We Have Lived To See This Day: A Reminiscence, After a Year*
At first hearing, the news seemed like the build-up to a joke. Dink’s been shot? The name itself never failed to amuse me, no matter the context. And pictures of the man had always showed a pleasant, expressive Armenian face, slightly ironic, and confidently composed even amid the Keystone-Coppish antics of Turkey’s legal system. Besides, he was only a writer.
Dink’s been shot? What an improbable idea. Go on—what’s the punch line?
It turned out there was more than one punch line—and quite different from what I had expected. Dink’s been shot—and he’s dead. Dink was shot—in broad daylight, on an open street. He was shot in the back of the head. He was shot coming out of his office. He was shot, and the punk who did it cursed him in Turkish as he ran away.
The details trickled into the Reporter’s offices throughout that day, but there was hardly time to greet them with the reverence they deserved. Energy could be spared for a periodic sad shake of the head, an angry grinding of teeth. But what took possession of me and my colleagues in our scattered offices was the emerging news story—already developing in astonishing ways on the streets of Istanbul, and rippling outward to Armenian communities across the world. How would we cover it? How would we do justice, not simply to the immediate event, but also to the accelerating pace of reactions and counter-developments? How would we convey it all in a timely way, with an original perspective?
In some ways the reaction was coldly forensic; but there was a touch of poignancy in the realization that the victim himself, in decidedly different circumstances, would likely have been approaching things in a similar way.
It was not until two days later, in church, that the full weight of Hrant Dink’s fate fell on me.
Already by that time, the Internet was alive with headlines and slogans seeking to encapsulate the greater meaning of Dink’s death. Dink was said to have died in 1915. He was designated Victim Number one-and-a-half-million-plus-one of the Armenian Genocide. He was the hero-martyr killed for speaking the truth. All of these were thoughtful, helpful, even true in their own ways.
And yet not the whole truth. Even in the Republic of Turkey, there are others willing to speak and write about the Genocide; some have been roughed up, threatened, sued, forced into exile. But none of them was selected for an execution-style murder. That distinction was reserved for Hrant Dink, and what recommended him for that fate, in the eyes of his killers, was not the kind of man he was or wasn’t, or even what he said or did, but rather the very fact that he was an Armenian.
That thought weighed on me as I stood in our church sanctuary, among fellow countrymen, but also by myself. The sharagans came from me raspingly, haltingly. Surely there was comfort to be found in those immortal sounds, which have outlived every Armenian who ever existed, and link us with those who were, and those who are yet to come. But on that day there was also a sense of defiance in the mere utterance of those Armenian words, and more than once, when I felt I couldn’t continue a given phrase, I found myself forcing the words out, through clenched teeth, and at the expense of tunefulness, just to assure the invisible powers listening that our words would never easily be silenced.
It was just after the singing of Der voghormia that I felt my son at my side, up from Sunday School to receive Communion. Earlier that morning, I had tried to explain something of what had occurred in the previous days, and in his wise little way he stood close by me now, without any words, as if to console the troubled heart of his father. Every child, I think, represents a parent’s desire to redeem the wrongs of the past, and to cast a vote for a better future—certainly that’s the perspective of many Armenians I know. And my own firstborn son, named for the departed grandfathers he never knew, is no exception. But in the midst of that mostly happy thought, it came hard upon me that this same boy, freshly turned six the week before, would be no different from Dink in the eyes of the killers: equally expendable, equally worthy of extinction. Equally guilty of the sin of being an Armenian. So are we all.
Looking back from the vantage of a year, it is still astonishing to me that I have lived to see a day on which such a realization could occur. For reasons of politics, which are not unworthy in themselves, we pretend that what happened in 1915 was the act of a now-defunct regime. Even the attempt to link Dink’s death directly to the Genocide seems, to me, to be an attempt to isolate it, historicize it, emphasize its anomalous, retrograde quality—as if in the passage of 90-odd years the world has outgrown such things.
But the thing that most impresses itself upon me a year after the day Hrant Dink was shot is that the passions of hatred and contempt which made something like the Genocide possible, even plausible, a century ago, are still alive, still easily accessible, still there waiting to be unleashed today.
I fear that this hatred will always follow our people. Certainly, I cannot see how all the easy talk about reconciliation (whatever that entails) will ever overcome it. Dink’s killers, an amalgam of the faceless state, and the otherwise nameless lowlifes for whom a moment of violence is the only path to notoriety, are in their typology as old as man himself. They are the images of enforced order and mindless chaos which have allied themselves throughout history, whenever the conceit of human freedom, human distinctiveness, human dignity, arise, and need to be put down—violently, carelessly, with only a token of remorse.
Certainly, there was reason for unexpected hope in the immediate aftermath of Dink’s murder. Perhaps one day it will amount to something. There was likewise reason for disappointment in the political developments (or non-developments) of the past 12 months. But the fluctuating highs and lows are, I fear, in the scheme of history, ephemeral. What persists is a hatred directed at our people—as it has been directed at other people, elsewhere. It will always be with us.
By all accounts, Hrant Dink was a decent man in life; certainly a brave one. We should remember that whenever we memorialize him—and we should be grateful that we can remember him as such a man. But good or bad, none of that mattered to his killers. Dink was shot—because he was an Armenian. That’s the terrible “punchline” that has stayed with me these past months.
To be honest, the thought does not keep me awake at night, or pollute the joy I find in life’s many beautiful and noble aspects. But I am also all too aware that I have accepted the responsibility for bringing four new Armenians into this world, to carry on our family tradition, and to add their voices to the chorus of our ancestors. Someday, somehow, I will have to find a way to tell them that, despite their breathtaking purity and innocence, the weapon that targeted Hrant Dink is aimed at them, too.
—Christopher H. Zakian
* This essay was originally published in The Armenian Reporter on January 19, 2008—the first anniversary of Hrant Dink’s murder. Mr. Zakian was managing editor of the Armenian Reporter from 2006 to 2008.