April 19th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Serdar Argic, Call Your Service

I thought of someone I hadn't thought of in almost a decade today, one of the very first spammers, a classic "man who wasn't there," an artificial intelligence that was briefly famous as one of the first of the truly internationally known net.kooks: Serdar Argic. You see (to paraphrase Peter Falk's character in the movie version of The Princess Bride), back when I was a kid, the World Wide Web was called Usenet. That is to say, the web not having been invented yet, if somebody wanted access to the Internet they probably only wanted it for two services: email, and the internationally-distributed gigantic BBS (still extant today) called Usenet. And in 1994, a guy named Serdar Argic came along who seemed to have nothing better to do with his time than to scan any of the Usenet message boards that had anything to do with history, politics, or Middle Eastern culture and look for any reference to the countries of Turkey or Armenia. If he found one, then he set out to hijack the conversation away from whatever was being discussed to his pet peeve: the 1915 genocide of millions of Muslim Turks by Christian Armenians. He was prolific, omni-present, and impossible to reason with ... because, as was discovered when someone cross-posted a message about cooking Thanksgiving turkey to one of the political news groups and Argic replied to it, there was no real person named Serdar Argic, just an AI running on some little third-world server being remotely managed (and provided with new propaganda fodder) by person or persons unknown. (There are only a few leading suspects, and many consider the mystery solved. If you value your privacy, fear the day that you tick off hundreds of thousands of Internet computer programmers at the same time; they know the Internet protocols better than you do and between them they have a lot more time to track you than you have to cover your tracks.)

There was no 1915 genocide of Turks by Armenians. This is something everybody in the world knows ... unless they went to school in Turkey.

The reason that I thought of Serdar Argic after all these years is that PBS just went out on a limb, openly dealing with a subject that has routinely brought diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, and organized death threats to anybody who broached it, "The Armenian Genocide." I just watched it. It was painstakingly fair, and bent over backwards to put the government sanctioned attempt at exterminating every Armenian in Turkey in some kind of historical context. That context being that the Turkish government was under the control of a short-lived military junta called the Young Turks, that Armenians had been among those who fought to successfully expel Turkey from Greece and the Balkans, that during that war for independence there were widespread reports of Christian atrocities against Turkish soldiers and Muslim citizens who were being expelled from Greece and Serbia not least of which that thousands of fleeing Muslim refugees starved to death, that after that loss the Young Turks sided against Russia in World War I, and that they lost to the Russians in no small part because some Armenians living along the border with Russia who felt like a persecuted minority in Turkey treasonously fought alongside the Russian counter-invading army against their own country's army, and that that was what motivated the triumvirate who ruled the Young Turks government of Turkey to order the extermination of all Armenians living in Turkey. They say this not to justify it; they are clear and unambiguous that nothing can possibly justify the murder of millions of uninvolved and distant people just because, as members of the same religious and ethnic minority a few dozen or hundred of whom had taken up arms against their government, they might someday rise up against the government themselves. They offer all of this background not to justify, but to honestly explain, why the Turkish government was so frightened of their ethnic Armenian population that they set out to kill them all, cruelly and unfairly but nonetheless out of self-perceived defense of their country.

In less than half an hour, the PBS special offers extensive first-hand documentation from the massacres, including film shot at the death camps. They also document beyond all shadow of a doubt that it wasn't random massacres, but an act of genocide sanctioned by the mullahs and ordered by the highest ranks of government. They show the trial transcripts from 1922, where the Turkish courts, not British or international courts but Turkish courts, convicted the Young Turks' ruling triumvirate of having ordered mass exterminations and sentenced the triumvirate to death - a death sentence that was, in effect, carried out despite the fact that they had fled the country, when Armenian assassins found and killed two of them and the Soviet army found and killed the third.

A year later, in 1923, Musafa Ataturk led a military coup aimed at eradicating the last vestiges of the Young Turks government, and succeeded beyond all rational imagination. He so thoroughly eradicated the prior government, the one that ordered the Armenian genocide, that he managed to change the country's name (from Ottoman Empire to Republic of Turkey), change its written language (from its own Arabesque alphabet to the Latin alphabet), change its laws (giving it its first written Constitution, the one that they still use today), change its society (from Islamist to secular), rename the capital city (from Constantinople to Istanbul), and restructure every branch and office of government. As a further check to make sure that nothing like the Young Turks happened again, the new Republic of Turkey even institutionalized the right of the Army to step in to depose any government that proposes anything like that and, once the fanatics and their followers have been found and evicted from government office, to call for new elections.

And that's what the part that baffles me the most about all of this argument is: when they're attacked by historians about the Armenian genocide, why don't they say that? Insisting on a blatant lie, a weird contra-factual history that even casual checking of the physical evidence and written records of the time can rebut, is just making them more and more a target of anger and even terrorist reprisal. Would the Ataturk-created government actually fall if they said that yes, the Ottoman Empire did this, but we're not them? Would they really have anything to fear if they said out-right that those who ordered the genocide were tried, convicted, and executed, and that the government that carried out the genocide was deposed and erased from the earth, and that every soldier and civilian who carried out those orders died of old age years ago? Why create such a stupid lie, when the truth would serve them just as well?