By GRAEME WOOD
Which is scarier: a government that hunts down and kills dozens in cold blood, or a government that hunts down and kills dozens by accident?
On Thursday, Turkey admitted to being the second type of government, just as over the last few months Syria has demonstrated itself conclusively to be the first. Turkey’s mistake, which it acknowledged sheepishly, was to launch air-strikes on Wednesday against about 35 men hiking along unmarked trails between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. The Turkish military says it thought the men were terrorist members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (P.K.K.). But evidence found near the corpses suggested a more benign activity: the men were smugglers evading onerous Turkish and Iraqi customs duties on diesel and tobacco at the official crossing point of Habur. They carried Kools, not Kalashnikovs.
In the past, Turkey’s Kurds have responded to incidents like this one by protesting in the streets and public squares, with a little bit of armed struggle from actual terrorists on the side. Last night in Istanbul, Kurds and their allies went to the streets. On Istliklal Avenue, in Beyoglu district in central Istanbul, at street corners normally reserved for upper-class shoppers in winter chic, riot police stood huffing into their hands to chase away the cold, waiting for violence that never came. But news agencies reported that in the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, crowds threw stones and Molotov cocktails, and stores were shuttered for the day.
After violence in the southeast, recriminations and confrontations like these are common. But there’s a notable change of vocabulary this time. Whereas Kurds once looked to the West and patiently tried to master the human rights language of the European Union, now at least some of them are looking south, to the more urgent and concrete language of protest movements in the Arab world. And in adopting that rhetoric, the Kurdish leaders are making missteps.
“A leader who kills his own people has lost his legitimacy,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in September. Now Selahattin Demirtas, the Kurdish member of parliament who heads the Peace and Democracy Party, finds Erdogan’s words delicious. not to quote back to him. “Now I say the same thing back to him,” Demirtas said. “This was no accident: it was a massacre.” Demirtas, whose party is the sole legal political voice of the Kurds in Turkey these days, said he considered the killing caused by Wednesday’s air strike to be an Assad-level crime.
It’s a preposterous and self-discrediting comparison: Erdogan and Assad resemble each other in little more than their mustaches. The first people to acknowledge the differences between the two should be the Kurds themselves: Erdogan’s government has in many ways improved upon the nationalist Turkish governments of yesteryear, and the Kurds of Syria have always suffered far more grievously than the Kurds of Turkey. In the P.K.K. camps of northern Iraq, Syrian Kurds are overrepresented — the result of especially zealous oppression by the Assad regime.
It’s hard to begrudge a movement as aggrieved as the Kurds’ this moment of hyperbole. But let’s hope that the Kurds will reconsider their annexation of Arab Spring analogies. A movement that has spent the last couple of decades mastering the art of patience shouldn’t now sideline its own cause with a faulty comparison to a more desperate one.