"A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide
by Samantha Power
610 pages, $30
On December 9, 1948, Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who escaped to America in 1941 and coined the word genocide in the wake of the Holocaust, sat alone in an auditorium where hours before his treaty banning genocide had been passed, sobbing inconsolably. Lemkin, an expert in international law, had made the adoption of the Genocide Convention by the United Nations his life's work, and he called it an "epitaph on his mother's grave," written so that "she and many millions did not die in vain." The pact prohibited any concerted attempt to destroy or damage "in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group." More controversially, it bound its signatories to look past issues of national sovereignty and suppress genocide wherever it might occur. But the U.S. Senate, not wanting America's own sovereignty to be infringed upon, refused to ratify the convention for the next forty years. Without the U.S., the convention realistically meant little, and it would take another single-minded crusader to goad the U.S. into ratification.
On January 11, 1967, William Proxmire stood up in the Senate and announced that he would give a speech on genocide every day until the convention was ratified. In 1968 he spoke about the deaths of a million Nigerians in the Biafran War. In 1971 he drew attention to the murder of more than a million Bengalis in Pakistan. In 1972 he called for action when Tutsis killed more than 100,000 Hutu in Burundi. And in the mid seventies he decried the killing of nearly two million Cambodians at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Nineteen years and 3,211 speeches later, the U.S. finally ratified the treaty. But it would be ten more years before anyone was tried for genocide, or before any country acted to prevent it.
In "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power profiles Lemkin, Proxmire, and other "screamers," to use Arthur Koestler's term, who struggled against a current of U.S. indifference to the genocides that plagued the twentieth century. Hers is both an account of the few who protested, and the many, many who didn't. Using material from more than 300 interviews and from government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Power provides an analysis of our government's response, or lack thereof, to the genocide of Armenians in Turkey, of the Jews during the Holocaust, the Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge, the Kurds in Iraq, the Bosnians in Yugoslavia, and the Tutsis in Rwanda. In each case government officials—from low-level diplomats to Presidents—said they didn't really know what was happening, or didn't know it in time, or even if they had known, they couldn't feasibly have done anything to stop it. Power places these denials and hedges alongside government documents showing that in most cases government officials did know that terrible violence was tearing these countries apart—or if they didn't know, they had made a conscious choice to close their eyes and ears to information that was right in front of them. She quotes, for example, a Defense Department discussion paper on Rwanda from May 1, 1994—when perhaps as many as 300,000 Rwandans had already been killed—steering people away from calling the violence genocide, because that designation would force the government to act. "Be careful. Legal at State was worried about this yesterday—Genocide finding could commit [the U.S. government] to actually 'do something.'" In every case domestic politics turned out to be more important than stopping genocide in some far off corner of the world—and for that Power blames not just government officials, but the American public, who rarely paid attention to what was going on, and did little to press our government into action.
Power spent several years as a reporter in Bosnia covering the war there. She is now the executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University's Kennedy School, where she teaches classes on human rights and U.S. foreign policy.
I spoke with Power at her office in Cambridge last week.
Why do you focus specifically on the U.S. in this book? If you were to write a history, for example, of England's response to genocide, would the basic themes remain the same?
I think so. The reason I chose the United States is that the United States has had such unrivaled power over the course of the last fifty years—even prior to World War II it had the potential to tip the balance in various ways. I had to start somewhere, in a way, and I thought, Why not start with the country that had the greatest potential to deter these crimes?
I think that countries look to the United States in ways that we underestimate. Even now, when we are hated in so many corners of the world, there is still a tremendous normative impact that the words of American leaders have. And leaving aside the issue of military might, the diplomatic and political heft that the U.S. has made it seem like the right place to start. The other thing is, the U.S. exhibits a much greater attention to the Holocaust than most other countries. We have the Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington next to our cherished monuments. There really is something to "Never Again," a kind of cultural sway that the Holocaust has here that I don't think it has in other countries apart from Germany and Israel.