"A Problem from Hell"

by Samantha Power
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1918

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.”

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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 situation in the former Yugoslavia? Would the American response have been different if the targeted population had been different (that is, not Muslim) or if the disaster had happened in a different time and place? As she followed where these questions led her, Power’s findings were scarcely encouraging. “It did not take long,” she writes, “to discover that the American response to the Bosnia genocide was in fact the most robust of the century.” Following up on that claim, Power acknowledges that U.S. power to intervene in genocidal situations has not been uniformly high. She also recognizes that American policymakers have had different backgrounds and ideological commitments. Nevertheless, Power argues that U.S. policies about genocide in the twentieth century have been “astonishingly similar across time, geography, ideology, and geopolitical balance.” Her assessment of those policies and policymakers is harsh: Although the United States has sometimes fought against genocidal regimes—Nazi Germany, for example—never has the United States intervened explicitly to stop genocide, and only rarely has the U.S. government condemned genocide while it was taking place.

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Power pays attention to the Holocaust and to the Armenian genocide that preceded it. She argues, however, that defining genocide too much by its quintessence, the Holocaust, can have an unfortunate consequence: Genocidal cases may fail to be identified as such because they fail to parallel the Holocaust closely enough. Paradoxically, Power indicates, the Holocaust can provide cover both for perpetrators of genocide, who may be able to commit genocidal acts without having them named as such, and for governments whose understanding of national interest leads them to prefer policies of indifference and inaction that would not be easily defended if more acts of destruction received the designation of genocide that they deserve. Noting that “U.S. leaders who have denounced the Holocaust have themselves repeatedly allowed genocide,” Power does not downplay the Holocaust’s importance, but she does worry that “America’s public awareness of the Holocaust” may inadvertently encourage genocide denial.

All genocides trouble Power deeply. Precisely because the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust provide such unmistakably devastating examples, she is especially concerned about genocides that have taken place late in the twentieth century, long after the world should have learned lessons from the plights of the Armenians and the Jews. “Despite broad public consensus that genocide should ‘never again’ be allowed, and a good deal of triumphalism about the ascent of liberal democratic values,” Power asserts, “the last decade of the twentieth century was one of the most deadly in the grimmest century on record.” The United States was not alone, but during that decade, says Power, American administrations “shunned the g-word” with regard to Bosnia and Rwanda, “afraid that using it would have obliged the United States to act under the terms of the 1948 genocide convention.”

Bedrock American values are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: All persons are created equal; they are endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Arguably nothing could be more antithetical to those values than genocide, which denies individual personhood and makes perpetrator-defined group membership equivalent to a death sentence. “Why,” asks Power, “does the United States stand so idly by?” Her question does not invite explanations to justify bystanding. To the contrary, it is an ethical challenge to the United States. Given what Americans stand for, how can the United States stand by when genocidal acts are under way?

To make her challenge stick, Power discredits excuses. First, the United States cannot credibly maintain that it did not know what was happening. Power’s incisive research shows that during the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust, and even more so in the cases of Bosnia and Rwanda, “U.S. officials have pumped a steady stream of information up the chain of command to senior decision makers—both early warnings ahead of genocide and vivid documentation during it.” Power observes that President Clinton modified the “we didn’t know” excuse in his 1998 apology for the lack of American intervention in Rwanda. The line became that American officials “didn’t fully appreciate” what was happening as Rwandan Hutus butchered “eight thousand Tutsi a day for one hundred days without any foreign interference.” Rejecting such alibis, Power insists instead that “we are responsible for our incredulity.”

Second, Power refuses the claim that the United States could not have intervened effectively. Such rationale is unconvincing, she argues, because it begs the question. “The only way to ascertain the consequences of U.S. diplomatic, economic, or military measures,” claims Power, “would have been to undertake them.” Recognizing how costly her approach might be, Power advances it nonetheless and for two reasons. First, genocide’s perpetrators watch to see whether they can proceed with impunity; historically, they have found relatively few impediments from Washington or other capitals around the world. Second, one can see retrospectively, partly from the few interventions that were made, how the United States could have saved countless human lives if genocide prevention had been an American priority. No genocide is inevitable, Power contends, nor is intervention against it impossible. American priorities are among the most decisive in the world.

Neither a lack of knowledge nor a lack of influence can explain, let alone justify, American bystanding during the genocidal twentieth century. A lack of will, Power asserts, is the gut issue. “Simply put,” she says, “American leaders did not act because they did not want to. They believed that genocide was wrong, but they were not prepared to invest the military, financial, diplomatic, or domestic political capital needed to stop it.” The telling implication of Power’s analysis seems to be that the United States has preferred to let genocide rage rather than to take the risks necessary to suppress it. Cutting to the chase, Power’s book asks insistently: Will the United States continue to embrace that unfortunate preference?

A new century’s arrival does nothing to ensure that the age of genocide is over, but better accountability from the United States would be a step in that direction. Reflecting a pragmatic blend of morality and national interest, Power’s appeal for better American accountability emphasizes how genocidal threats wreak havoc that undermines the rights and values that Americans claim to hold most dear. “A Problem from Hell” shows convincingly that the best coincidence of ethics and national interest would make the prevention, suppression, and punishment of genocide high priorities on the American agenda. Power knows that the American record does not inspire confidence in that regard. Her book concludes with notes of uncertainty about whether the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States will make Americans more or less concerned about “peoples victimized by genocide.” Nevertheless, with persistence reminiscent of the “screamers” and “upstanders” whom she admires and resembles so much, Power refuses to despair. She continues to hope lest comfort be given to neutrality, indifference, and cynicism, which always favor genocide’s perpetrators and never its victims.

Sources for Further Study

Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 7, 2002, p. 7.

The New York Review of Books 49 (April 25, 2002): 12.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (April 14, 2002): 9.

Publishers Weekly 249 (February 25, 2002): 52.

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