing the Holocaust as ‘genocide’ even though the death camps were established and the final solution occurred before the Genocide Convention of 1950, and was long underway before Raphael Lemkin had invented the word. Thinking along this line, and acknowledging that the crime of genocide had yet to be established, it would seem that it is politically, morally, and therapeutically correct to describe the 1915 tragic ordeal of the Armenian people as genocide, but legally irresponsible to do. In this gap between semantic contexts there seems room for a conflict resolving compromise. Yet the distinction drawn may seem obscure, and somewhat academic, unlikely in the end to be attractive for either side in the controversy.

 

How, then, can such an encounter over the word be resolved? It seems doubtful that Turkey will back down without some face saving ritual, and it is virtually certain that the Armenian diaspora having raised the temperature surrounding this single word to such a fever pitch will be content with anything less than a full fledged Turkish capitulation. The Armenian campaign will certainly continue to refuse to risk an ambiguous outcome arising from convening the sort of historical inquiry that Turkey proposes as the necessary next step in resolving the controversy. It doesn’t require much sophistication to conclude that the parties are stuck and likely to remain so for a long time.

 

This is a pity. Both sides would have much to gain by finding a way forward. It is quite likely that if the word issue was finessed, Turkey would be relieved, and go out of its way to preserve a vibrant memory of the events through such initiatives as a national museum, agreeing to a commemorative day, and hosting a variety of Armenian cultural events. If the Turkish leadership could persuade itself that the historical issue is substantially settled, and what matters is the present relationship, maybe then it could issue the kind of statement the Armenian people so fervently seek, and a mutually beneficial future could likely unfold. Both sides need to look in the mirror sufficiently to realize that more is at stake then fidelity to their fixed position for and against the use of the word genocide. Yet, the way in which psycho-political works, it is likely that the wait for such a sensible breakthrough to happen will be long. The burden of magnanimity is on the Turkish side, the stronger party and with less at stake concerning national identity.

 

Before concluding, I would mention another word that is obstructing reason and decency in the national and global political realm. It is ‘terrorism,’ used to demonize the grievances and the tactics of the adversary, and in mainstream discourse preempted by governments and their media apologists to create an unbridgeable moral distance between themselves and a political challenge.

“We refuse to negotiate with terrorists” is the rationale for keeping a hot war going. We should also notice that the language of terrorism is racialized. If the incident involves a white American, there is a tacit turn toward focusing on his mental condition and sociopathic sensibility, but if the suspect is Islamic a frantic search is undertaken to link the acts of violence with either jihadist groups or to trace its source to the Koran.

 

There are efforts to offset equalize word play. For instance, critics of hegemonic semantics introduce the phrase ‘state terror,’ to designate violence by state entities against their non-state enemies. This rejects the attempt by governments to immunize their own violence from censure, while branding the violence of their adversary as morally and legally prohibited because it is terror

 

We know that the accusatory language of terrorism is in the toolkit of governmental policymaking, and can be dropped when convenient. When a political actor is ready to negotiate, adherents of the former enemy are no longer described as ‘terrorists.’ Think how effortlessly the former leaders of the IRA, ANC, or even the PLO were seated at diplomatic dinner tables when the right moment arrived! Yet until the appointed hour, relying on the terminology of terrorism is the equivalent of a hunting license that can be used as a rationale for torture, disproportionate force, civilian casualties, extraordinary rendition, drone strikes, and special ops wherever, whenever without regard to constraints of law or morality.

 

Public reason in democratic society would greatly benefit from a renunciation of terrorism as a respectable term of art. Instead, the focus could be placed on what to do in effective and humane ways to sustain security and safeguard just political orders. In effect, to forego the temptation to call the enemy ‘a terrorist’ the path would be clear to talk as well as fight, and to resist the absurd dichotomy that we are totally ‘good’ and the adversary is totally ‘evil.’

 

But what if the insurgent challenge is demonizing the established order by contending that it is decadent, corrupt, and oppressive? Is it not reasonable if such a critique jumps the barriers of law, and mobilizes for violent struggle, to respond? Of course it is not only reasonable, but morally and politically imperative to respond as persuasively as possible, and to uphold the security of what is deemed legitimate societal arrangements. What is not helpful, actually diversionary, is to respond as if the struggle was between good and evil, and that is what happens as soon as the insurgent challenger is labeled

‘a terrorist.’ Such language exempts the defenders of the status quo from self-criticism and considering accommodationist tactics, proscribing negotiation and assessment of grievances. The response to ‘terrorists’ is war talk, rendering peace talk as irrelevant of worse.

 

Shall we also abandon the label of ‘state terror’ for crimes of the state associated with violence directed toward the innocent? Yes, as part of a wider semantic contract to banish ‘terrorism’ from the lexicon of political discourse. Yet, not unilaterally, as under existing conditions ‘state terror’ at least creates some understanding that it is the manner of deploying violence that should be repudiated rather than the blackening of insurgent reputation. As terrorism is used on behalf of the state, even violence carefully directed at state structures and their human instrumentalities are called ‘terrorists.’ In any event, state terror calls attention to policies and practices, and does not purport to demonize the state itself, leaving open possibilities of diplomacy and reconciliation.

 

At the very least, it would be a salutary move to call for a moratorium on the use of the word ‘terrorist’ from this day forward. And as with the fierce ideological struggles over ‘genocide’ it is best to know when to be provocative so as to expose suppressed realities and when to be pacifying so as to calm the atmosphere raising hopes for compromise and a shift of energies in the direction of nonviolent struggle.