Hitting a nerve
Monday, April 17, 2006

"The Armenian Genocide" arrives on PBS tonight (10 p.m., Channel 13) preceded by a wave of controversy. The public broadcaster is accused of nothing less than a form of holocaust denial.

Some back story first. This documentary recounts the extermination of 1 million Armenians in eastern Turkey by the Ottoman Empire. The systemic nature of the extermination, which has been confirmed by the International Association of Genocide Scholars, is taken as a given by this documentary. The program also points out that the Turks killed another 200,000 people in historic Armenia and Constantinople (now Istanbul).

PBS ran afoul of Armenian-Americans by adding a post-screening panel discussion that included two scholars who said that not all of the victims died as a direct result of Turkish violence -- that a percentage of them were lost to disease, starvation and other causes that affected all of Turkish society, not just Armenians.

This genocidal caveat was considered a slap in the face to Armenian-American groups, who argued that most legitimate scholars agree that the mass deaths qualified as genocide, and that PBS would follow a documentary about the World War II genocide against the Jews with a panel that tried to qualify or explain away the horror.

PBS responded that the panel wasn't meant to cast doubt on the "genocide" label -- that it was just an attempt to explore a contentious issue and be as inclusive as possible -- but this has only inflamed Armenian outrage. (There's even a petition circulating online that condemns the panel discussion.)

It's unfortunate that PBS blundered into this morass in the first place, because the documentary is a serious, literate and ultimately heartbreaking work -- a historical primer on an event few Americans even know about. (For a dramatic take on the same subject, rent "Ararat," by Atom Egoyan, a Canadian director of Armenian heritage.)

Moving through the end of the 19th century, the documentary explains how things just kept getting worse for the Armenians, a people who existed peacefully within the Muslim-ruled Ottoman Empire despite having adopted Christianity as the state religion back during Roman times.

As historians point out, the Sultan of the Ottoman empire designated individual non-Muslim peoples -- Greeks, Armenians, Jews -- as "infidels." But for practical reasons, he still tried to stay out of their business as much as possible. The empire's subjects were given the limited ability to rule themselves as long as they paid their taxes, obeyed the Sultan's rules and didn't try to rebel.

'Discriminatory, unequal, hierarchical," the University of Chicago professor Ron Suny tells the filmmakers. "But if you obeyed, you could get along, and Armenians did rather well for centuries, actually."

Then Armenians began agitating not necessarily for equal rights, but simply to have their unequal treatment explained and justified. This led to increasingly brutal government crackdowns, and eventually to a Turk-centric re-education campaign, carried out by a radical new Otttoman government run by religious and political extremists. Genocide soon followed.

Armenians contend that the Turks tried to exterminate them to suppress an Armenian uprising and destroy any chance that the Armenians might give aid to an invading Russian army. The Turkish government continues to deny that Armenian deaths were anything other than an unfortunate byproduct of national misery.

Most legitimate historians favor the former interpretation, and the documentary says so. Given the intelligence and precision of this documentary -- whose main fault is brevity -- it's depressing that PBS managed to turn it into a rallying cry for the oppressed, more perhaps through ignorance than malice. And the network's attempts to fix the situation only made it worse.