Heroes or Villains?

By Edmond Y. Azadian

When Osama bin Laden was shooting Soviet Mig fighter planes in Afghanistan using shoulder-launched heat-seeking rockets supplied by the US, he was hailed as a hero, a freedom fighter struggling to defeat an atheist power occupying the Moslem land of Afghanistan. And when Brezhnev’s army left Afghanistan, tails between their legs, bin Laden turned the muzzle of his gun against his US allies, eventually bringing his violence to the American shores and destroying the World Trade Center, the same voice which had credited him with heroism branded him overnight as a terrorist.

There is an Armenian saying, fire burns where it falls.

Indeed, more than 3,000 families were burnt and they will never forgive nor forget the acts which took the lives of their loved one.

But, in addition to the pain of the victims and the survivors, the story has a moral. The moral of this story is that the definition of a hero or a terrorist depends mostly on the perspective of the person defining the act of violence and the actor.

If an act of terror is in line with the party’s interest, then the perpetrator is a hero. Conversely, if the violence is against that party’s interest, the perpetrator becomes a vile terrorist.

Acquisition and use of power can never be viewed neutrally since the 16th century when Niccolo Machiavelli published his seminal book on political philosophy, The Prince. Ever since, the word “Machiavellian” has become synonymous with deceit, despotism and political manipulation, although the author — a poet and a playwright at the same time — was objectively describing the power of the rulers and the exercise of governing people.

Armenians being at the receiving end of that power throughout their history can better understand being the underdog under a hostile rule. Armenians, in their turn, have sometimes resorted to violence only to defend themselves.

This year marks the 41st anniversary of the beginning of such violence, which shook the powerful state of Turkey and once again promoted the forgotten issue of the Genocide on the world political agenda after it lay seemingly forgotten in history’s waste basket.

It began on January 27, 1973, when Gourgen Yanikian assassinated two Turkish consular officers, Mehmet Baydar and Baladir Demir, in a Santa Barbara hotel room in California. On the occasion of this anniversary, the Assembly of the Turkish American Associations (ATAA), which seems to be the propaganda arm of the Turkish government, issued a statement reminding the Armenian public the “evil deeds of Marxist Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) and neo-Fascist Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide [JCAG].”

According to the statement, these groups, who took over for Yanikian in the ensuing years, carried out 300 attacks killing 77 diplomats and civilians and wounding more than 700 people, including non-Turks.

The ATAA has also published 48 pictures of the victims, mostly Turkish diplomats.

Looking at these pictures, a bystander may sincerely empathize with these victims and their families, none of whom directly had a hand in the Armenian Genocide.

But the perpetrators of those acts of violence were motivated and propelled by a deep wound and a never-ending sense of anger. Yanikian himself was troubled throughout his life by the murder of his family members and the murder of an entire nation. Also, the youth who followed suit had a selfless dedication to a cause that they deemed justified putting their own lives in harms’ way to carry the mission.

The victims of the political violence had their own personal dreams, dreams for their families and for their nation. That is one side of the equation. On the other side of the equation, a million and a half Armenians had their dreams, they deserved to live their personal lives and enjoy a free and independent sovereign homeland. Since the Turks have reduced all the perished lives to a debate about statistics, then we may forgo the human aspect of the body count and conclude that the pain and loss of the Armenians outweigh the Turkish losses. Don’t forget that in addition to the loss of human lives, Armenians lost their homeland of 3,000 years.

One may be for or against political violence but the truth of the matter is that Turkey’s political establishment — long assuming the Genocide to be forgotten — only reacted to those acts and Turkey’s foreign minister at the time, Ihsan Sabri Caglayangil, invited the leaders of the three political parties to Geneva, Switzerland — the ARF, Hunchak and ADL — to explore the means of stopping the acts of terror.

The negotiations which began in Geneva were supposed to continue in New York, when the foreign minister planned to attend the UN General Assembly session.

But the Turkish government had in the meantime done its homework and found out that the Armenian political parties no longer enjoyed their erstwhile organizational discipline which had brought to justice the perpetrators of the Genocide earlier in the century. The movement had gotten out from the hands of the Armenian political parties and the young generation had joined the worldwide political action movement. Therefore, the Turkish Foreign Ministry even did not bother to disinvite the party leaders. Instead, they chose a more serious course; they approached the Israelis and made a common cause with them as Armenian groups had made an alliance with the Palestinians with whom they were training in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

When Ariel Sharon invaded Lebanon in 1982, his mission was to destroy the power structure of the Palestinians. That mission also included turning over the Armenian youth caught in the camps and all related documents to Ankara, so that the Turkish “Deep State” could do its job and bring a halt to political violence.

The ADL, as a conservative organization, has not espoused political violence outside historic Armenia. But it looks like the facts of life sometimes defy ideologies. The 1970s and 1980s brought the issue of the Armenian Genocide to the world political focus, whether positive or negative — that is an undeniable fact.

After four decades, in hindsight, some people may applaud the deeds of the Armenian youth, others may blame them and say they tarnished our reputation. To objectively assess those events, one has to go outside the parameter of the Armenian thinking and find out the impact of those times on non-Armenians. One case in point is the prominent Turkish writer Elif Shafak, who is an established and outspoken Turkish author and columnist. The Free Encyclopedia qualifies her “as Turkey’s bestselling female writer. Shafak is a brave champion of cosmopolitanism, a sophisticated feminist and an ambitious novelist who infuses her magical realist fiction with big, important ideas …. Critics have named her as one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary Turkish and world literature.”

She was born in 1971, the period when Armenian political violence began. She was the daughter of a Turkish diplomat and throughout her formative years, the word “Armenians” sent shivers down the backs of her and her family.

As she grew up, she was curious to find out the source of the Armenians’ anger. And when she read history — the real one and not the one taught in her homeland — she became one of the most ardent sympathizers of the Genocide victims and in one of her novels, The Bastard of Istanbul, she dealt with the issue of Genocide only to find herself in front of a Turkish court, being accused of “insulting Turkishness.”

Another compelling case is the story of a Spanish journalist, Jose Antonio Gurriaran. On December 30, 1980, he left the building of the newspaper Pueblo in Madrid and entered a telephone booth to talk to his wife. When he put down the receiver, two bombs exploded in the nearby headquarters of Swissair and TWA. Nobody died but among the nine injured was Jose Antonio. While still in the hospital, when he struggled to save both legs, he started to read books and materials about the case and the history of the Armenians. He also interviewed ASALA members. Soon after the incident, his book, titled La Bomba, was released, giving the first-hand account of a Spanish journalist and the tragic story of the survival of a whole nation.

When asked whether it was worthwhile so much sacrifice and bloodshed, and were the fighters heroes or terrorists, Armenians may never come up with an objective answer. It is a burning issue and we will always have a subjective answer.

Therefore the best way is to leave the answer to a prominent Turkish writer and a Spanish journalist.