LOS ANGELES — "We are all Hrant Dink." That was the appropriate, if not very accurate, placard held aloft by tens of thousands of mourners last month when Istanbul buried its famed – and defamed – slain hero.
Mr. Dink was an Armenian-Turkish editor of the weekly newspaper Agos, but it was not as an editor that he won lasting honors. He will be remembered by Armenians as the gentle usher on the bridge from Istanbul's Armenian community to its Turkish commonwealth – and ambassador to both from the democratic dream. He should be remembered by all as an intellectual warrior leading the fight against censorship.
Even the Turkish government, which convicted Dink in 2005 of "insulting Turkishness" for writing about the Armenian genocide of 1915, splashed its imperial tears – sourced in self-pity though they were. From the government's perspective, the confessed killer, 17-year old Ogun Samast, had just issued an inconvenient press release on the eve of Turkey's accession talks with the European Union. "I shot the infidel," Samast reportedly yelled after shooting Dink in the back. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's strange lament on "the attack on our peace and stability" bemoaned not the dead Armenian, but the afternoon's collateral casualty: the illusion of Turkey's democratic revival.
Official Turkey may condemn Samast as an ultranationalist vigilante, but it can't in good faith call him a traitor. If the mention of genocide was an act of sedition under Article 301 of the country's penal code, then Samast had delivered the just punishment to its violator. The killer had merely packed Turkey's state spirit into a bullet and sent it to its final destination.
Indeed, video footage shows Turkish security officers giving Samast a hero's treatment as they posed with him in front of a Turkish flag shortly after his arrest.
Dink, on the other hand, was found guilty of treason and denied police protection even as he reported death threats. For his commentaries on the Armenian genocide, Dink was labeled an enemy to the Turkish people. He took on that role with understanding but not acquiescence, defying injustice with truth – and censorship with incorruptible free speech.
Of a character in Dink's position, Henrik Ibsen has written, "The strongest man in the world is he who stands alone." Raised in an Istanbul orphanage, almost trained for the lonely task of bringing truth to power in Turkey, Dink often stood alone outside Turkey.
When I first saw Dink in November 2006 at a lecture in Los Angeles – a great outpost of the Armenian diaspora – he was chatting his way politely through a crowd of Armenians. The gray-haired and spectacled journalist, unlike many writers, looked at home in the mass, treating each nameless face with refreshed interest and respect. But what first seemed a fitting capture of his timid mannerism, the surname "Dink" was really a highly misleading onomatopoeia – both to his personality and to his role in history. Underneath the gentle erudite exterior was the chiseled soul of a warrior.
By large margin, Armenian communities had celebrated France's bill last year to criminalize denial of the Armenian genocide. But Dink, a luminary of genocide recognition, explained to his compatriots why the bill (still not law) was wrong, why freedom of speech and truth must be championed together – the first upheld to guarantee the permanence of the second.
Damned by Turkey for crying the truth and damned by some Armenians for tying truth to justice, the man who stood alone was right. The 100,000 attendees at Dink's funeral were the final proof that censorship could not cover Turkey's lie – and it would not protect Armenia's truth.
But in life, against the myopia of his people abroad and the brute fascism of his countrymen at home, Dink held out hope. The death of Hrant Dink is the tragic spectacle of a clash of civilizations at the confluence of civilizations.
On one end, the Turkish state insists on being angered at Dink's assassin, as its laws continue to punish speech and its textbooks stifle truth. On the other, freethinking Turks joined their Armenian countrymen at the funeral of their unlikely insurgent who, now passed, no longer stands alone. A combustion is coming. It is Dink's legacy that he yelled fire in Istanbul – and charged the world with extinguishing it.
• Garin K. Hovannisian is a writer living in Yerevan, Armenia; and Los Angeles.