An End to Evasion

America's role in a century of genocide

Memorial to the slain, Rwanda, 1997Photograph by Armando Franca/Associated Press

"A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power, J.D. ’99 (Basic Books, $30).

Among the unsung heroes of the twentieth century is Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew, a linguist, and an international lawyer, who reached the United States in 1941 and died in 1959, alone and penniless. As the "Father of the Genocide Convention" (the only inscription on his tombstone in Queens, New York), Lemkin devoted his life to making the world understand, name, and reject the crime that is the topic of "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide.

Whether he failed, or we failed, or even what constitutes failure in this matter—these are questions one must explore by reading Samantha Power's magnificent book. Power, former executive director of the Kennedy School's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and now a lecturer at the school, begins with the deaths of perhaps a million Armenians at the hands of the Turks in 1915, and continues through the instances of mass death we label simply as the Holocaust, Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, Srebrenica, Rwanda, and Kosovo.

We are two years past this grim century of atrocity. Historical reckoning takes time, to allow for reflection, memory, courage, and the release of documents. Power has pushed that process through sheer personal engagement and intellectual ferocity. Whatever has been written and released, she has read. Whoever might speak, she has spoken to. However we might evade the facts, she has gathered and explained them here.

A sinking sense of recognition takes over in the first chapter. Henry Morgenthau Sr., the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, cables Washington on July 10, 1915:

"Persecution of Armenians assuming unprecedented proportions. Reports from widely scattered districts indicate systematic attempt to uproot peaceful Armenian populations and through arbitrary arrests, terrible tortures, whole-sale expulsions and deportations from one end of the Empire to the other accompanied by frequent instances of rape, pillage, and murder, turning into massacre, to bring destruction and destitution on them. These measures are not in response to popular or fanatical demand but are purely arbitrary and directed from Constantinople in the name of military necessity, often in districts where no military operations are likely to take place."

The campaign against the Armenians had been underway at least since April 1915. Morgenthau had initially not believed the reports he was receiving, then considered them consistent with Turkish efforts to suppress internal dissent during wartime, and then, after weeks of interviews with refugees and missionary witnesses, determined that in fact something he called "race murder" was occurring.

Those who have studied the meaning and patterns of mass atrocity will appreciate immediately in this quotation from the anguished ambassador the key features we now seek to define: evidence from different sites and sources, suggestion of systematic rather than random events, indications of direction from the top, extensive cruelty to distinct civilian, noncombatant populations (not just individuals), all these unprovoked by military necessity. As a textbook example on how to report from the field, this fragment from almost 100 years ago is breathtakingly good, overwhelmingly sobering. If one man (albeit gifted and brave) could see it coming in 1915, how is it that the task to avert and intervene has been so hard, so long, and so unsuccessful?

It is fitting that we see this first twentieth-century genocide through the eyes of an American diplomat. Power's thesis is that the United States government has had suf-ficient early warning regarding all these instances of mass death to make an enormous difference in reducing or stopping the killing—and that in every single instance of this century, the opportunity has been squandered and overtaken by squabbles and claims of domestic politics. This is the first and most important lesson of her book. The problem is not information, not that we do not know. Yet—and here is a central and brilliant insight she develops—it is also not because we do not want to know. The problem of evil, for ordinary people not trained to apprehend it, is that it cannot be seen for what it is.

In the midst of World War II, a Protestant theologian based in Switzerland muses on why there seems to be no action directed at saving the European Jews. He speaks of people living "in a twilight between knowing and not knowing." He goes on to say that "people could find no place in their consciousness for such an unimaginable horror and that they did not have the imagination, together with the courage, to face it."

Power mines the record of the last century for quotations, insights, issues, and pivotal instances in the service of her main theme: an explication of the cognitive and political deflections we employ, as individuals and at the governmental level, to ward off coming to terms with and acting upon the information that washes up on our shores. She holds in her sights the U.S. government. Her best assessments combine her journalist's capacity for swift and pungent narrative with her lawyer's understanding of the path that genocide has taken as a concept, a moral category, a legal construct, a convention, and a political force.

One important camouflage for genocide is war. Lemkin noted this tight association, in that mass killings assume genocidal proportions as wars progress, when governments or warring factions begin to attack leaders of stigmatized or suspect groups and then turn on that population at large. To those who see this killing process as part of civil war, or as a legitimate phase in the need to repress rebellion, those slain masses constitute, in genocide scholar Helen Fein's term, the "implicated victims." So the Khmer Rouge went after political enemies, defined—as the world saw belatedly—as virtually anyone with a seventh-grade education or eyeglasses. Similarly, the Iraqi Kurds, hounded, killed, and gassed throughout the late 1980s, were conveniently viewed for years by the U.S. State Department as the fifth-column enemies of Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran. The Bosnian Muslims were characterized by the United States as waging a civil war against the Serbs, justifying this country's persistence in maintaining an arms embargo against them until the Serb massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in July 1995 made it impossible to dismiss the killings as a "problem from hell." The Rwandans came from a region of "ancient tribal enmities," where the latest fight between the Tutsi and the Hutu was being held off by a small contingent of UN peacekeepers. In that setting, the sudden annihilation of 800,000 Tutsi looked to outsiders who could not see as if the war had just rekindled.

Perhaps it takes practice to see it differently. Power demonstrates that, certainly by the time of the Serb attacks on Kosovo (1998-99), journalists and human-rights activists had acquired increasing sophistication in pattern recognition and data gathering. More to the point, however, is that there was a cadre of government officials in the United States and Europe still in place who had witnessed Milosevic's previous campaigns in Bosnia and Croatia and who were prepared to move more aggressively when faced with "indicators of genocide" (the words are those of David Scheffer, then head of the State Department's new war-crimes unit).

Another important blinder is that the United States, like most entities, is always fighting the last war. Thus our response to instances of mass killing in one war is constructed in light of what was done, or not done, in the war just past. Vietnam sapped our energy for Cambodia; Somalia aborted action in Rwanda; the Serbs were always one step ahead of us, in terms of tactics and tempo, throughout the wars in the former Yugoslavia. The Kosovar Albanians benefited from our inaction in Srebrenica and Rwanda.


This foreground-background problem that war imposes on our perception of genocide is necessary to our understanding, and it is most carefully drawn in Power's book. It serves, however, only to provide the context for her densely researched depiction of the policy process within the U.S. government throughout the years of this past century whenever the question of mass killings elsewhere landed on someone's desk in Washington. Lemkin, in the first flush of idealism upon his arrival here in the spring of 1941, sought action from an academic gathering at Duke University: "If women, children, and old people would be murdered a hundred miles from here, wouldn't you run to help? Then why do you stop this decision of your heart when the distance is 3,000 miles instead of a hundred?"

Why indeed? Power is uncompromising in showing us four main reasons why U.S. officials in the executive and legislative branches have managed, time and again, not to run the distance.

First, the character and history of U.S. diplomacy make us slow to recognize warning signs. We seek to build relationships and influence developments in positive directions. Such interests create inertia and resistance to input that requires serious reassessment and potential rupture of ties. In this vein, we privilege what we hear from governments and tend to dismiss views from other sectors of society.

Second, whatever response the U.S. government takes in foreign affairs depends upon domestic political agendas. Constituent silence in the face of media reports of atrocities far away is interpreted as reluctance to take action; possible options are weighed in terms only of their domestic risk, not international impact. Leadership is perceived as a one-way street—going where the people direct.

Third, the U.S. policy establishment lacks creativity and confidence in crafting diplomatic and political initiatives. Faced with mass killings, ethnic cleansing, or potential genocide, the ideas that surface swing from some vague (or domestically dangerous) economic gesture to full-scale U.S. military intervention. Failure to identify credible steps along that continuum exhausts interest in doing anything.

Fourth, faced with challenges we did not seek and do not understand, denial takes over, deployed in one of three modes. (Here Power explicitly acknowledges the "futility, perversity, jeopardy" paradigm of Albert O. Hirschman, LL.D. '02.) The problem is described as beyond our reach (civil war, ancient hatreds, impossible to intervene in the given time frame, logistically not feasible). Or the action the United States might take would only make things worse (reprisals, escalation, untoward consequences we can only imagine). Or we might expose our core strategic interests, or those of our allies, to greater danger (violate the sanctity of national sovereignty, incur the wrath of Russia, aggravate relations with China).

A great strength of Power's analysis is that she manages, in each of the genocidal sagas she recounts, to establish convincingly that one or more of these features of U.S. decision-making was central to the terrible outcomes. It makes for a sorrowful and cumulatively enraging study.

Power has many heroes, and as the book goes on, one is aware of needing each of them, if only to summon the strength to keep reading. These include Lemkin, certainly; and Morgenthau, who resigns; and many other government officials, military officers, journalists, human-rights activists, and private citizens who throughout the years discerned the evil in what they saw and struggled to report or act on those insights. Through deftly chosen photographs or vignettes, the reader meets victims and survivors whose valor and integrity have made them known to the world. Power tells the stories well enough so the reader is fully aware of how important a role luck has played in allowing us to hear from them, among the millions of others deprived of voice.

Faithful to her key figure, Power tracks throughout this perceptive political narrative the major legal debates about the meaning and application of the term that Lemkin painstakingly constructed. From his (failed) attempt in 1933 to have the concept of barbarity in collective killing introduced as a crime in international law; through his (failed) effort to insert the crime of genocide into the legal brief at Nuremberg; to his (successful) exhausting struggle to persuade the United Nations to adopt the 1948 Genocide Convention; and finally to his (successful) work to have 20 nation states ratify it into law by 1950, we see how Lemkin's endeavor exemplifies the honorable yet tortuous mission of the law.

The law both drives and reflects consciousness; it both influences and defers to politics. This dialectic is deftly traced in the book. We see how Senator William Proxmire, Democrat of Wisconsin, taking up the cause and giving 3,211 floor speeches on the issue, one per day for 19 years, and aided at the final stages by Senator Bob Dole, Republican from Kansas, brought the U.S. Senate, recalcitrant and querulous, finally to ratify Lemkin's convention, after 97 other countries in the world had seen fit to do so, in 1986. High and low politics figure to the end—this victory would not have occurred had Ronald Reagan not decided that signing on to the Genocide Convention was a good way to mollify a wide constituency infuriated by his visit to the German military cemetery at Bitburg.

Power brings us up almost to the present, with a discussion of the two ad hoc war crimes tribunals, one for Yugoslavia and one for Rwanda, now underway and the new International Criminal Court, established by the Rome Treaty of 1998 and entered into force as of 2002. In these chapters, where she reviews the problems of bringing war criminals to trial, she makes a point that needs even more emphasis than she gives it: the challenge of establishing the evidentiary trail is enormous. Data on individuals and on a population basis must be collected, contemporaneously as well as retroactively; witnesses must be identified and deposed; documentary material must be gathered and assessed; forensic and other technical investigations must be undertaken; and trained lawyers, judges, and legal staff must be assigned and supported in adequate numbers. Securing the funds and staffing for these judicial processes is just one of the issues of political will required to keep that flame lit by Lemkin still flickering.

Power's book should be read cover to cover, literally, because of the responsible and fascinating endnotes, the excellent index, the robust bibliography. By its end, the reader has the answers to why the Genocide Convention took so long to come into force; why we still are struggling with its terms and implementation; why we still confront the grave risk of future murderous assaults against people "for who they are, not for what they have done"—as Harvard's Cabot research professor of social ethics, Herbert Kelman, put it in his 1973 essay, "Violence without moral restraint: Reflections on the dehumanization of victims and victimizers."

The age of genocide can be seen as having two phases. The first, the phase of recognition, we have lived through and shaped. Human beings are capable of killing large numbers of other people, given a wide range of observed circumstances; we will resist knowing this tendency in ourselves; and judicial processes, based on law and supported by documentation, may well force upon us this fearsome recognition.

Perhaps the twenty-first century will usher in the phase of prevention. If so, it will be up to us. Power speaks of political will and accountability. Behind that, however, is this ineluctable conclusion: If we are ever to prevent genocide, we require leaders. These individuals come in many forms and guises. They must, together at one time or in one person, have the courage to call it genocide when they see it; the strength to persist in marshaling evidence to confront denial; and the political vision to enlist others into taking action, even when the risks seem high.

In Power's book we have both history and argument. Her account of genocide over this past hundred years lights up many paths we might have taken, many good people who could have been helped, many opportunities lost. In the gap, we see the possibility, and at her urging, face the future with resolve.


Jennifer Leaning '67, S.M.H. '70, is professor of international health at the Harvard School of Public Health, where she researches human rights, humanitarian crises, and medical ethics. A physician, she attends in the emergency department at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Leaning was a founding board member of Physicians for Human Rights, on whose behalf she recently visited Afghanistan, where she helped identify and document a recent mass grave in the northern part of the country.

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