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Joined at the Head: America’s Relationship with Genocide
“A Problem from Hell”: Amer
ica and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power, Basic Books, 2002
Louise Dunlap is a Boston-area educator, activist, and writer.
Looking for ways to face the daily brutality of the news this spring, I put aside escape reading for a five hundred-page tome on genocide. Samantha Power—journalist during the Bosnian war, lawyer, now at the Kennedy School—investigates the 20th century atrocities of the Turks, Nazis, Khmer Rouge, Hussein-led Iraqis, Serbs (in Bosnia and Kosovo), and Hutus. Each genocide triggers a pattern of response within our country, as media and political leaders of all stripes again and again refuse to acknowledge or to act.
There is something empowering about looking directly at the horror. I discovered a context for today’s challenges and an odd kind of encouragement. I also found myself thinking more deeply about “America’s relationship with genocide,” though I come out differing with Power.
Samantha Power will keep you reading. She’s a skilled storyteller, focusing in, close up, on people and events we know only distantly, stirring profound compassion, even tears. She can follow the paper trail of a state department memo like no one I have ever read—and make it fascinating. She tells human stories—of Raphael Lemkin, born Jewish in Poland, who created the word “genocide” and kept pushing until the idea became international law. Subsequent activists also risked career and health to bring attention to genocide and get an exceptionally sluggish US to acknowledge both the concept and actualities. William Proxmire gave 3162 daily speeches on the Senate floor until the US finally ratified the genocide convention and acknowledged the Cambodian genocide. Peter Galbraith found ingenious ways to support the Iraqi Kurds. Canadian Major General Dallaire—as genocide peaked in Rwanda—stayed the course when half his small, poorly-armed UN peace-keeping force was sent home under US pressure. These stories often thrilled me with the confirmation that citizen activism can make a difference and with ideas for creative tactics.
Power’s brilliant detail made me think about how we get our information and whether we can trust it. I read this book as the Iraq war took shape, along with intense public scrutiny of claims against Saddam Hussein. Because I believed our government was exaggerating the need for war, I tended to believe dissident reports downplaying Hussein’s perfidy. When people on the street would say “But he gassed his own people,” I would tell them of former CIA senior analyst, Stephen Pelletiere, who wrote in the New York Times that gassing in one border town during the Iran/Iraq war had not been definitively pinned to either side. Because I didn’t want to believe Cheney and Rumsfeld, Pelletiere’s argument (and credentials) sounded good to me. But 75 pages of Power’s data convinced me that Hussein had indeed gassed Kurdish villages throughout one whole province, along with mass executions designed to wipe out an entire population. Pelletiere was really off-base to focus only on the one village. I was shocked to see how easily I had believed and passed on his views as truth. Power mostly sets out to dismantle the media constructions we’ve seen in recent decades—such as the “truth’ we were given in the Bosnia conflict that Bosnian Muslims were as genocidal as the Serbs. She underscores how hard it is to find information we can fully trust. Everything we hear is filtered through so many layers of censorship and through biases—from Cheney’s to that of Samantha Power, herself. But I agree with Power that too often the difficulty of learning the truth has been given as the official reason for not acknowledging or responding to genocide.
A week or so after finishing the book, I was stunned to hear one night on Pacifica radio of what sounded like two new genocides underway—in the Congo and in the Indonesian province of Aceh. The pattern established in Power’s book was very evident: a military government with superior force moving in to separate and kill the men and the women and children, evacuating entire villages, claiming that civilians were rebel enemies. Perhaps the most ominous part of the pattern: genocide hides in the shadow of major wars among the Western countries. In this case our illegal war against Iraq had provided both the excuse and the smoke-screen for these two new genocides. Both stories have since taken a back seat in the news, illustrating another of Power’s points. Lack of attention in the Western press, is another earmark of the genocidal pattern. In Rwanda for instance, Power attributes press dismissal to racism and the horrendous racist idea that “those people are doing it to each other again.” Listening to the news, I knew there must be men and women in the State Department (even the one we have now) who saw these new genocides and were trying to do something. I wanted to reach out to say “We care. Please don’t ignore this.” I wanted to call Samantha Power and ask her “Who is doing something about these two genocides now?”
Power’s determination to name and address this unpopular problem impressed me deeply, but while sharing much of her passion, I began to question some of her thinking. The main “solution” she offers through most of the book is that powerful countries like the US should quit talking about peace processes when they don’t seem to be working and try selective bombing. Although in the end, Power sums up other strong measures the US could have taken with almost every one of the genocides she covers, she laments that we did not stop the killing on the ground by using our much greater military force through air strikes. And I wasn’t satisfied with her analyses of what causes “the problem from hell.” Power doesn’t look at colonialism as a factor in the Rwandan situation, for instance, or scrutinize the arms trade, which has surely fed all recent genocides.
What saddens me most about this magnificent work of unsilencing is that it doesn’t go far enough. Tellingly, Power omits two genocides that I think are crucial to “America’s relationship with genocide.” Surely that “relationship” began with our founders’ attempts to remove, destroy, and culturally subvert those who lived here first. (And much of slavery and the slave trade also qualifies under the international definition of genocide.) I thought perhaps Power might acknowledge some of this in three paragraphs where she discusses US fears that ratifying the genocide convention might open the country to international lawsuits. But, though mentioning native rights author Ward Churchill’s book on genocide in a footnote, Power herself says only, “Reckoning with American brutality against native peoples was long overdue, but the convention, which was not retroactive, could not be used to press the matter. And although the United States’ dismal record on race certainly exposed it to charges of racism and human rights abuse, (there was little chance of lawsuits).” (Emphasis mine.) For our founding genocide, Power uses only the terms “brutality,” “racism,” and “human rights abuse”—the same palliatives she decries in official US responses to more recent genocides.
Nor does Power mention the Palestinian genocide. Under her tutlelage, I think I’ve learned how to use this tricky term, and current practices of the Israeli government in Gaza and the West Bank fit the pattern, as do widespread policy and media denial. Perhaps the destruction of Palestinian life and culture might not have been quite so evident at the stage of the second intifada when her book went to press. Yet the pattern was there, and Power had built the groundwork to name it. Her story of the Nazi genocide against European Jews begins in the humiliation of the Germans after World War I, driving them, as the oppressed, to become oppressors. Yet Power appears oblivious to this same pattern in current Israeli government actions: the separation, humiliation, and detention of Palestinian males, the destruction of homes, culture, and communities, an apparent effort to stamp out or drive away an indigenous people. I’m afraid this story, too, is about America’s relationship to genocide. Barely reported nightmare details trouble our nation’s collective consciousness, perhaps stirring memory and denial. Does our own history prevent us from seeing and responding? Instead we befriend and finance the perpetrators—as Power so vividly shows we did for Saddam Hussein and Pol Pot.
As the fine lawyer, journalist, and policy analyst that she is, Power resurrects details of America’s recent “relationship with genocide” that have long been silenced. She forces us to look at the denial, complacency, and complicity with which our country has greeted the past century’s genocides. But to see why perpetrators pursue genocide, why our country ignores it, and what might end it, calls for a deeper look into the human psyche and into America’s profoundly racist roots. Airstrikes or sending in troops in a more timely way can’t change this deep and powerful relationship or solve “the problem from hell.”
What Constitutes Genocide?
From page 57 in “A Problem from Hell.” The following is a direct quote:
After a bruising year of drafting battles, the [UN]1948 Convention
on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide settled on
a definition of genocide as any of the following acts committed with
intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, or religious
group, as such:
For a party to be found guilty of perpetrating this new crime of genocide, it had to (1) carry out one of the aforementioned acts, (2) with the intent to destroy all or part of (3) one of the groups protected. The law did not require the extermination of an entire group, only acts committed with the intent to destroy a substantial part. If the perpetrator did not target a national, ethnic, or religious group as such, then killings would constitute mass homicide, not genocide.
[Note: Not until 38 years later in Ronald Reagan’s presidency (1986) was this convention ratified by the United States.]