TRUE BUT WEIRD: Anniversaries can really hang you up sometimes. They’re hell if you forget, but even worse if you can’t. Just ask the government of Turkey, still refusing to come to terms with its Armenian genocide. One hundred years ago last Friday, the Ottoman government launched a blood-soaked campaign that left 1.5 million of that empire’s ethnic Armenian population dead. It turns out the word “genocide” was originally coined to describe the sustained systematic slaughter that ensued. Ever since, the world has been arguing the extent to which the “G” word actually applied. Aggressively espousing the negative position has been the Turkish government. The Armenian death toll has been greatly exaggerated, we are told; it was “an inter-communal conflict,” not genocide. The Armenians aligned themselves during World War I with enemies of the Ottoman Empire and were forcibly expelled. Stuff happens.
On the other side, however, is pretty much the whole world, though the United States — for geopolitical reasons that no doubt have nothing to do with all the blood on our genocidal hands — has embraced less stringently judgmental language. In one of the worst PR moves of all time, the Turkish government — eager to deflect unwanted publicity attending the Armenian genocide centennial — opted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its landmark victory in the Battle of Gallipoli last Friday instead. The only problem is that for the past 99 years, Turkey celebrated this birth-of-a-nation event on March 18. In the United States, 1.7 million of us demonstrated we’d never succumb to such moral amnesia by tuning into Bruce Jenner, the putative paterfamilias of the most famous Armenian family in America, the Kardashians, as he described the agonies of being a woman trapped in a man’s body. I missed this two-hour slice of history as I watched endless reruns of myself blathering on Jerry Roberts’s talking-head news show, City Desk, now on public-access TV.
As usual, Santa Barbara’s separation from groundbreaking world events is much less than the traditional six degrees. Back in the early 1970s, the Armenian-Turkish conflict reared its bloody head in a cottage suite of Montecito’s acclaimed Biltmore hotel. When it was over, two Turkish diplomats lay dead on the floor and a longtime Santa Barbara resident named Gourgen Yanikian would emerge as the international poster child of Armenian vengeance. Yanikian was built like an oversized potato with a big boulder of a head and a white mane of hair. He wrote books, he put on plays, he’d been a not-so-successful developer but an accomplished civil engineer who built railroads in Iran. And he was also a regular in Santa Barbara’s burgeoning folk-dance scene. By any standard, Yanikian the Armenian seemed to qualify as a bona fide renaissance man. But in 1972, he was living on welfare, having lost his shirt on medical care for his chronically ill wife and a series of bad investments. What would emerge later is how Yanikian saw his older brother’s throat slit by Turkish hands during WWI and how similar atrocities befell other family members.
In trial, Yanikian testified he planned to make a movie about the genocide with the $1.5 million owed him by the Iranian government for building key stretches of railroad of strategic military importance to the Allies during WWII. It appears Yanikian actually had a legit claim, but in 1972, the Shah of Iran told him to pound sand. The U.S. State Department — then putting all its eggs in the Shah’s basket — told him likewise. It was then that Yanikian concocted the scheme to lure Turkish diplomats to Santa Barbara — while posing as an Iranian — to return some objet d’art of cultural importance to the Turks. On January 27, 1973, two representatives from the Turkish Consul in Los Angeles met with Yanikian at the Biltmore. After dispensing with the usual pleasantries, Yanikian revealed he was Armenian; angry words were exchanged. Yanikian pulled a Luger from a hollowed-out book he brought and sprayed his guests with nine rounds. He pulled another gun he brought to finish the job, popping two bullets into each man’s head. Yanikian then told authorities to come get him. In the meantime, he’d sent out press advisories exalting over the vengeance exacted. Yanikian’s effort to put Turkey on the defense stand during his subsequent trial was effectively stymied by District Attorney David Minier. Instead, Minier sought to smear Yanikian as a dirty old man — not the high-minded avenging angel he presented — who was “researching” a book about the sexual mores of young people so he could hit on them. Well before the murder, in fact, a plainclothes policewoman had been dispatched to Yanikian’s house as a decoy interview subject. Apparently, he fell for the bait. Even so, the appellate judges who reviewed the case would sniff such prosecution efforts were “hardly commendable.” Minier would later express regret for not allowing Yanikian to make his case against Turkish genocide. But by then, Minier — always an intensely political animal — was a judge in Madera County, home to many Armenian Americans.
Yanikian’s defense was diminished capacity, not temporary insanity, as some judges not-so-subtly suggested it should have been. He lost at trial and again on appeal. Yanikian was already an old man when he went into prison. He was even older when he was released in 1984. He died a month later. In the aftermath, numerous Armenian resistance groups would emerge sporting names like the Yanikian Commandos. Many were full of hot air. Some were decidedly not. In 10 years’ time, there would be about 50 attacks on Turkish diplomats throughout the world, many lethal. Almost always, Yanikian’s name was invoked.
Is there a moral here? Maybe if you kill 1.5 million people, you shouldn’t quibble over semantics. Just apologize. The United States might do the same. In the meantime, I hope Bruce Jenner finds his way. But when he gets there, I really don’t need to know about it.