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

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.

In many of the cases you study—Rwanda, Bosnia, and Iraq—there were tortuous debates over whether the killings in fact constituted genocide. U.S. officials figured that if they didn't call it genocide, then they wouldn't be forced to act to stop it. But does it really matter whether these atrocities were classed as genocide? We seem to be able to squirm out of responding even in cases where genocide is incredibly clear cut. Can the debate over the word distract countries from their moral obligation to act?

I think so, though there is utility to having a category of crime called "genocide." The American people, for instance, are much more in favor of military intervention to stop genocide than to stop other forms of human-rights abuse, so I understand why advocates spend so much time trying to generate a finding of genocide. The Genocide Convention obliges some sort of response to prevent or to suppress genocide. But for the most part I'm not sure the creation of the ban has been so constructive. Intelligence on genocidal crimes is always present, but it's always blurry enough that if you make an absolute certainty over whether genocide is underway the precondition for acting, you are putting the bar in a place where it's going to be too easy for risk-averse policymakers to continue to move it upwards. What I would suggest is that you'd be better off scaling the amount of U.S., Western, and international engagement to atrocities, and as they ramp up, so too should outside concern and response. If it's only libraries and synagogues that are being burnt, then that doesn't mean that you don't do anything—that means that you start to pay attention. You say it looks like a precursor to something very dangerous and you deploy additional intelligence assets. Now, you don't have an unlimited number of resources so you deploy cautiously, but there's something in your mind saying, "Uh-oh." You don't create an all or nothing scenario meaning you'll only respond if sure-fire genocide is going on. Nor do you say that the possible responses are to send in the Marines or to do nothing. In a sense you just watch and respond as things escalate on the ground, and the worse it gets the more you do. We don't do it that way. We wait until genocide is happening, and then maybe if we're lucky we get a high-level debate about whether it is genocide. But we haven't gotten high-level attention to stopping the atrocities.

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