In 1979, Richard Dekmejian, a professor of political science, traveled to Libya for a conference in observance of the 10th anniversary of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s coup d’etat. Dekmejian said the dictator invited him to speak at the conference and then asked him to write a book about his reign.
“I had written a book called Egypt Under Nasser,” Dekmejian said. “He never read the book and thought it was about Nasser, so he invited me to write a book about him. Of course, I shook my head just so I could get out of Libya. Once I got back to the states, I broke off future communication because I really wasn’t interested in writing a book praising him.”
Qaddafi was not the only ruler to offer Dekmejian a book deal, but there was never any doubt in his mind that turning down each offer was the right thing to do. The son of two Armenian genocide survivors, writing in praise of these rulers contrasted with his own moral values.
“There are a lot of countries on this earth that will give you big money if you deny genocide,” Dekmejian said. “Despite the fact that you can make thousands of dollars, you can’t play that game. Beyond a certain point, you can’t pull punches when someone is really bad.”
Dekmejian was born in Aleppo, Syria, nearly 20 years after the genocide that killed most of his extended family, but his family’s past helped shape his future. He said he and his family were always on the move — refugees being not entirely welcome in Syria — but he eventually moved to America to live with his uncles, where he furthered his education.
He studied engineering and theology for a few years before enlisting in the U.S. Army. Having grown up in Syria at a time when it shifted from French rule to independence, he learned to speak Armenian, Arabic, French, Turkish and English fluently. He was stationed in France, working at the NATO headquarters near Paris.
“The kind of work I did was intelligence work, because of the languages I knew,” Dekmeijian said. “It determined my interest in politics, international relations, intelligence issues and leadership issues.”
After finishing his military service, he returned to school, studying political science at the University of Connecticut, earning a master’s degree at Boston University in Soviet and Asian politics and a doctorate at Columbia University in Middle Eastern politics. He went on to teach at SUNY Binghamton while also working for the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, preparing diplomats to go to the Middle East.
“The work at Foreign Services was incredibly interesting because you’d get to talk to practitioners,” Dekmejian said. “In political sciences, you deal a lot with theoretical stuff. We’re not practitioners, so when you go to the level of practitioners, you learn a great deal.”
Dekmejian came to USC in 1986, and now teaches political science, including a course called Terrorism and Genocide, where he teaches students to recognize preconditions of genocide and how to prevent it. He teaches through case studies of past incidents of terrorism and genocide, but also gives students the opportunity to briefly experience it in class, with the help of former graduate student and U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Ken Graham.
“He comes every year to do a military-style takeover, where a number of students with masks take over the class,” Dekmejian said. “I literally lay on the floor. It’s about a five-minute operation. But then I go through our mistakes in the past and what’s the likelihood of some new forms [of terrorism].”
Dekmejian also worked on documentaries about genocide and terrorism with the Discovery Channel and said it is important to document and learn from these incidents.
“It’s important, I tell my students, to inoculate ourselves with the anti-genocidal vaccine so that we can prevent this from happening as we grow up on this planet,” Dekmejian said. “It’s so important to learn about the tragedies of the past and hope that will teach us something about not doing it in the future.”