"A Problem from Hell" Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Books about genocide are unlikely to have many heroes. Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Problem from Hell” is no exception, but it does give prominence to people she calls “screamers” or “upstanders.” These persons focus attention on problems that others ignore. Speaking out when silence is “politically correct,” they try, sometimes successfully, to turn tides that seem overwhelming. As Power explores America and the age of genocide, the theme announced in her book’s subtitle, Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) is revealed as one who fits those descriptions. A Jewish lawyer who fled Poland during the Holocaust, Lemkin coined the word “genocide.” He also stubbornly prodded the United Nations until it adopted the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, whose definition of that crime pinpoints “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.”

Lemkin knew that genocide existed long before he invented the word. He fervently hoped that the U.N. Convention would bring it to an end, but that hope remains far from fulfilled. Thus, as it honors Lemkin, Power’s critical study of American responses to genocide echoes “Hardly Ever Again,” a song composed by Hank Knight and Tom Paxton while the world watched Rwandan Hutus slaughter more than 800,000 Tutsi in 1994. Knight and Paxton noted how the Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s destruction of Europe’s Jews, led to the midcentury slogan “Never again!” Their song questions whether what people—and governments, especially—had really meant to say was, “Hardly ever again.”

From the Turks’ annihilation of Armenians during World War I and the Holocaust that raged during World War II to Pol Pot’s mass murder of Cambodians in the 1970’s, Saddam Hussein’s destruction of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980’s, the so-called ethnic cleansing carried out by Serbs against Bosnian Muslims in the 1990’s, and the Hutu slaughter of the Tutsi, the twentieth century was genocidal. Combining journalism, historical scholarship, and political advocacy, Power’s brisk style does more than document and lament this sorry and unnecessary display of humanity at its worst. Taking her book’s title from a phrase that U.S. secretary of state Warren Christopher used on March 28, 1993, during a CBS Face the Nation interview about the troubled Balkan region, Power believes that the United States can correct its bystanding tendencies. “After a century of doing so little to prevent, suppress, and punish genocide,” she urges, the United States must assume the leadership and risks required to make “Never again!” a credible imperative.

In mid-February, 2002, about the time that Power’s book appeared, the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic went to trial in an international court at The Hague in the Netherlands. Milosevic was the first head of state ever to be indicted for genocide. Whether his trial’s result, or any genocide-related court action, will deter future genocide remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that the murderous Serbian nationalism of Milosevic and his henchmen Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic drove Power to write her book.

Having dispatched reports from war-torn Bosnia for nearly two years, Power was in Sarajevo on Sunday, June 25, 1995, when Bosnian Serb gunners shelled a playground, killing a nine-year- old girl named Sidbela Zimic and three of her playmates. Power observes that their deaths raised “the total number of children slaughtered in Bosnian territory during the war from 16,767 to 16,771.” She knew that Sarajevo’s 280,000 besieged residents counted on protection promised by statements such as those made by Bill Clinton on February 9, 1994: “No one,” the American president had said, “should doubt NATO’s resolve. Anyone, anyone shelling Sarajevo must . . . be prepared to deal with the consequences.”

Power also believed that such words from Clinton or other American leaders could not be trusted, for she “had long since given up hope” that NATO intervention would prevent the Serbs’ continuing assault on Sarajevo or other areas inhabited primarily by Bosnian Muslims. A few days later, Bosnian Serbs unleashed the worst mass murder in Europe since the Holocaust, attacking the so-called safe area of Srebrenica, where Mladic slaughtered more than seven thousand Muslim men and boys while inadequately supported United Nations peacekeeping forces were helpless to intervene.

Hard questions gnawed at her conscience when Power returned to America. Why had the United States not responded more effectively to the genocidal...

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