Would acknowledging past prevent new crimes?

Published by Today's Zaman, 27 January 2012

Armenia’s Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian commended the French attempts to criminalize denial that the events of 1915 constituted genocide by saying “it is a very important mechanism to prevent new crimes against humanity.”

This idea is commonly accepted in academic and public circles as plain truth. Some go even further, saying that if Turkey had acknowledged the events of 1915 as genocide earlier on, the Holocaust would not have happened. Hitler is said to have been inspired by the lack of attention shown to the fate of the Armenians as he hatched plans to exterminate the Jews.

Sadly, just as the shallow popular psychology books that argue facing your own past will always heal you is an argument that is not grounded in reality, neither is the argument that officially acknowledging historical atrocities will prevent new ones. It is only an emotive discourse.
First of all, world history is full of examples of how historical grievances and incidents have been used to justify war, violence and political domination. For example, Rwandan Hutus were mindful of the suffering they faced under Tutsis and this was used as a justification for the killing of Tutsis during what is called the Rwandan genocide. Serb nationalists regularly referred to their defeat to Ottoman forces at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 to reassure themselves that the time to set the record straight had come, as they marched on, killing Bosnian Muslims.

That is why yesterday’s victims can make the best of today’s perpetrators. As soon as a particular group internalizes the feeling of being wronged, it is vulnerable to suspending all further moral considerations or responsibilities and seeing itself as a legitimate user of power that can demand more significance and rights than others. See the crimes the US has committed following 9/11.

Secondly, even though the 20th century has left a legacy of memorializations of wars and genocides, they still do happen. World War I memorial sites had “never again” and “lest we forget” inscriptions on them, yet far from preventing further war, grievances from World War I were influential factors in the lead-up to World War II. So now, World War II memorial sites stand next to those of previous wars with the same inscriptions. Similarly, even though the Holocaust became a symbol of racial hatred and violence, genocides and racial violence continued and continue to happen today.

Thirdly, there is an extremely strong case to be made for letting go of the past. On the personal level, we know that dwelling too much on the past takes away our capacity to live in the present and achieve a better future. Nietzsche refers to this as plastic energy, meaning the capacity we have to remold ourselves, and warns that an obsession with the past will stop progress. In fact, individuals and countries regularly employ collective forgetting and amnesia to be able to start afresh and move on. This is all the more so in contexts of transitional justice, where countries are only able to stop conflict and coordinate a transition into peace by passing amnesty and amnesia laws.

The past does not exist. Its fragments are evoked, constructed and represented by us in the present tense. It is a neutral bag, full of bits and pieces that can be utilized for whatever narrative contemporary actors need for their purposes. Therefore, we have every right to be skeptical of any attempt to officially endorse and enforce a version of the past.

Saying this is not synonymous with promoting an “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind,” as Alexander Pope put it. Just as one can be naive about facing the past, one can also be naive about the importance of letting go of the past.

The challenge is not simply remembering or enshrining the past today but acknowledging it in the right way in order to enable a better future. That is where the French attempt to criminalize discussions over 1915 has gone wrong. It is stifling any chance of the debate and discussion much needed for Turks and Armenians to hear each other and process the past together.