“A Problem From Hell” : America and the Age of Genocide (Power)

This 500+ page book turned out to be a kind of job application for Power. She is now the US Ambassador to the United Nations. Her argument here is straightforward. From the Armendian genocide forward, America has, with one exception (Kosovo), largely opted to stand by (rather than stand up) when faced with the prospect, the first proofs, and the facts of genocide. (Genocide, I hadn’t realized, was a word that Raphael Lemkin – one of the few heroes of this piece – not only invented, but fought to have accepted and used.)

“Those,” George Santayana probably said, “who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Power demonstrates just how short America’s memory is. There are reasons; there are always reasons. Economic, short-term vs. long-term, political will, public pressure, etc.. But patterns emerge and, to Power’s credit, neither political party is favored here. Clinton, for example, dithers while Dole persists. Powell wants no part of humanitarian missions.

When history repeats itself, when do we get to call it systemic? What is it about our democracy that has caused us to stand by, to not even admit to bearing witness? Even in Turkey, we knew things in time, Power demonstrates; we just didn’t do anything. There were people who pushed, even people who betrayed the State Department code and went public; some resigned. Power is not painting the whole system with the same brush, but the end result is the same. America, as one of the so-called leaders of the world, especially after World War 2, has largely stood by. How come? Hindsight, I know, is 20/20. The details are different each time, but the result (save for Kosovo) is the same. Even in Turkey, we knew what was happening and allowed many, many people to die because their suffering was subordinate to our other interests.

When should we intervene? Does Vietnam hang over us still? Somalia certainly seems to. What is the soldier’s role? If we value something at home (say, freedom of speech), do we have an obligation to protect it elsewhere? Or is that just us arrogantly imposing our will on others? The conversation may change. It may be okay to intervene when one country invades another, but what about a nation’s sovereignty? When should we say, “You cannot treat your people this way”?

It’s may be old-fashioned, but Power argues for the United States’ moral responsibility, and I agree with that. King’s words are coming up a lot these days – “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And it’s true. At the same time, I recognize that we have limited resources, that we have priorities, that we have a great many needs at home.

I do wonder if Power will ever take a closer look at the United Nations itself. Does she expect too much of it? Do we (as a country, as individuals)?


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