Events

Book Launch: A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

May 14, 2002 // 12:00am

Summary of the Conflict Prevention Project book launch and discussion of the book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide with author Samantha Power, Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and Wilson Center Fellow Gregory Stanton, President of Genocide Watch.


Power's book was inspired by her experience covering the war in Bosnia. Her work analyzes the American non-response to genocides throughout the 20th century, from the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians in 1915 to the Serb aggression in Kosovo in 1999. Power concludes that the problem is not lack of knowledge but lack of political will.

She believes that most Americans, including policy makers, have come over time to see humanitarian crises as worthy of some sort of firm action. However, American leaders are able to avoid committing forces by using the slow-moving bureaucracy of the State Department. Analysts often know the details of genocides in progress, but neither the American public nor the foreign policy community is willing to risk American lives except in the most drastic circumstances. Thus, there is often only minimal pressure from within for action. In her book, Power urges readers to consider the ramifications of inaction and to take seriously the promise of "never again."

In her talk at the Center, Power discussed attributes of the American response to genocide that make them particularly hard to stop. The first is that there is often too much information. Early warnings exist, but they are common and rarely prophetically accurate, which leads them to be discounted by policymakers. Power also cited an unwillingness to even discuss military intervention. Perhaps out of fear that labeling atrocities genocide requires military action, there is also a strong reluctance to even use the "g-word" publicly. This reluctance is enabled by reports from the field, written by trained officials, which are by and large formulaic and routine even when discussing impending humanitarian crises.

There is usually some dissent to American non-response, says Power, but within the foreign policy establishment protests tend to come from low-level officials who are easily marginalized by their superiors. Because there is almost never a society-wide call for action, the Administration is able to continue to excuse its inaction with the claim that no single action would be able to stop the genocide, so therefore nothing should be done. Power pointed out the fallacies behind this line of reasoning, notably that it is usually possible to save some of the potential victims, and therefore action should not be ruled out without serious consideration.

Greg Stanton, Wilson Center Fellow and President of Genocide Watch, outlined the eight stages of genocide using Rwanda as a case study. The first stage, classification, is nearly universal, in that all societies are divided into subgroups based on ethnicity, race or religion. Classification leads some societies, especially those that lack mixed categories, to polarize to an "us vs. them" mentality. In Rwanda, virtually everyone fell into the Hutu/Tutsi dichotomy.

The second stage is symbolization, where a meaning is attached to the classifications. In Rwanda, ethnic group membership was printed on ID cards, which facilitated the third stage, dehumanization. The most effective way to combat dehumanization is to mobilize existing establishments like the church to counter hate propaganda. If this is not done, the dehumanizing messages help otherwise rational people overcome their revulsion against murder, setting the stage for tragedy.

The fourth stage is organization, in which militias and other organizations make plans for genocidal acts, including recruiting and training for mass killing. Because genocide is organized, outlawing or forcibly dissolving the organizations that are planning the crime could prevent it. The fifth stage is polarization, in which extremists drive the groups apart. At this point, it may be possible to prevent genocide by protecting and encouraging the moderates to speak out. However, the genocidal process often continues to the sixth stage, preparation. At this point, lists of victims are prepared and members of different groups are often physically separated. It may still be possible to prevent the impending genocide if a lead nation, regional alliance, or the UN can be mobilized to proved armed intervention or heavy assistance to the victim group. Otherwise, humanitarian assistance should be organized for the inevitable tide of refugees.

The seventh stage of genocide is extermination, which quickly escalates to full-scale genocide. The killers believe they are "exterminating" the vermin who pollute society. Sometimes genocide causes retaliatory murders, which in turn invite retaliation. At this point, prevention is impossible, and immediate armed intervention is the only feasible method to limit the number of victims. When the UN will not intervene, Stanton said, lead nations must take the responsibility upon themselves to organize a response.

The final stage of genocide is denial. The perpetrators of genocide hide the evidence of their crime by removing mass graves and intimidating witnesses. They block investigations and often claim that the violence was isolated and not widespread. According to Stanton and Power, the best way to stop the denial and ensure that future genocides do not occur is to prosecute the perpetrators in international tribunals. Only by taking decisive action – preferably before genocide occurs, but at least afterward – can the international community live up to its promise of "never again."

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