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Peter Balakian on 60 Minutes


PUBLISHED: March 2, 2010

Sunday night’s episode of 60 Minutes featured a segment on the Armenian Genocide and Turkey’s ongoing denial of the Ottoman Empire’s systematic campaign to exterminate the Armenian people. There was little new information in the 60 Minutes report, but this is an issue that deserves the widest possible airing, and I was glad to see 60 Minutes offer its attention to the subject.

One of the principle subjects of the story was Peter Balakian, who has contributed poems to VQR, and whose nonfiction work I examined closely in my essay in the Fall 2009 issue, “I Have Decided Not to Die.” Balakian led the show’s correspondent, Bob Simon, to Der Zor, a site in the Syrian desert that served as the worst killing ground of the Genocide. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died there. Using their hands, Balakian and Simon dug into a mound of dirt, bringing up bones. The scene is almost identical to one in Balakian’s memoir Black Dog of Fate. Simon also interviews Armenian religious officials and the Turkish ambassador, who, quite predictably, denied Turkey’s role in the genocide, while prevaricating on details.

In my reading for my essay, one of the most dispiriting things I learned, at least about events in recent years, is how some US congressional representative periodically introduces a measure to acknowledge the genocide, only to have it later withdrawn after Turkish pressure. Turkey is an important US ally, particularly given its influence in the Middle East. As Simon said, a majority of our supplies to the Afghanistan and Iraq war efforts pass through Turkey, and its army is the second largest in NATO. Yet other Western countries, including many Turkish allies, have passed resolutions acknowledging the Armenian Genocide, confirming what thousands of historians and mounds of historical evidence and documentation already show. These acts of recognition have done little long-term harm to relations with Turkey.

There’s much more to say on this subject, but for now, I’ll direct you to the 60 Minutes piece, called “Battle Over History.” I also recommend highly Armenian Golgotha, the survival memoir of Peter Balakian’s great uncle, Grigoris Balakian, which was co-translated by Peter. It’s an extraordinary historical document and a harrowing act of witness-bearing, but I worry that it didn’t get the attention it deserved when it was finally published last year, despite some laudatory reviews. Read a couple of them [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] and then spend some time with this essential book.

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