What is the Armenian genocide?

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The U.S. House of Representatives might soon pass a declaration condemning as genocide the slaughter of Armenian people in Turkey between 1915 and 1923 — a scant 84 years after the fact.

At its current rate of addressing serious issues, I guess we can expect the House to take a principled stand on the Iraq war sometime in the 2090s — right around the time President Jenna Clinton-Bush, Jr. is leaving office.

Turkey is angry about the House's impending action and threatens a rift in U.S-Turkish relations if it passes. Here's a short version of the hubbub.

Before Turkey was Turkey, it was the Ottoman Empire. The O.E. was once the world's mightiest.

At the empire's peak in the 16th century, the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul ruled a contiguous territory that spanned three continents — to Algeria in northwest Africa, to Iraq and Iran in Southwest Asia, parts of Russia in the northeast and as deep into Europe as Hungary. The Ottomans nearly conquered Vienna twice, controlled the Mediterranean Sea as if it were a private pond, invented the modern coffeehouse and even gave its name to a type of padded footstool.

By 1915, however, the Ottoman Empire's heyday had long passed. For two centuries, Ottoman economic, industrial and military development lagged way behind that of Europe's ascendant powers: Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and even Russia.

The empire was falling apart. Rival powers grabbed what they could. And the empire's own ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities struggled to break free of the rule of the Turkish Sultan in Istanbul.

The O.E.'s collapse was accelerated by the first World War (1914-1918), during which the Ottomans sided with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) against the Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, and after 1917, the US of A, baby). This is where the Armenians come in.

Armenians are an ethnic group that has lived in the Caucasus Mountains and eastern Turkey for roughly 4,000 years. They became Christian in the fourth century. They fell under Muslim, Ottoman rule around the 16th.

When Russian forces advanced into Ottoman territory during WWI, many Armenians sided with the Russians, who, wouldn't you know it, share a religion with Armenians. Funny how that works.

The Turks were none too pleased, so they retaliated. Turks tried to ethnically cleanse the empire's heartland of Armenians. Armenians say 1.5 million of their people died and describe the action as a genocide. Turkey says many fewer Armenians died (300,000 is a number I've read a lot), and that it was in the course of fighting a war, so it wasn't genocide.

Turkey is so allergic to the G word, it's actually a crime in Turkey to say it in this context. Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk was charged in 2005 with "insulting Turkishness" when he told a Swiss magazine the genocide happened. Charges were ultimately dropped.

More than 20 nations have officially deemed the killings genocide. Congress has been considering and rejecting an official condemnation for two decades.

For years, former Republican senator turned penis-pill-peddler Bob Dole pushed for an official genocide condemnation. Dole's life was saved during WWII by an Armenian doctor who told him about the genocide.

Condemning Turkey has long been risky for the United States. A NATO ally, Turkey was a vital link in the military fence surrounding the Soviets during the Cold War. Today, it is the Muslim nation with whom the United States has the closest official ties.

Supporters of the genocide bill know Turkey will be pissed but insist Turkey won't do anything stupid, because it needs our friendship and financial aid. Mostly, supporters think that naming and shaming the first genocide of the 20th century is the right thing to do.

President Bush opposes the pending House condemnation on the grounds that offending Turkey right now threatens the mission in Iraq. After all, 70 percent of U.S. air cargo heading to Iraq goes through Turkey.

However, here's what one prominent Republican said in support of labeling the killings as genocide:

"The Armenians were subjected to a genocidal campaign that defies comprehension and commands all decent people to remember and acknowledge the facts and lessons of an awful crime in a century of bloody crimes against humanity."

Those words were written in February 2000 by George W. Bush, then governor of Texas.

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