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Conversation: Award Winner Samantha Power

May 8, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the second of our conversations with winners of this year’s Pulitzer prizes in the arts, and to Elizabeth Farnsworth.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Pulitzer for general nonfiction this year went to Samantha Power for her book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” In the 1990s, Power covered the wars in the Balkans for U.S. News and World Report and other publications. She then graduated from Harvard Law School and was the founding executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. She now teaches human rights and foreign policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Thanks for being with us and congratulations, Samantha.

SAMANTHA POWER: Thank you very much.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And this for a book that almost didn’t get a publisher, right?

SAMANTHA POWER: It was a long road to publication. I did get a publisher in my original proposal time. Somebody signed on to it and seemed very excited about it. But when they saw the length and realized that the subject matter was, in fact, as depressing as it sounded in its original incarnation, I would have thought… they decided they wanted something shorter and more personal, and the book they wanted was not a book that i thought would be useful. And so I stuck to my guns, went back out on the market with a finished book– the book that just won the Pulitzer Prize, I’m now very pleased to say– and that book only had one taker on the mainstream New York publisher’s market, and that was Basic Books. And I’m so very grateful that they chose to the take the risk. And I think, hopefully, they’re pleased to have done so.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What compelled you to take on the topic of genocide? And when you answer this, would you define “genocide” as you’re using the term, please?

SAMANTHA POWER: I use it… I stick to the U.N. definition. There is an actual treaty, the Genocide Convention, and it defines genocide as a systematic attempt to destroy in whole or substantial part a national ethnic or religious group as such. So the idea is you’re killing and deporting and raping people not because of things that they have done, but simply because of who they are. Of course, where ethnic cleansing ends and genocide begins is a very difficult line to draw, and not necessarily one that we should attach as much meaning to as we do, probably. But I was basically a kid out of college who worked for a wonderful man in washington named Morton Bromowitz, who was very consumed by the wars in the former Yugoslavia. I was his coffee pourer and his intern research assistant.

And I, too, became really concerned about what was happening and was living in washington right out of college, and a little surprised that we weren’t doing more. I was impotent and feeling like I had to do something. I tried to do my part, anyway, to try to at least bring voice to the victims, so I went over there, capable only at that time of speaking the English language and writing. That was the only skill i had, so I went over as a stringer, as a freelancer. And while there, of course, was so struck by the NATO planes that were flying overhead, monitoring the carnage, but not themselves getting involved, because of course our position was that it was a problem from hell, about which we could really do nothing from the military sense.

So when I returned to the United States, again very disappointed with the American response and the international response– it has to be said, because the Europeans were no better– I was struck by the commitment that we have domestically to the Holocaust remembrance and to the mall… the museum on the mall in Washington, where we sort of embody this commitment that we’ve made to never again. So the question I had when I started was, if we’re so committed to the idea of “never again” as a cultural matter, and we’re so prepared to remember and to learn, why was it that we didn’t take a more robust stance when it came to the killing of the Bosnian Muslims? And so in order to answer that question, I decided i had to go back across time and look at our responses to previous genocides and indeed of course the Rwanda genocide, which coincided with the war in bosnia. So that’s how it started, just with the question, “why didn’t we do more?” And why was it that we were so seemingly unaware that we had done so little?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You looked at Turkey, you looked at the Holocaust, you looked at Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia and Rwanda. What was the common thread? What did you discover?

SAMANTHA POWER: Well, with the possible exception, ironically, of Bosnia, the response was not merely one of non- intervention. That is, it wasn’t simply the case that U.S. troops were not put on the line to service a genocide prevention agenda, but it was actually a policy of non- involvement. It was almost that the worse the atrocities became, the greater the temptation to kind of shut down entirely as if, because the moral imperative was great, especially since the 1970s, since we started to really remember the Holocaust, that you couldn’t even use the word “genocide” or call a spade a spade, because you would actually implicate the very self-identity that we’ve done such a wonderful job actually building. So instead of, you know, we would misdiagnose the atrocities and call it war and not genocide, we would tell ourselves that the hatreds have been going on for very many years.

And for the most part, the toolbox that American policymakers have at their disposal and tend to dip into when they really care about something– diplomatic sanctions, economic sanctions, you know, working with our allies to send troops from other countries– that toolbox for the most part stayed closed.

The executive branch’s response can’t be distant from the response of the rest of us. I mean, there was a kind of society-wide silence that also greeted these atrocities. So editorial boards tended not to get exercised about genocide when it was in progress; Press coverage tended, believe it or not, to be quite thin in places like Cambodia and northern Iraq when the gassing and genocide there was going on.

Human rights groups have become meticulous in documenting human rights abuses as they happen ever quicker, ever more professional, but they don’t yet have the capacity to mobilize a domestic constituency to actually create the impression that there will be a political price to be paid for doing nothing about genocide.

So from the policymaker’s perspective, you look at these places, it’s dangerous. And you say, “Well, gosh, if we get involved, there’s a risk of getting involved, either it costs money or we risk American troops in the end, or we have to confront our allies, you know, who may feel differently about things. We actually have to give something up.” And if we do the right thing, we actually don’t get very much political credit. These are not voting issues. So in a kind of crude and often reflexive, more-than- overt cost- benefit analysis, genocide just again and again never really measured up. The second reason was, of course, just as an organic matter, no American president, believe it or not, had ever made genocide prevention a first-order priority.

So in a sense, the system is actually working. Our foreign policy is explicitly geared to tailor — cater to our economic and our security interests. And the places that genocide happens– Cambodia, Northern Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda– these are places that very much lie outside what has traditionally been considered our area of vital national interest. So there was no conceivable gain.

My hope is, of course, that some president or senior executive branch official would come forward and actually declare this a priority. Then I think you would see the moral imagination kicking into gear much earlier, and all of the mechanisms for denial and the kind of stories that we tell ourselves, I think would be quicker to melt away as people got — within the bureaucracy were worried that they wouldn’t be satisfying their bosses if they allowed something like that to happen again.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is that or was that your goal in writing the book, and do you think the Pulitzer will help publicize all of these issues that you write about and make that goal more realizable?

SAMANTHA POWER: I really hope so. It’s an extraordinary, i mean, for me, a staggering honor. Really when I entered this process, as I said, it was a bit of a struggle to get a publisher to take a chance on it. And I just can’t believe now the attention it’s getting. I have to say it’s a… i feel it’s a little unseemly the way in which the book is getting recognized and, in a way, profiting at this time when the world seems to be in such a dire state. So it’s a little dissonant, I must say, for me.

But yeah, I think it can only help. I think even if no president, no future president steps forward and says genocide is something we truly will not let happen again, we’re going to do contingency military planning, we’re going to consult with our allies, I’m going to have a national conversation with the American people to decide what risks we’re actually willing to take on behalf of this kind of norm, even if that doesn’t happen– and I don’t expect it to happen soon as we focus on the so-called war on terror, terrorism– i think that the hope is that maybe there would be some accountability or the perception that this book creates the impression that there is some accountability for doing nothing about genocide.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Samantha Power, congratulations again, and thanks very much for being with us.

SAMANTHA POWER: My pleasure. Thank you.