Peter Balakian’s The Burning Tigris: The Horrors of Armenian Genocide

Peter Balakian's The Burning Tigris: The Horrors of Armenian Genocide

Elsie Denton

In the early years of World War I, another tragedy was taking place far more quietly to the east. Between 1914 and 1916 over a million Armenians were rounded up by Turkish officials and systematically “deported” – in most cases this amounted to murder. Modern-day Turkey currently disputes that the Armenian tragedy should be called genocide, but there is little doubt in the international community that the mass killings of Armenians were in fact systematic genocide.

In his book, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, Colgate’s own Professor of English and University Studies, Peter Balakian, brings to life both the horror of the Armenian genocide and America’s humanitarian response to the crisis. Time and again he uses powerful eyewitness accounts of the genocide, which, though on a smaller scale, were no less horrendous than the Holocaust.

On the governmental level, the response to this international tragedy was meager. Most politicians, Woodrow Wilson included, found their hands tied by diplomatic complexities. This does not mean that there was no response to the crisis. As Balakian makes very clear over the course of his book, the Armenian genocide was America’s first international human-rights effort.

Thousands of people around the country on many levels of society poured their hearts out to the Armenian people. They raised money for relief work and food supplies and helped find homes for the thousands of Armenians fleeing their homeland. “The Armenian genocide is important,” said Balakian, “not only because it is one of the earliest examples of modern genocide, but also because it is America’s first international humanitarian aid movement. Americans should know about that part of their history.”

The Burning Tigris recently gained recognition when it won the prestigious Raphael Lemkin Prize, which is given out biannually to the best scholarly book on the subject of genocide, mass killings and gross human-rights violations. Despite the prestige conferred by the prize, Balakian did not want it to overshadow the real issue: the reality of terrible and continuing genocide throughout the world. “Genocide is a real problem today and it is not going away. Nobody is safe,” he said.

Genocides are not dark phantoms locked firmly in our turbulent past. They are real and happening right now in many corners of the world from the Balkans, Rwanda, and East Tambour to the current massacres in the Darfur region of Sudan. “Genocide is a modern problem,” says Balakian, “because before the modern era and the evolution of the nation state, governments didn’t have the centralized bureaucracy or the technology to systematically target and exterminate ethnic minorities. It isn’t just that killing occurs that distinguishes modern genocide, but how fast it occurs.”

The problem of genocide gets surprisingly little governmental recognition. Many times the issue is simply ignored by those in power, while people suffer and die. This can often be attributed to two main causes: lack of recognition and information about the existence of a genocide and sticky diplomatic maneuvering by the governments involved.

For instance, the reality of the Armenian genocide is recognized by all Western powers except for the US and UK. These two countries have withheld official recognition of the massacres so that they could maintain their military bases in Turkey.

Even if governments were at all prepared to take action against genocide, there still remains the difficulty of realizing that genocide is taking place. A government engaged in the massacre of its people is unlikely to report its activities to the international community. Also, many areas in the world are so torn by war and strife that it is difficult to distinguish coordinated mass killings from the background level of death and violence. An effective system of detection needs to be created.

This system would need to be an impartial third party. Balakian suggests the creation of “an international organization charged with detection, prevention and intervention in instances of gross violations of human rights. Not only must this type of organization exist to prevent future massacres, but it must also have the power to enforce its edicts in the form of an International Human Rights Army not beholden to any one world power. Though Balakian maintained that “we can’t reform or transform the human race,” we can still install regulations and checks on their capacity to kill one another.

Such a coherent international effort to confront the issue of genocide is long overdue, particularly with major powers like the US and UK stalling on the issue. “The Bush administration has continually refused to take action on what is happening in Darfur, and refused to embrace the process of the international courts at the Hague,” said Balakian. “It is then up to ordinary citizens to make a difference, to take the power into their own hands and to fight for human rights.”

Last year, a group of students at Swarthmore College did just that. They started the Genocide Intervention fund to raise money to stop the slaughter of innocent people in Darfur. The group has been immensely successful. So far they have raised $250,000, which they are preparing to donate to the African Union peacekeepers. Their group may have started as a small group of Jewish and Armenian students whose pasts were deeply affected by genocide, but it has grown far larger than that. There are now over 100 colleges participating in the fund and more are getting involved all the time.

Students interested in becoming involved in the Genocide Intervention Fund can contact Balakian via email at [email protected] or to go talk to him during his office hours. More Information is avaibale at www.genocideinterventionfund.org.

Balakian teaches a course called Modern Genocide. It is about being educated about what is going on and doing something about it. “The study of history enables us to behave more ethically in the present. That is why teaching about genocide is so valuable,” said Balakian.