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Power: A Problem From Hell

I first heard about Samantha Power when the United States took part in bombing Libya; turns out she was part of the Obama 2008 campaign, got in some trouble for calling then-Senator Hillary Clinton “a monster,” was part of the Obama transition team, and has served in the Obama White House as a Special Assistant [link]. I first read about her in an article in the New York Times, where she was described as being someone who shuns the spotlight because she tends to speak her mind and is always afraid of upstaging or front-running the President.

Turns out she’s also a former war correspondent and one-time Pulitzer Prize winner for her 2002 book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide [link], the subject of this post.

This is a thoroughly depressing book, as it starts with the Armenian genocide, briefly discusses the Holocaust, and then deals with the struggles of Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term “genocide,” gave it its legal definition and formulated the official definition eventually ratified by the United Nations. There are chapters about post-Lemkin genocides in Cambodia, Iraq (Kurds), and Rwanda, but more than a third of the book is about the breakdown of the former Yugoslavia and the various campaigns by Serb forces to kill all the Muslims and Albanians in various Serb-controlled areas. What glimmers of hope Power offers are presented at the end, when she discusses the legal proceedings by various international courts against perpetrators in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and how that related to the efforts by Lemkin. Power, after all, is a multilateralist and a firm believer in the rightness of international organizations in dealing with problems like these, despite their obvious and even admitted failings.

Power repeatedly returns to a couple of themes: one is that the United States tends to deal with genocide poorly because politicians who could do something tend to choose not to, citing the lack of obvious American interests. The other is that the people who end particular genocides fit no particular pattern, and often come from unexpected places.

I was interested to note how little difference conservative Christians make in Power’s narrative. Various church leaders are mentioned in the chapter on the Armenian genocide, but then disappear from the narrative and do not resurface in the subsequent ninety or so years. It may or may not be a coincidence that the victims in only that once case were clearly Christian. I’m not sure.

What’s disturbing about this is that it suggests that Christians either do not really have much of a voice in American foreign policy where moral issues are concerned; or that we put our economic interests first, foremost, and nearly only. Or that we don’t care if the victims aren’t Christians; or if they’re not particularly our kind of Christians. It’s as if we have no foreign policy unless it pertains to whether Israel should return to its pre-1967 borders, and no moral voice on any subject but abortion.

I am inclined to take Power’s discussion as an indictment of modernity itself; the genocides she covers are noteworthy in that they all occur in the modern era and use (with the possible exception of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia) uniquely modern technology and exploit the vulnerabilities of the modern nation-state, and the remedy proposed may put a stop to the genocide itself, but doesn’t result in anything that resembles justice. Unfortunately when the Church doesn’t take modernity to task for these failings it’s hard to suggest it can offer any real answers.

This was an unpleasant read but at 500+ pages it went surprisingly quickly. I’d recommend reading it and asking yourself if your Christianity offers anything more in the way of meaningful analysis than a shallow “well, what do you expect from a fallen world?”


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