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“A PROBLEM FROM HELL” by Samantha Power Kirkus Star


America and the Age of Genocide

by Samantha Power

Pub Date: March 15th, 2002
ISBN: 0-465-06150-8
Publisher: Basic

The executive director of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy presents a superb analysis of the US government’s evident unwillingness to intervene in ethnic slaughter.

Based on centuries-old hatreds all but inexplicable to outside observers, genocide is indeed “a problem from hell,” as then–Secretary of State Warren Christopher put it. In Bosnia, which inspired Christopher’s remark, those hatreds resulted in untold thousands of deaths, televised and reported for the world to see. Even so, writes Power (who covered the Balkan conflict for U.S. News and World Report), the Clinton administration was reluctant to characterize the butchery as genocide, preferring instead to cast it in terms of “tragedy” and “civil war” and thus “downplaying public expectations that there was anything the United States could do.” The author argues that the Clinton administration’s failure to act was entirely consistent with earlier American responses to genocide, which turned on the assumption of policymakers, journalists, and citizens that human beings are rational and in the event of war, innocent civilians can insure their safety merely by keeping out of the line of fire. That failure also fits in with the American government’s isolationist tendencies, strong even at a time when the US is the world’s sole superpower. Power examines genocide after genocide, including the Turkish slaughter of Armenians during WWI, the Holocaust, and the Cambodian bloodbath of the 1970s, assuring her readers that US officials knew very well what was happening and chose to look the other way. She closes by suggesting that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, “might enhance the empathy of Americans . . . toward peoples victimized by genocide,” although she also guesses that the government may view intervention as an untenable diversion of resources away from homeland defense.

A well-reasoned argument for the moral necessity of halting genocide wherever it occurs, and an unpleasant reminder of our role in enabling it, however unwittingly.