Unconscionable: Ilhan Omar's stunning refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide

Unconscionable: Ilhan Omar's stunning refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide

Empathy.

It’s a hard word and a much harder practice. Empathy means that you acknowledge not just your pain and suffering, not just the pain and suffering of those close to you, not just the pain and suffering of those like you. Empathy, at its finest, is the acknowledgment of, and making common cause with, the pain, suffering, and hope of those with whom you have nothing in common.

The House voted today to commemorate and acknowledge the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923 by the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey). The vote was overwhelming: 405 Yeas, 11 Nays, and 3 ‘Presents’ (abstentions).

Among the three members voting ‘Present’ was Rep. Ilhan Omar, freshman Democrat of Minnesota who is coming off a weak of endorsing, and campaigning for, Bernie Sanders for president. Rep. Omar prides herself as an advocate for the oppressed and as a leader who stands in solidarity with the pain and suffering of all marginalized groups. The fact that she made herself available to vote, but did not vote in favor of a resolution recognizing one of the most gruesome massacres of the last century is particularly hard to square with the persona of a champion of the oppressed.

Omar made things worse, however, by choosing to defend her vote by insisting that she her vote was not meant to be against the substance of the resolution but the “context.” She explained on Twitter:

If you did a double-take when you read that, welcome to the club. Is Omar seriously arguing that there are “wrong” times to acknowledge a genocide? Just under what context is refusing to acknowledge a genocide a laudable act?

And if the right time to acknowledge one genocide and ethnic cleansing by an empire is not the moment when that empire’s present day heirs are in the midst of another ethnic cleansing operation, when is the right time to do so?

Omar’s statement on her Congressional website is even worse, not least because she hints that the Armenian genocide lacks “academic consensus” to be classified as a genocide at all. She further intimates is that calling what the Ottoman Empire did to Armenians a ‘genocide’ is a political, rather than academic, exercise.

I also believe accountability for human rights violations—especially ethnic cleansing and genocide—is paramount. But accountability and recognition of genocide should not be used as cudgel in a political fight. It should be done based on academic consensus outside the push and pull of geopolitics.

I don’t think this despicable line requires - or deserves - further explanation.

Omar’s statement continues:

A true acknowledgment of historical crimes against humanity must include both the heinous genocides of the 20th century, along with earlier mass slaughters like the transatlantic slave trade and Native American genocide, which took the lives of hundreds of millions of indigenous people in this country. For this reason, I voted ‘present’ on final passage of H.Res. 296, the resolution Affirming the United States record on the Armenian Genocide.”

This is the worst kind of whataboutism. A representative elected to the United States Congress, a self-proclaimed fighter for justice is basically asking, when given the choice to vote to acknowledge a mass civilian slaughter: well, what about them there?

This is to say nothing of the fact that the United States Congress has, in fact, apologized for slavery and segregation, for government policies against Native Americans, and for the Japanese American internment. The Congress did not call the slave trade a genocide, nor acknowledged the genocide against Native Americans in those resolutions, and they should.

But the righteous desire to condemn the slave trade and the Native American genocide cannot be an excuse not to acknowledge another gross crime against humanity. Omar is a member of Congress. She should introduce and lead the passage of resolutions acknowledging the transatlantic slave trade and the European settlers’ slaughter of Native Americans were genocides instead.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And silence - which is exactly what a ‘present’ vote is - against a single genocide is a deafening acquiescence to all of them.


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