Getting Away With Murder: How We Let Genocide Happen

“A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide , by Samantha Power. Basic Books, 610 pages, $30. “The


Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide , by Samantha Power.

Basic Books, 610 pages, $30.

“The lesson of Auschwitz,” according to a legendary Holocaust

intellectual speaking at a Los Angeles temple in the early 1990’s, “is that you

can get away with it.” A stunning remark.

Alas, when I checked it out, the legend in question denied saying

anything of the sort. Apocryphal quotes come into existence at moments when

something so badly needs to be said that someone puts the right words

pseudepigraphically in the best available mouth. The early 1990’s-as news of

genocide in Rwanda arrived to interrupt news of genocide in the Balkans-was

just such moment. “Never again” had clearly yielded to “Again and again,” but

who would dare speak this truth aloud?

This is the challenge that

Samantha Power has met in “A Problem From

Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide . The central action of her

book-to be distinguished from its central

argument-is a quartet of late 20th-century genocides: Cambodia, Kurdistan,

Rwanda and the Balkans. A former Balkans war correspondent, Ms. Power shows

herself a more than competent second-order journalist in retelling these

stories. But by building them into a larger story shaped by a compelling

argument, she takes her book beyond journalism to something approaching

moral and political philosophy. Why and how

has the government of the world’s most powerful

nation been repeatedly dissuaded from halting genocides in progress? Why and how, in the unique and perhaps historic Balkans case,

was it persuaded to intervene? As executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Ms.

Power is professionally concerned with questions like these as matters of

practical politics. One of her few heroes is Senator William Proxmire, who gave

3,211 speeches on the floor of the Senate-one a day for 19 years-before finally

persuading Congress to ratify the United Nations genocide convention. But her

respect for the gritty reality of human-rights political activism leads her to

include a host of impressive lesser figures as well. Though Ms. Power tells

their stories en passant , the telling

constitutes a major work of original reportage.

Ms. Power sets this expanded American story within a still

larger, more than American story of the advance of international law. It is

here that her book achieves both its greatest intellectual depth and its most

powerful forward momentum. Genocide is a crime that can be committed typically,

if not quite always, with impunity so long as national sovereignty is regarded

as legally absolute. What the Khmer Rouge did to their fellow Cambodians they

did within Cambodia; what the Iraqi Arabs did to the Iraqi Kurds they did

within Iraq; what the Hutu did to the Tutsi they did within Rwanda; and what

the Serbs did to the Kosovar Albanians they did within the international

borders of Serbia. Under international law as it existed until the end of World

War II, the victims of “internal” crimes like these had had no legal recourse.

Today, some of them do have recourse-perhaps. The deepest question of Ms.

Power’s book is whether and how legal recourse for those in peril of genocide

can be made more reliable and, above all, more timely.

Dictators of the 20th century drew the lesson of genocidal

impunity from the example of Turks killing Armenians. Ms. Power quotes Hitler:

“Who today still speaks of the massacre of the Armenians?” Hitler himself, of

course, was pointedly among the few who did. Another who did, however, was a

man who might well bear the awesome title of anti-Hitler-the true hero of Ms.

Power’s book, Raphael Lemkin. A Polish Jew 10 years Hitler’s junior, Lemkin

grew up under czarist rule in a region scarred by pogroms. From earliest

boyhood, he was obsessed with mass violence in the past as well as the present,

against Gentiles as well as Jews. Gifted in languages, Lemkin chose

international law over linguistics when, as a university student, he learned of

the Armenian genocide and immediately grasped-just as Hitler did-its enormous

implications for other imperiled ethnic groups. As early as 1933, he began to

lobby the League of Nations on behalf of a new international law-he had drafted

it himself-banning “the premeditated destruction of national, racial, religious

and social collectivities.”

He got nowhere. Faulted as a

troublemaker for so foolishly provoking Germany, Lemkin failed to win over even

his own family, who regarded him as a Luftmensch

and a hysteric. Only four of more than 50 Lemkin relatives would survive the

war. In the last pages of her book, Ms. Power quotes Arthur Koestler on

“Screamers” who succeed in reaching listeners for a moment “only to watch them

shake themselves ‘like puppies who have got their fur wet’ and return to the

blissful place of ignorance and uninvolvement.” Lemkin, who made it safely to

New York in 1939, remained a Screamer for genocide prevention down to the last

day of his life. It was he who coined the very word “genocide” in 1944, and he

who-as utterly obsessed with preventing this crime as Hitler had been with

perpetrating it-exhorted, mobilized, harassed, shamed and infested the newborn

United Nations until at last, in 1948, it adopted its Convention on the

Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

President Truman was in favor of immediate American ratification

of the convention, but conservative Republicans in the Senate were opposed, Ms.

Power says, and their influence would grow. In 1953, with the convention still

unratified and the influence of Senators Joseph McCarthy and John Bricker at high tide, Secretary of State John

Foster Dulles promised that the Eisenhower administration would never “become a

party to any covenant [on human rights] for consideration by the Senate.”

Eisenhower withdrew the convention from consideration, and it sank into

oblivion until Proxmire revived it in 1967.

At this point, Ms. Power has

the stage set for her long march through the genocides. Briefly mentioned are

the Hausa against the Ibo in Nigeria (1968, one million dead), the West

Pakistanis against the Bengalis of East Pakistan (1971, between one million and

two million dead), and the Tutsi against the Hutu in Burundi (1972, between

100,000 and 150,000 dead). Then come successive, detailed dissections of

American policy in the later episodes already mentioned. The Carter

administration backed the Khmer Rouge (two million dead, in a population of

seven million) against its local rival because the Khmer Rouge were fighting

the Vietnamese and because the Chinese, whom the United States was courting,

considered the Khmer Rouge an ally. The Reagan and Bush administrations

declined to denounce Saddam Hussein’s gassing campaign against the Kurds

(between 100,000 and 200,000 dead) because Saddam was fighting the Iran of the

Ayatollah Khomeini, who was thought at the time to be a far greater threat than

Saddam himself to American oil interests in the Middle East. The Bush and, at

first, Clinton administrations declined to oppose an international arms embargo

against Bosnia and Kosovo because Britain and France favored continued Serbian

domination within the former Yugoslavia. In every case, there was a raison d’état for countenancing

genocide-if only, as in the case of Rwanda (800,000 dead), the consideration

that intervention was costly, denunciation without intervention embarrassing,

and the United States without the proverbial classic dog in the fight.

Yet there was a glimmer of light. In 1986, the Reagan

administration abruptly lent its support to

American ratification of the U.N. genocide covenant as a way of

recovering from the fiasco of President Reagan’s laying a wreath at a German

cemetery (Bitburg) where Nazis were buried. True, Republican opposition in the

Senate-initially stymied by Reagan’s move-worked its will by adding conditions

that largely emasculated American ratification. Nonetheless, once the

ratification had come about, later policy makers like Warren Christopher,

Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, found it increasingly

necessary to avoid speaking the G-word lest they create even a prima facie case

for American intervention. “A problem from hell,” one of several Christopher

circumlocutions, becomes Ms. Power’s title and her emblem of shame-faced

diplomatic evasiveness.

Where there is shame, there is hope. Because national sovereignty

is no longer quite so absolute a value, the will to create war-crime tribunals

is clearly stronger than it once was. Moreover, American opponents of

preventive American intervention against genocide must now sweat and strain to

make intervention seem futile, counterproductive or perilous. The astute

summary in Ms. Power’s preface of why and how you can usually count on the

United States to let you get away with genocide within your own borders is

slightly but crucially qualified in her conclusion: Usually is not the same as always .

Ten years ago, the hard men of Realpolitik

could not have imagined Slobodan Milosevic defeated, much less on trial. Back

then, the tough truth they had on offer was Get

over it, the Serbs have won . But the Serbs hadn’t won; they didn’t get away

with it. The hard men were mistaken, and the lesson of their mistake may be

that we are still learning what Auschwitz has to teach.


Miles, senior adviser to the president at the J. Paul Getty Trust, is the

author, most recently, of Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (Knopf).

Getting Away With Murder: How We Let Genocide Happen