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 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?

Prior to September 11, most of us were very fortunate to be able to say that these kinds of sinister campaigns against innocent people were not part of our everyday experience. There's something about gratuitous destruction that just doesn't comport with our sense of rationality. The deliberate killing of women and children is a "does not compute" problem in our minds. Even though it was not long ago, of course, that some of these same tactics were used here—whether against Native Americans or even in the Jim Crow South. But I just think the reaction was, "I hear what you're saying, but, nahhh, it can't be." What you see again and again is that people almost have to learn themselves—that it doesn't do any good to read about the Holocaust. Each person almost has to have his or her own learning curve, own period of disbelief, own moment of recognition, and then in rare cases, own period of proselytizing in an effort to convert other people. I think the tendency to doubt the facts is a phenomenon associated with the privilege of having not been vulnerable in this way ourselves. It's a phenomenon associated with basic Western rationality. If bad things happen, we tell ourselves, they must be happening to those who've done bad things.

One of my other hopes in writing the book is that even if we still have to have a learning curve, then let it be shorter. It's shouldn't take so long. I mean, if those first refugee reports sound hard to believe, then let's just go and deploy all the intelligence resources we can to try to confirm the reports and not look for reasons not to confirm, which is what we do. And if we hear ourselves saying "nahhhh," then that's a reason to be skeptical of our own reaction. I think that the bias toward disbelief should be shifted to a bias toward belief, so that basically the skeptics have to prove why they think refugees are lying. Right now, refugees are in an untenable position of having to prove something that they can't prove. This generation has to learn that genocide can happen. That is the lesson of the Holocaust—it has been the lesson for more than fifty years, but we have yet to learn it.

Maybe after the nineties, when genocide seemed to happen with such rapidity, it will finally stick in people's minds.

Maybe. I think we tell ourselves, though, that that was the product of peculiar circumstances. "Oh, that's Africa, you know, the tribes, they do that." "It's the Balkans, this stuff happens in the Balkans." There's a way that we otherize circumstances that challenge our universal premises.

You were in Bosnia as a war correspondent during the mid 1990s. Was it therefore different for you to write the Bosnia chapter than it was to write about the other genocides?

Harder. Much harder. With the others there was a sense of discovery—thinking new thoughts, learning about new people, new places, and new tragedy—and I suppose I was probably a better reporter in the other cases, because I didn't have so many opinions going in. I wasn't there to argue, I was there to take notes. But with Bosnia it was hard. I had been on the other side of the ocean while the policy was being made here. To go back and reconstruct was frustrating. I felt like, This is what it was about? This is what you were saying while that was happening over there? How can that be? So I was more emotionally invested in it, and it was hard to bring a freshness to the writing. I had to tone down some of my anger and frustration, and I really tried to write the book in a measured way so that people could come to their own conclusions. There are always good reasons not to act. The question is, Are those good reasons better reasons than the reasons to act? For the most part I think that the answer is no, but I want readers to have the opportunity in each individual case to reach their own conclusions. And by "action" I do mean a whole host of options, I don't just mean sending in U.S. troops. That wasn't even considered in most of the cases in the book.

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