United Human Rights Council
January 15, 2010
On November 2, 1965, a man drove a barrowed Cadillac into the parking lot of the Pentagon in Virginia. He got out of it somewhat lost in his thoughts. He grabbed an eleven month-old baby girl from the passenger seat and a jug of gasoline from the trunk. He walked to a grassy spot outside of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s office. He placed the baby girl a few yards away from himself. He poured the jug of gasoline on his head. Lighting a match, he lit the seams of his pants where they met his shoes. All at once, he became a ball of raging fire and died within seconds.
On August 20, 2009, a man placed a log on a rural road in Zonguldak, Turkey. He then hid behind a tree and waited for a pickup truck to approach. It did. It was carrying a family of four — a mother, a father and their two daughters, ages 24 and 26. The sisters got out of the vehicle to clear the way. He shot them to death point blank. He then targeted their parents. They died in their seats. Walking to their house, he slaughtered two more. One was his wife, the family’s youngest daughter; and the other, her brother, its youngest son. He grabbed a five-month-old baby, his son, from the crib and went to his father’s home.
What do these stories have in common? Can they teach us anything of value? The media branded their actions as crazy. The authorities denounced the American and arrested the Turk. Was that a proper thing to do? If people in power had bothered to go beyond the headlines, the war in Vietnam, the reason behind the first act, might not have gone on for another ten years, and the one in Kurdistan, where the Turkish killer had first acquired his taste to shed blood like water, might have been seen in a different light and, why not, brought to an end as well. Alas, that is not what happened in either 1965 or 2009. Tonight, I want to share with you some of my reflections about war, peace, evil, and forgiveness and their implications for us, as Armenians, Kurds, Turks and Americans.
First, a little bit of perspective about the American may be in order here. It turns out, he was not crazy at all. Or even if he were, he was crazy good. We need those crazy-and-good folks from time to time. Thomas Jefferson would not have disapproved of what he did. The author of America’s Declaration of Independence thought every generation needed its rebels to avoid ghastly mistakes or degeneration. We are creatures of comfort and habit — sometimes to our detriment. When our countries sign up for gratuitous murder, we are insane to allow it. The wages of war are seldom peace and tranquility. And if destiny has thrown a bit of compassion, understanding, tolerance and love onto our personal lots, then it has also burdened us to share them with others, especially those who have appointed themselves as our adversaries.
The American who became a ball of raging fire on that November day in 1965 was a Quaker by faith and a minister of a church by profession. The little girl that he took to the Pentagon was his youngest daughter, Emily. He had two other children and a wife. They all knew him as a beloved father and caring husband whose Christian name was Norman Morrison. They lived in Baltimore, Maryland. On the morning of the day that he ended his life, a news story had rattled him. The reporter had interviewed the priest of Duc Co, a village in Vietnam, who had witnessed the death of his parishioners, some of whom children still in diapers, by Napalm by American forces. As a man of the cloth, what could he do to stop it? Immolating himself and his baby in front of the building that oversaw the war effort, he thought, might just do the job. Unfortunately, it didn’t.
Those who were in charge of the U.S. government were incapable of hearing the cry of his soul. They continued with their hypocrisy and folly for another decade. A senseless war poisoned the life of the planet between two peoples who should never have gone to war in the first place. Today, that is clear to us. Or is it? Doing a little bit of research on the topic, I have reached a different conclusion. It is, I should perhaps say, clear to the Vietnamese. In Vietnam, Norman Morrison’s pictures adorn stamps and history books. Streets and schools are named after him. Prose and poetry keep his memory alive. But in the country of his birth, very few Americans know of his contribution to peace. Many more still think we can never cure ourselves of war and its devastating consequences.
If this story of the American pacifist is heartrending and uplifting at the same time, the story of the Turk, Safak Koksal, who killed almost all of his wife’s family, is too painful to contemplate. A little bit of his past is in order as well. To begin with, he was a veteran of Turkey’s killing fields in Kurdistan. There, he had apparently murdered eight Kurds — by his accounts — but he didn’t call them as such, for him, they were lesler, a Turkish word, which translates to something like, stinking carcasses. But perhaps he was living through a lie. Perhaps like his government, he knew that killing Kurds for being Kurds was wrong. And wrongs never add up to a right, do they?
The wrongs that were inflicted on the Armenians when our grandparents were alive or the ones that I witnessed as a Kurd growing up in Turkish occupied Kurdistan should not be conflated with what Safak Koksal did to his in-laws. You were targeted because you were Armenians. We were fools to help your destroyers. Like some Poles and some Ukrainians who helped the Nazis, some of us allowed ourselves to aid and abet the cause of evildoers. I am glad to note that Kurds occupying higher positions of authority, than yours truly, have asked you to forgive us. The dead are beyond the purview of this lecture, but the living heal faster if their pain is acknowledged. Count me among those who are with you in your hour of grief and remembrance.
I can’t help but share with you, since I am on the topic of wrongs, a personal anecdote that relates to the cataclysmic events of 1915 as well. I grew up in a village that I thought was Kurdish. All its inhabitants were, and it never crossed my mind to dig into its past. Years later, in Washington, DC, I befriended an Armenian who startled me with his revelation that it could actually be Armenian. He said, “The name of your village, Gavgas, means Caucasus, in the Armenian language.” I couldn’t help but think of its blood drenched past. My parents were quiet on its origins. In Turkey, it was not safe, for a long time, to second-guess our status as “Mountain Turks” or our homeland as “Turkey.” The village was given a new Turkish name, but we never bothered to use it; we continued using its original name. Today, again, it is drained of its inhabitants. What will its fate be like tomorrow? Will peace ever be among its blessings?
After your people’s existential brush with death in the 1890s and 1910s, we came under a policy less ghoulish but just as grotesque — extirpation through cultural genocide — with the establishment of the new Turkish state. Because no one accounted for what was done to you, no one has bothered with what is being done to us. But I have not come here to lend my support to the maxim that misery likes company. If anything, my presence should be seen in the light of the old Victorian observation that one cannot feel real compassion for other people unless one has first experienced what they have. Safak Koksal, the Turkish soldier, suffered from demons that were not natural to humans. We, as Kurds, know this. You, as Armenians, can lecture the world on the topic. His government failed him; he, in turn, failed his son, his wife and his extended family on both sides. He needs our help, as does his government. And here is a question that is worth more than 64 thousand dollars: how do you aid a government that refuses to acknowledge past wrongs and will not stop committing new ones?
I don’t know about you, but all I see is a vicious cycle. “Our past,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne once put it, “is a rough draft of our present and our future.” Is it? What if that past is too painful to remember and too gruesome for repetition? As a kid, I witnessed a Turkish soldier manhandle my father for his lack of proficiency in the Turkish language. I made up for that deficiency, mastered the language of our oppressors, but honesty compels me to say it out loud: I am struggling with the concept of forgiveness. The best that I can muster, by way of responding to that hurt, is to make sure that the generation that comes after me is not subjected to the same. A future in which we co-exist in full equality with the Turks is the only redeeming path I see in front of us. How we get on that road has been my preoccupation for the past 16 years. I would like to share with you two related observations about my quest. Perhaps you will engage me with some of your reactions after my talk.
The first one belongs to Edmund Burke. He was an Irish statesman. He served in the British House of Commons. A year before the American Revolution, he penned a statement — people later titled it Reconciliation with America — in which he warned his majesty’s government not to make the mistake of branding all Americans as rebels. With his all-encompassing rhetoric, he noted, “I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people. I cannot insult and ridicule the feelings of millions of my fellow creatures[.] … I really think that, for wise men, this is not judicious; for sober men, not decent; for minds tinctured with humanity, not mild and merciful.” We all know what Great Britain did with that advice. Will those who are entrusted with the government in Turkey ever see or hear or feel or heed it?
The second observation comes from Leo Tolstoy. Towards the end of his life, the Russian novelist took a keen interest in the lot of ordinary people and reflected deeply on the question of evil the way our best scientists, these days, focus on the eradication of H1N1, better known as swine flu. In his book, The Kingdom of God is Within You, he wrote movingly of our blind spots and offered ways to check on them worthy of his renown as one of the greatest novelist ever to walk in our midst. In his words, “Those who do evil through ignorance of the truth provoke sympathy with their victims and repugnance for their actions, they do harm only to those they attack; but those who know the truth and do evil masked by hypocrisy, injure themselves and their victims, and thousands of other men as well who are led astray by the falsehood with which the wrongdoing is disguised.”
No one who reads Tolstoy can close his books unaffected. When the Ottoman thugs took advantage of a servile Turkish population to extirpate your people, they crippled you and have, ever since, earned the loathing of the civilized world. Most historians would agree with Tolstoy that the present day Turkish authorities, like their forefathers, feel impervious to the weight of the historical crime because of their ignorance. With us Kurds, they are trying to do the same, but the truth is catching up with them. No amount of hypocrisy can cure or hide Safak Koksal, the Turkish conscript, from the Turkish public. They can’t hurt Kurds unhurt. The Turkish soldier may have killed eight Kurds, but he also killed six Turks. Our honorees, Hrant Dink, Eren Keskin, Leyla Zana, Akin Birdal and Ayse Gunaysu, Armenians, Kurds and Turks alike, have been sounding the alarm bells urging the Turkish authorities to change course. They make me proud, as I know they do you. I salute them, both living and nonliving, as you do with a night of remembrance like this one.
I began my talk with the desperate acts of two disparate fathers and would like to end it with the stories of their children. Emily is now 45 years old and has two babies of her own. In 1999, she visited Vietnam and was honored like a favorite daughter. The Turkish baby is now 10 months old. At birth, his father had given him the name of Dogukan. It is an ominous name, given the events of his life. It means “eastern blood” in Turkish. His late mother had urged his father to drop the word blood from the name, pleading, we should just call him, East or Eastern, but her husband had not budged. He had served in Kurdistan, which the “modern” Turks call “ the East.” There, he had killed eight Kurds in ambush or open battle. There, he had seen Kurdish blood flow like water. There, instead of conquering “demons,” he had been conquered by them. Now that he is behind bars, Dogukan has become a ward of the state. If I thought the Turkish government would consider it, I would make a case for adopting him. Perhaps with some Kurdish love, he would live to redeem his name. Instead of shedding the blood of others, as his father did, he would, like Hrant Dink, urge the Turks, the Kurds and the Armenians alike to cleanse their blood from the poisonous effects of intolerance and hatred. That would bring a smile to the face of Hrant Dink. Another would be if Dogukan befriended his grandson on Facebook.