The U.S. Needs to Stop Helping Erdogan Gaslight Armenians | Opinion

There are some people who are born with a burden they drag behind them everywhere they go. This is no bird around the neck, something that might be mistaken for a quirky, ostentatious scarf. Picture chains and cement blocks, unwieldy and unforgiving. There is no option to put it down; to give it up; to decline; to say no thank you, I'd rather not. You can develop some strength for it, perhaps, build up muscle from year after year of pulling that weight. You can seek out ways to make it a little easier to manage. Maybe you can grind the cement blocks down a little bit, rearrange the chains. Maybe sometimes another person with chains comes and you sit together and you talk about the chains and there is some relief in the acknowledgement, in not being alone, in someone else understanding, a little bit, what it's like to live with something heavy always dragging behind you.

Being an Armenian in diaspora—a far-flung result of the Armenian genocide, of a century of survival and also a century of epigenetic trauma filtered down, or maybe concentrated, thicker and murkier with each generation—means being one of those people. It means you carry those chains and those blocks behind you all the time, every minute of every day, and once a year you ask if anyone might consider taking a bit of the weight. And every year, they all blink at us innocently and ask, "What weight?" while neatly stepping over the blocks they clearly see are there.

Being Armenian American means that once a year, since birth, we have the same experience, over and over. April 24, our Genocide Remembrance Day, comes and we do a dance that is so repetitive I could scream. We wonder: Is this the year the U.S. will acknowledge our chains, our weights, the burdens we carry? The truth of our families and our history? Politicians always promise they will while they're campaigning for our votes, or energy, our trust. They say things like, "America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian Genocide." And we give them our trust, and our votes, and our energy, over and over, because what choice do we have, but to hope? Hope might be a fool's oxygen, but without it our fires would die.

But every year, they lie. They lie to us and about us, over and over. We hold up our chains and our cement blocks and they pretend not to see them, while simultaneously asking if we could just move about a little less noisily, just be a little less inconvenient about our chains and our cement blocks. The worst part, maybe, is that they lie while telling us that they know they're lying, and it's unreasonable and frankly a little aggressive for us to keep wanting them to tell the truth.

We are lied to and about, year after year after year, and nobody says a word except us. We are gaslit into feeling and probably seeming like fringe lunatics. I've been asked before: Why can't you just move on? Wouldn't their memory be better served fighting to prevent current genocides? To which I have to ask in return: What hope do we have of doing that in a country that won't tell the truth?

I have been told it simply isn't an important enough domestic issue. But I'm American. This is my home; my only home. And I have grown up in a home that has lied to me, repeatedly, about my own history. It has lied and then turned around and winked knowingly, acknowledging in unofficial ways the truth but publicly leaving us to be gaslit by a supposed ally who you all keep thinking is going to come to some sort of peace talk despite the fact that he has done nothing the past several years but foment a nationalist fervor that his education system indoctrinates into every citizen.

I am not surprised or betrayed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's continued gaslighting of my community and the rest of the world. That he does that is a betrayal of his own people; it's the Turkish public he is betraying and I have tremendous sympathy for people who have been systematically lied to effectively since birth.

But at some point, it started to feel less like the U.S. was enabling him, and more like they were actively lying to and about us, all on their own. It was our own relationship, as Armenian Americans, to our own country that suffered. How do you feel safe in a country that doesn't think you have enough value to warrant telling the truth?

I returned, while writing this, to an interview I did a year and a half ago with the researcher Jennifer Freyd, who studies the phenomenon of institutional betrayal. She often looks at situations like workplace harassment (the subject of the story I contacted her about) or campus sexual assault, where a person is harmed and then further harmed by a mishandling or cover-up of their experience by the institution they're a part of. But the basic structure of the experience as I understood it is: Harm is done, and then harm is ignored, dismissed or minimized.

Freyd explained to me that when you add institutional betrayal to someone who is harmed, "They're going to be doing worse. It's a second injury when it occurs."

This is what U.S. denial of the genocide feels like—its own harm, separate and additionally painful from the wounds we carry from our ancestors, from the threat of the majority of our brethren being sandwiched between two countries who consider themselves "two nations, one state" and who collaborated to attack Armenians for 44 days last year, under the cover of the global pandemic and a heated U.S. election, frighteningly similar to how the genocide occurred under the cover of World War I.

People hold pictures of victims during a memorial to commemorate the 1915 Armenian genocide on April 24, 2018, in Istanbul, Turkey. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Institutional betrayal also doesn't only harm the direct victims, Freyd's research found, "But also to the other people in that environment who just see that going on." I think about all the non-Armenians who have told me, placating, about foreign policy and strategic allies, and seemingly accepted as necessary that lying is just what a country does, and I think about how our standards get ground into dust over time as we adjust to worse and worse behavior.

But the thing that stuck out to me the most was a line I hadn't even remembered her saying: "One of the worst things for people is to not have things acknowledged—or even the acts acknowledged but not their significance."

What it would mean for the United States to officially recognize the Armenian genocide as the historic fact that it is? I wonder now if I could really be moved by a recognition that didn't acknowledge the decades we spent being dismissed, trivialized and ignored.

In the course of trying to write about what U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide would mean to me, I realized its denial was vastly more deeply traumatic than I'd really considered. I thought about what the genocide took from my family, years after it happened—the awful decisions made in fear, the secrets we cannot explain because to explain them would be to admit that we are indelibly shaped by something that happened long before we even existed.

I felt hopeless, and I felt furious, and I lashed out at non-Armenians around me because I couldn't bear that they were able to live a life without this feeling. And in my panicked, pained state, the fact that they weren't screaming for recognition from every rooftop meant they didn't care about me, about my community, about any of us. At one very dark point, I felt a hatred for literally everyone else that flamed hot and bright and I knew it was misplaced but my sense of my own powerlessness and my eroded faith in the United States as an institution had made me blind and desperate. I wondered if that was something that happens with institutional betrayal, too—do we give up on waiting for the institution to develop courage and look around and suddenly realize how alone we've been in this fight, all the small betrayals of the backs turned around us? I thought about asking Freyd, but it seemed too personal, too self-interested. What I wanted to know: Is it always like this? And maybe even more: Will it ever not be?

Freyd told me the antidote to institutional betrayal is institutional courage—often after a change in leadership, there's a rare possibility of an entire system changing.

"Leadership really matters," she told me, "and when leaders apologize or acknowledge sincerely, that can be so healing."

It's difficult to see recognition this late as courage, especially as our ally relationship with Turkey has grown tenuous. The only excuse left is the one that always rang false: The naive delusion that not using the word "genocide" will somehow result in Erdogan's Turkey making any sort of effort at peaceful relations with Armenia. Armenia will never be safe as long as Erdogan is in charge of Turkey and Ilham Aliyev in charge of Azerbaijan. If America cares about Armenia's safety, leaving it in the hands of malignant autocrats is a bizarre way of showing it.

Recognition alone, 106 years after the fact, will not mean much to me personally, if I'm being honest. It will be a good thing to have in the historic record, and our hope has long been that it will help clarify when a genocide is happening and the urgency of intervention. Even today, the situation in the Tigray region in Ethiopia could not be more dire.

Danielle Tcholakian is a reporter and essayist based in Western New York.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.