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What is the Armenian genocide? 

Like many victims of long-ago crimes, if the Armenians can't have justice, they at least want recognition

On March 4, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs passed the following nonbinding resolution:

"Calling upon the President to ensure that the foreign policy of the United States reflects appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning issues related to human rights, ethnic cleansing, and genocide documented in the United States record relating to the Armenian Genocide, and for other purposes."

You read that and probably wonder what the big deal is. Appropriate understanding is great. Sensitivity is swell. Besides, Congress is constantly honoring, commemorating, remembering and noting events and people of the distant past. Congress loves it some symbolic declarations.

Sometimes they're innocuous. For example, last November, the House voted to name a post office for W. Hazen Hillyard, a deceased former Utah postmaster. Did you know Hillyard won the Boy Scouts of America's Silver Beaver Award in 1961? What exactly is a silver beaver, anyway? Is it anything like a GILF?

Often the resolutions deal with more serious issues. Last June, the Senate voted to acknowledge the 70th anniversary of a disgraceful event: a ship with Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany was turned away from U.S. ports.

With no place safe to land, the ship returned to Europe. Of the 937 passengers onboard, 254 subsequently died in the Holocaust. The Senate described the anniversary "as an opportunity for public officials and educators to raise awareness about an important historical event, the lessons of which are relevant to current and future generations." Translation: Acknowledging a giant screw-up now might help us avoid the same screw-up later.

Armenian-Americans have long been pushing to have the U.S. join the 20-plus other nations that have already officially recognized the Armenian Genocide. Like many victims of long-ago crimes, if they can't have justice, they at least want recognition.

Here's the quick version of the broad historical consensus: Armenians have lived in the Caucasus Mountains and Eastern Anatolia (aka modern-day Turkey) area for 4,000 years. They have their own language and, for more than 16 centuries, have been followers of an obscure religion called Christianity.

Surrounded by ethnic and religious rivals in a corner of the world where ethnicity and religion are kind of a big deal, the Armenians haven't always had an easy time. During the 16th century, Armenians fell under the control of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Though multi-ethnic and multi-religious, the empire itself was run by Turkish Muslims.

With the empire near its death during World War I, the ruling Turks launched an ethnic cleansing campaign against Armenians in Anatolia. Because some Armenians sided with Russia against the Turks during the war, the entire community was labeled disloyal. Armenians say they lost 1.5 million of their own. The Turkish government disagrees. They say 300,000 died and dispute that it was genocide. They say it was war, that bad things happen during war, and that anyone who calls it genocide is a liar. Seriously, Turkey prosecuted Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk for calling the killings genocide. Turkey also threatens retaliation against nations that dare utter the dirty G-word.

The Turkish view, though firmly held, simply doesn't square with reality. Witnesses and historians have published ample evidence that the genocide took place. The most damning evidence of late was an Ottoman Empire Interior Ministry memo published last year noting the disappearance between 1915 and 1916 of 972,000 Armenians from Ottoman population rolls. They didn't go on around-the-world cruises. They died.

This month marks the second time in two years that the House Committee on Foreign Affairs has passed an Armenian Genocide resolution. Just like the last one, expect this one to disappear before going to the full House of Representatives for a vote.

Though there's no real dispute about whether the event took place, Turkey is simply too vital an ally for U.S. politicians to risk irritating the country over a nonbinding resolution condemning a 100-year-old mass murder. As a candidate, Obama promised to be the first president to label the killing a genocide. But now that he's president, he has to choose between historical truth and present reality. To make sure Turkey joins U.S. efforts to place tighter sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, the White House urged Congress not to pass the resolution. Don't expect the full House to vote on it.

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