History that dares not speak its name

image2 p24 webIt is one of the most controversial events in the history of the 20th century and hardly anyone in America knows about it. If a government managed to kill off nearly 80 percent of the members of a particular ethnic group within its borders, while also striving to destroy its history and memory, what would you call it?

Genocide? A hoax?

A massacre? A holocaust, even?

What if the victims represented a branch of Eastern Christianity that few in the West knew about? What if the nation being accused of committing genocide were a crucial U.S. friend in the Muslim world and, now, a nation urgently trying to change its image in order to enter the European Union? And how would you treat this event in public schools? Would you allow it to be debated by partisans, pitting those who descended from the survivors against the various interest groups who want this issue to go away?

We are talking, of course, about the 1915-18 massacre of Armenians by the Turkish government. A recent Los Angeles Times story by Elizabeth Mehren offered readers a glimpse into the controversies surrounding the genocide by focusing on a lawsuit in Massachusetts -- backed by Turks and others -- that says students should hear evidence that the genocide never happened or that it has been blown out of proportion.

Is this a case where free speech is absolute? Or is it somehow similar to cases involving -- prepare for thunderbolts -- Holocaust denial?

How emotional is this? How loaded are these debates? Listen to these voices:

She was only 3 when her family fled their Turkish homeland 91 years ago. Alice Shnorhokian and her brother were too small to walk the long road to safety in the Syrian desert, so their parents strapped them in boxes on the sides of a donkey that carried the family possessions. ... Shnorhokian saw fellow Armenians trying to escape from every village she passed. There was no food, water or shelter, she said. Babies and old people were dying along the way. Eventually, about 1.2 million Armenians would perish.

"In Turkey, in genocide times, we Christian Armenians had three options," Shnorhokian said. "We paid a heavy tax, became Muslim or died."

haghbatThen there is high-school senior Ted Griswold, who filed the lawsuit backed by Tuskish-Americans.

The plaintiffs contend that Department of Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll and other state officials violated the 1st Amendment by removing material from a human rights curriculum that questioned whether the mass killings nearly a century ago constituted genocide.

"It's a case of academic freedom," said Griswold, who lent his name to the suit to show his support for freedom of speech, and who admitted he knows little about Armenia or the genocide. "A greater perspective makes the truth easier to find," he said, adding: "This is nothing personal about the Armenians. I realize it is an emotional issue for them."

This story is just beginning. You can also say that it will never end (even as the destruction of Armenian churches and history continues).

The question, for me, is whether other newspapers and networks care enough about foreign news and, yes, religion news to cover this debate. Why cover religion story on the other side of the planet, even when the controversy reaches into American courtrooms and classrooms?

Why cover a story that offends so many different groups of people?

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