Every family has its favorites. In mine, there is Uncle Armen.

Call to mind Alan Arkin. In any movie, ever, but let’s say “Little Miss Sunshine” because that’s my favorite. OK, got it? Great. That’s my Uncle Armen. Seriously, they could be identical twins, and the voice and accent? Same. Which isn’t really shocking given that even though my uncle is a book-bound mathematics professor and not an actor, they both grew up in the same area of New York at roughly the same time. It delights us cousins.

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at [email protected]

We all adore Uncle Armen, and I was shocked when, as a grownup, I learned that Armen was not my uncle’s real name! No. He was born with the given name of Humpartsoum.

Right. So, I think we can all agree, that is rather a mouthful, even for New York. Also, let’s face it, a typical “shorten it up” style nickname might not have ended well. But … Armen?

My uncle’s parents emigrated from Armenia to the United States, shortly before the Armenian genocide. They survived and flourished. Not so the friends and family members who remained behind. There sadly came a day when the letters home stopped being answered. “Armen” is a nickname that honors everything left behind.

The horrific events of 1915-1917 have been in the news of late.  Armenian Remembrance Day was April 24, and President Biden became the first U.S. president in decades to use the word “genocide” to describe the killings. The last president to do so was Reagan. Go figure.

Using the word “genocide” is newsworthy because Turkey, the nation that did the killing, doesn’t like it – and they are a NATO ally. So it is a politically sensitive move.

A genocide is defined as “the deliberate or systematic destruction of a racial, political or cultural group.” Turkey would prefer the events be contextualized as just one more tragic element of the nightmare that was World War I. Which is understandable. However, it is also incorrect. Even at the time – in the actual moment – these killings were seen as something other and beyond.

To quote the New York Times, “The American ambassador, Henry Morganthau Sr. … would write: ‘When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.’”

A person may be forgiven for wondering why, or if, the word choice matters. After all, the number of people killed is not in dispute. The horrors of their deaths remain the same. Does it matter what we call it? I think it does.

To be a casualty of war is tragic and heartbreaking, no matter what the circumstance. But to be hunted and exterminated on the basis of who you are, to have an attempt made to wipe from the earth all remnants of your ancestors, your culture, your existence … that is something else. It means that even those who escaped are still somehow erased.

What’s more, it deflects from the actual root cause and prevents us from properly understanding, owning and making amends. It comes back to the same conversation we’ve been having in this country around history, bias and accountability.

This moment is yet another demand upon us as humans who share this one, small planet to face history unflinchingly and do the hard work of actually dismantling hate, not simply rebranding it.

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