Not on my watch
Can A Problem From Hell make stopping genocide a priority?

published September 29, 2003
written by Jal Mehta / Cambridge, Massachusetts

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Can one writer single-handedly compel the world's strongest nation to inject greater concern for human rights into its foreign policy? Thirty-three-year-old Samantha Power set out to do exactly that in her Pulitzer prize-winning book, A Problem From Hell, which chronicles the indifference of the world's more powerful nations, particularly the United States, to genocide in the twentieth century. 

Power was a war correspondent in Bosnia in the mid-1990s and was frustrated at how little impact the horrific stories that she and her colleagues wrote about Serb atrocities had on U.S. policy-making. Her book both seeks to explain the reasons for this inaction and to indict the responsible policy-makers for their indifference. Through cases studies of many of these slaughters--the Turks' 1915 decimation of the Armenians, the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge's wipeout of 30 percent of the Cambodian people, Saddam Hussein's gassing of the Kurds, the Hutu murder of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda, and Serbian ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo--Power demonstrates how the United States has consistently failed to respond to these massive human tragedies. 

By carefully documenting what policy-makers knew and when--even with the primitive technology available in 1915, The New York Times ran 145 stories about the killings of the Armenians--she removes the central rationalization for inaction. That the oft-heard post-Holocaust promise of "never again" can co-exist alongside this record of non-intervention Power views as rank hypocrisy. Indeed, as she quotes writer David Rieff, "never again" might best be defined as, "Never again would Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s."

Less a work of original scholarship than a carefully researched and arrestingly written call to arms, Power's book is clearly intended to jolt the world, and particularly U.S. policy-makers, into greater action in the future. And for a book that was dropped as too macabre by its original publisher, Random House, and one that was for a time refused by all the publishers in New York, it has made a remarkable splash. Former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke bought forty-five copies and distributed it widely, including one to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. After she published an article in The Atlantic in 2001 about governmental inaction in Rwanda, a memo summarizing the argument was given to President Bush, who wrote on it, "NOT ON MY WATCH." If Power's goal was to get prevention of genocide on the radar screen of the nation and the world's most powerful people, the book is a rousing success.

Not on my watch

Rhetoric and reality

The dithering and the messianic

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