Recent interviews:

Charles C. Mann: The Pristine Myth (March 7, 2002)
Charles C. Mann, the author of "1491," talks about the thriving and sophisticated Indian landscape of the pre-Columbus Americas.

Toby Lester: Supernatural Selection (February 8, 2002)
Toby Lester, the author of "Oh, Gods!" in the February Atlantic, talks about the Darwinian way in which religions mutate and evolve.

Maxine Kumin: The Art of Living (February 6, 2002)
In her first poetry collection since a near-fatal accident, Maxine Kumin celebrates the forms that life and writing take.

Andrea Barrett: The Science of Stories (January 30, 2002)
Andrea Barrett, the author of Servants of the Map, on how she combines her love of storytelling and her fascination with scientific inquiry.

That Word: An Interview with Randall Kennedy (January 17, 2002)
Randall Kennedy, the author of Nigger, talks about the boundaries that culture—and language—should and shouldn't have.

Terrorism's CEO: An Interview with Peter Bergen (January 9, 2002)
In Holy War, Inc., Peter Bergen examines how Osama bin Laden turned al Qaeda into the world's preeminent terrorist organization.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in The Atlantic Monthly.

Atlantic Unbound | March 14, 2002
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


"A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide
by Samantha Power
Basic Books
610 pages, $30

n 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.

—Katie Bacon

Samantha Power
Samantha Power   

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.

In terms of whether the lessons are the same for countries like England, I think some of them are, in that I think democracies have a hard time mobilizing for worst-case scenarios before the worst-case scenario transpires. Democracies are expense-averse and they think in terms of short-term, political interests rather than a long-term interest in stability. Given that the thesis of the book is that American leaders, democratic leaders, don't pay a political price at home for allowing genocide and do risk a political price or an emotional price for intervening in some fashion, then that kind of cost-benefit calculus would be similar in other democratic countries.

Were you surprised by what you found when you started looking into America's response to genocide?

What surprised me was the extent to which officials involved in shaping policy could define their responses as moral—that they could feel they were doing something that was humanitarian, that was moral, that was in the long-term interests not just of American security and American wealth but of their own values. The sophistication of those denial mechanisms was striking to me. But then the other thing that surprised me was how many people had stood up. The book is told through the travails of these individuals who really did try to move the system, and I was very pleasantly surprised to know that in most cases there were these individuals who did take the promise of "Never Again" seriously and who did believe that American power carried with it some kind of responsibility.

From the archives:

"Bystanders to Genocide: Why the United States Let the Rwandan Tragedy Happen" (September 2001)
The author's exclusive interviews with scores of the participants in the decision-making, together with her analysis of newly declassified documents, yield a chilling narrative of self-serving caution and flaccid will—and countless missed opportunities to mitigate a colossal crime. By Samantha Power
Did working on the book significantly change your opinions of U.S. Presidents who were in power during the various genocides? Reading it certainly changed mine of Clinton.

This sounds naïve, but I hadn't understood the extent to which politics were omnipresent in Clinton's life. That climactic scene in the book on the White House putting green, after Clinton has faced two weeks of nonstop bombardment by the press for letting Srebrenica fall and after Bob Dole has brought about a unilateral lift of the congressional arms embargo, and Clinton says, "I'm getting creamed." It was politics that gave rise to the intervention. Clinton was moved by the fate of the Bosnians, no question—there were many Presidents who wouldn't have even gone there—but to push a President over the edge into doing something that's even a little bit risky on behalf of his ideals, there's got to be a combination of his values at stake, and, most crucially, his interests. There's got to be either a perception of America's vital national interests being imperiled, or the President's own political interests. I think Clinton felt he was vulnerable.

Carter surprised me too. He was so quiet on Cambodia. If being the human-rights President meant something, I would have thought it meant you speak out when there are massive violations of human rights. I guess as someone who became politically conscious long after the Vietnam War, I was surprised by the extent to which the foreign-policy system shut down during that era. Carter and his top advisors simply weren't looking.

Would it have been any different if Cambodia had happened twenty years later, or if Carter had been in power during Rwanda or Bosnia? It seems like it is a constant that no matter how moral a President is, there still needs to be this confluence of public outcry and a feeling of vulnerability.

One of the things that a President needs in the face of genocide is resolve. And one of the problems with some Democratic Presidents is a tendency to see both sides and to agonize. I'm not sure that Carter actually would have been the right person in the 1990s even without the shadow of Vietnam directly upon him. Frankly, I think the warm and forgiving elements of his nature may not have made him the best person to see evil. But, again, when you look at a whole century of American Presidents who all find a way to look away, it doesn't seem so personality dependent.

You make clear that the U.S. government does not bear the full blame for our country's failure to respond. In most cases, U.S. citizens either paid little attention to what was going on, or put negligible pressure on their elected officials. One could finish this book feeling a profound sense of pessimism—that in a way it seems to be human nature to be able to look the other way when genocide is happening somewhere far away, and that the world's response to the next genocide may very well be similar to our response to the ones during the twentieth century. Do you think this sense of pessimism is justified?

September 11 of course changes things, but we did end the century with the arrest of Milosevic and with intervention in Kosovo. I think without the efforts of those people who tried and failed for the better part of the century to get their government to do more, you wouldn't have had those steps taken. It took incredible dissent within the State Department over Bosnia, incredible editorial interventionism by The New York Times and The Washington Post, and it took human-rights groups getting out into the field and being able to document atrocities in real-time and transmitting information back. It took guilt over Rwanda, it took Philip Gourevitch and Alison Des Forges and Romeo Dallaire to bring Rwanda into the American public psyche such that you'd have a President who was afraid of allowing another genocide both in terms of his legacy and his own internal conscience. So something was learned. One of the questions that one must always pose is, Can that learning cross continents? Can a set of individuals who learned lessons with regard to a specific place take the lessons on the road? And will they respond more robustly, more imaginatively, to Sudan, for instance, which has little in common with either Rwanda or Bosnia? Also, crucially, can individuals who weren't involved in shaping policy themselves learn or internalize the lessons that were learned on the watch of others? Specifically, can the Bush Administration come in, read this book or any book about what went on in 1990s, and basically learn to respond without going through the process of allowing a genocide, later feeling guilty about it and then resolving to do better? Can you internalize the shame? Can you internalize the eventual impatience, belated impatience with people who are committing these crimes? I'm not sure. Bush talked last week about trying to shut down the War Crimes Tribunal by 2008. That doesn't sound like a man who has internalized either the pain of the Bosnians or the lesson that noninvolvement in the region was shortsighted.

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?

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.

In an article on artificial societies in the April Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch argues that there seems to be a kind of tipping point when it comes to genocide—ethnic groups will be living together for years with a great deal of tension, and suddenly that tension will spill over into genocidal violence. Are there certain "tipping points" for genocide that you've identified in your research? What things should countries be looking for so they can intervene before a genocide begins?

Well, the first place to begin looking is spots where ethnic violence has taken place and where democracy is either fragile and/or transitional or where it's nonexistent. Usually in more established democracies, even if there is a history of violence, which there usually is, ethnic groups have the capacity to give vent to their grievances, and that's its own kind of salve. If they feel acknowledged by a democratic process, they don't feel shut out. Often, the places where democracy is transitional are more vulnerable than where it's nonexistent, because in a sense what you have is people rising up and claiming rights that have often been denied them. That stirring of fear among more established groups can cycle very, very quickly into an invocation of past violence.

I would also keep an eye on the media and look at the extent to which a country is moving from merely a state of tension to one of ethnic polarization, where in a sense the media outlets are asking people to take sides. And then when you hear about the compilation of lists and things like that, that's a sign that something evil is planned. It may be a round-up or it may be murder. Genocide is often preceded by little massacres. You know, kill a hundred people here, fifty there, so I'd be watching for these kinds of killings. For instance, the Hindu-Muslim violence now could turn into something even more dangerous. Again, to make the occurrence of genocide your standard for concern would be a mistake. The things that I've described should be enough to generate mid- to high-level policy attention.

That kind of violence could even be a test to see what sort of response they get from the rest of the world.

Exactly, that's what massacres are. They're trial balloons. I think in so many ways they are meant for external consumption, just to see how the outside world will respond. And when individuals who are members of the perpetrator group, or what becomes the perpetrator group, see that there's no harsh response, it really undermines the moderates in a society. If you're a member of the group, you realize basically it's "kill or be killed." There's no cost to killing and there's great fear of standing back. Outside powers really have to do more to alter that calculus.

What do you think of the way the Milosevic trial is playing out?

I have mixed feelings about it. I think it's great that he's there. But I'm surprised at some of the credulity of people, their capacity to be charmed by him. He's a very smart, very funny man. But he is not a charming person. When you wreak that much havoc, one has to put a check on one's propensity to see the good in people. I wish that people in the Balkans were more engaged with the proceedings. I think the trial is helping attract attention to the courts and hopefully when they see that Milosevic gets to ask whatever questions he wants to, people in Serbia will see it's not a vehicle for anti-Serb hatred.

What do you think it says for the future of the international tribunals?

I think it shows how important having these courts actually is, not just because it helps establish individual responsibility, which it does—that is, to get away from collective guilt, you don't blame all the Serb people, you actually blame just a discrete number of individuals who were responsible—but also because it incapacitates people who are noxious and who are incredibly detrimental to international stability, who are the fosterers of hate and of militarization of the very kind we are now combating in the war on terrorism. I think these are great places to stick people who do terrible things and who would never be brought to justice at home. That should be the lesson. But I'm not sure it's the lesson that's being learned.

Aside from the courts, are there other things that can be done to force countries to respond to genocide? How can we keep the political calculus from winning out as it seems to have done?

You can hope for enlightened leadership, but I wouldn't hope for too long. Rather than ensuring that the political calculus doesn't win out, perhaps the better strategy is to figure out how we can play into the political calculus and alter the outcome. How can we ensure the next time around that it doesn't take Bob Dole three and a half years to lift an arms embargo in the Senate? How can we get more senators and congresspeople out into the world, get them their passports if they don't have passports, and get them encountering the very people whose lives they are affecting by the policy they make?

Isolationism is not just ideological in this country, it is the way people live their lives. They live lives isolated from people abroad. How can we get cases of genocide taught in diplomatic history classes? How can we get the Foreign Service Institute to talk to its diplomats about the perils of negotiating too long? How can we develop a toolkit of unconventional means to deal with this unconventional crime? How can we get people to be looking out for this stuff so we can steepen the grade of that learning curve and shorten the distance that people have to move between "not knowing" to "knowing" and then to "really knowing"—that different, transcendent kind of knowledge that takes people forever to acquire?

The NATO bombing of Kosovo was the first time that an outside power has intervened to head off genocide. It seems like the political aftermath of the bombing has been mixed, but do you think it will lead to similar operations?

I don't think it will lead inexorably to anything, really, at this stage, both because of the shift in the Administration and because of the bittersweet legacy, the bittersweet taste in peoples' mouths that it left. And also, of course, because of September 11, which has distracted resources. People who urge humanitarian intervention want perfect intervention. They're right to want that and should continue to hold the U.S. government accountable if the intervention strays from its humanitarian course. But I think one of the reasons that there isn't much of a constituency left for interventions like Kosovo is that people on the right, people who are committed first and foremost to strengthening American power, think that Kosovo was a dilution of American power, a waste of American resources, and a potential infringement on American credibility. People on the left are upset at the manner in which it was conducted—bombing from 15,000 feet with these terribly dire humanitarian consequences. But I think that what we all need is a bit of a reality check. The war advanced U.S. strategic interests. If we think that the Albanian situation is a problem today in terms of terrorism and smuggling, which it is, that problem was going to be a hell of a lot bigger if that conflict and that crisis had been allowed to fester. At least now we have a chance to build up a justice system in Kosovo proper that will rein in some of these criminal elements. The Serbian government was never going to have that power because with its repression it was going to generate so much opposition in the society. So curbing ethnic cleansing in Kosovo was actually very conducive to some of the concerns of people who now criticize the intervention. Similarly, I think people on the left have to be much more prepared to understand that no use of force will ever be perfect. Some of the incidents that occurred were incredibly tragic, but a really good faith effort was made to avoid civilian casualties and 1.7 million Albanians are now free to control their own destinies. If the Kosovars screw up, and they may, it won't be because NATO didn't give them the chance to run their own country. So I think in a way that the legacy of Kosovo is a lot more positive than people acknowledge. The trick will be creating a community of people who share that view.

You've talked a little bit about this, but what sort of effects do you think September 11 and the war in Afghanistan are going to have on our position in the world and specifically our willingness to intervene if genocide appears to be starting up again?

I don't think the United States will intervene militarily to stop genocide anytime soon. A look at the last hundred years indicates that it's very hard, even under the best of circumstances, to secure that kind of robust response. My fear is that after September 11, the U.S. not only will not intervene militarily, but it won't do all of the other things that it could to actually halt these kinds of killings. From denouncing genocide and using the word, threatening prosecution, using our technical assets to jam hate radio if that's what's required, freezing foreign assets, lifting arms embargoes, imposing arms embargoes, rallying troops in the United Nations from other countries—all of these things the U.S. could do without sacrificing its military readiness to combat terrorism. And my fear, again, is that it will treat genocide prevention as an all or nothing venture. Either we send in the Marines or it's somebody else's problem. The one lesson from the last half century is that if it's not the U.S.'s problem, it's nobody's problem. The U.S. can do a lot to help strengthen regional institutions and capacities in other countries so that genocide can cease to be the U.S.'s problem and become a global problem. But we're not there yet, and to hide behind the rest of the world is the same thing as saying we don't want to help—it's the same for the victims. The U.S. will not send its troops, but if it also doesn't take a leading political role, the likelihood of someone else stepping forward remains very, very slim.

Do you have a sense of what the transition has been like in Bosnia and Rwanda and other places that have experienced genocide once the violence has subsided? How are these countries dealing with questions of individual versus collective guilt?

It's still collective, and I think until the tribunals really do their work and start to communicate their proceedings back to the countries in question, it will continue to be collective guilt. I mean, Hutu in Rwanda carry the burden of the genocide and will for a long time. What it will take is shared initiatives. It's like in this country after Jim Crow, it took bringing African-Americans into the workplace, sharing classrooms, sharing sports fields, whatever it was, to begin to ease mutual suspicions. For African-Americans in this country, it's understandable that it would take a long time to trust, and that's true also for the victims of genocide. It's going to take generations. We have to be patient. We're so impatient as an international community. We have to understand the scale of what has happened. Look how long it took Nazi Germany to reckon with its sins. It's really still doing so to this day.

What do you think? Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

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Katie Bacon is an editor for The Atlantic Online. Her most recent interview was with Charles C. Mann.

Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.