Interviews March 2002

Never Again Again

Never Again Again

Samantha Power, the author of "A Problem From Hell," explores why America—the home of Holocaust awareness—did all but nothing to stop the genocides of the twentieth century

In general, what sort of response did you get from government officials whom you approached asking them to think over their responses to genocide? Did many of them who had done little while the genocides were going on seem to wish they had enacted different policies? You said some of them seemed to think that what they'd done was moral in a way.

Some of the officials I encountered were remorseful, sincerely remorseful, genuinely upset that they'd had a hand, in their own minds, in allowing these kinds of crimes. But they had also constructed pretty potent defense mechanisms. So while they were clearly wracked by some guilt (some of them, only a few; most people weren't wracked by guilt, and the defense mechanisms trumped the sense of individual responsibility), there were a whole series of alibis they were still using, which were true alibis—they weren't lying. They were saying, "You have to understand, we didn't know it would be 800,000 people killed in Rwanda" or "You have to understand how angry Congress was about Somalia and how hard it would have been to achieve anything." Rightly, they were saying you can't be anachronistic about this, you can't impose what we wish we'd done today on what we felt we could do back then. So I didn't meet many people who were broken or who said they had been permanently altered by the experience.

The exception is those individuals who left government, who couldn't stand it anymore. They had already allowed their guilt and frustration to boil up to the surface in them, and they still carried it around with them. People like the UN Commander in Rwanda, Romeo Dallaire of Canada, or the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Prudence Bushnell. She hadn't left the government but she had dissented, and she might have been one of the most honest interviewees. She really blamed herself for not pushing harder in Rwanda, and didn't look to point the finger at anyone else. She sort of said, "Look, it was my portfolio. What was wrong with me?" And when you ask that question, there are interesting and important answers that aren't about her being a bad person but are about how these events are understood as they're happening, and how it's a very human reaction to push them away.

In the book you call these people who try to bring attention to atrocities going on the "screamers." It makes sense that they are the people who are really broken by the experience, but at the same time, they are the only ones who actually really tried to do something. They should be the ones who feel the best about themselves, but I guess that's not how human nature works.

You're absolutely right. I had a line in The Atlantic Monthly piece where I said of Dallaire, "The man who did the most feels the worst." That's a paradox to most people. But it's actually completely intuitive if you stop to think about it. Dallaire, every minute of every day, made a choice about who to save and who to allow to die. Those of us back in the U.S. didn't make decisions that cost people's lives. We chose not to make decisions, which was its own decision—one that didn't bring us face-to-face with the consequences of our decision not to decide. By definition, those who screamed were those who opened themselves up emotionally to what was going on. And once you've done that, you're an actor in it. Even if you're far away, you're saying, "This is my mess." Already that's a step more active and more dangerous than those who say, "That's not my mess, that's a problem from hell." Once you're there, you have to live with the consequences of having opened yourself up in that way, and you're gonna say to yourself: Could I have done more? Pru Bushnell says, "Why didn't I call Tony Lake at home and pester him?" Whereas Lake and others were making hundreds of decisions in a given day about a hundred countries. Rwanda was not all they thought about, by any means. Understandably, they look back and they don't remember making decisions that were pertinent to what ended up unfolding. But then there are those who can remember their decisions and can remember the trauma from that period and who had faces of actual individuals in their minds when they went to sleep at night.

I do want to say that one of my objectives in writing this book is to legitimate the Screamers. Those people who opened themselves up emotionally and risked that kind of dangerous, scary, self-implicating engagement—not only have they paid a personal price, but most of them paid a tremendous professional price. It was and always is so easy to demonize and marginalize people who speak about things that aren't fashionable or are unwelcome. But these little steps and stands they're taking, however futile they feel, have an incremental force, and we look back and believe the Screamers were right.

It's almost unbelievable that even after the Holocaust, people did not seem to be able to imagine that leaders and citizens could sink to the level of brutality that they did in Rwanda or Bosnia or Cambodia or Iraq. Why do you think it is so hard for people to accept the victims' side of the story? Or to believe that leaders will act irrationally and strive to eliminate an ethnic group even to the detriment of their larger war aims?

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