Murder Most Foul

To stop genocide, the U.S. must learn to intervene more carefully.

A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power, New York: Basic Books, 284 pages, $30

No one would argue that the Pol Pot regime's killing of some 2 million Cambodians was anything but the brutal, savage slaughter of innocents. The same is true for Saddam Hussein's destruction of over 4,000 Kurdish villages in Iraq and the deaths of an estimated 55,000 to 75,000 Bosnians (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the International Committee of the Red Cross), an unknown number of which were mass killings of Muslims attributed to Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian forces. But do these acts constitute "genocide"? And, more pressing, should the United States have intervened in any or all of these acts? The difficult answer to these questions is no. To understand why, consider Samantha Power's A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which argues otherwise.

In June 1995 Power was a reporter covering Bosnia when she learned of a 9-year-old girl named Sidbela Zimic who was killed by a Serbian shell that hit a playground in Sarajevo where Sidbela and three other children were jumping rope. As Power saw it, Sidbela's death resulted from Bosnian Serb genocide of Muslims and the lack of American intervention. The event became the impetus for A Problem from Hell, her survey of genocide in the 20th century and of American responses to it. She takes her title from former Secretary of State Warren Christopher's description of the intense hatred between the Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats.

Power leads her readers on a long and often gut-wrenching journey that starts with a 24-year-old Armenian, Soghomon Tehlirian, murdering former Turkish Interior Minister Talaat Pasha on March 14, 1921, to avenge the death of his family. (Pasha had presided over Turkey's "solution" to its Armenian "problem," resulting in the deaths of nearly 1 million Armenians in 1915.) At the time, the concept of genocide did not even exist; the Turkish government's persecution and killing of Armenians was called "race murder" by the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau Sr. Power uses the pre-Holocaust Armenian experience to outline a pattern of genocide she sees repeated in Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda, and Bosnia.

For her, that pattern consists of the following progression:

� Initial warning signs that a regime intends to take action against a specific ethnic group. (In January 1915, The New York Times reported Talaat's statement that there was no room for Christians in Turkey, and that their supporters should advise them to leave.)

� The first steps. (In late March, Armenian men serving in the Ottoman army were disarmed.)

� Justification. (The Turkish leadership used the pretext of an Armenian revolutionary uprising and the cover of war to facilitate the eradication of Armenians.)

� Recognition met with disbelief or denial. (British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey cautioned that Britain lacked direct knowledge of massacres and that the massacres were not all on one side.)

� Ineffective response. (The Allied governments declared that they would hold members of the Turkish government personally responsible for the massacres, but there was no intervention.)

The first several chapters of A Problem from Hell are devoted to the tireless travails -- spanning more than two decades -- of Polish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin to invent and legitimize the concept of genocide and to make it a crime under international law. Lemkin's achievement was the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which defined genocide as "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group the condition of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

It is important to recognize that this legal definition of genocide is very different from the more common dictionary definition, which probably is how most people think of it. The American Heritage Dictionary defines genocide as "the systematic and planned extermination of an entire national, racial, political, or ethnic group."

Power also chronicles a similar journey by U.S. Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wisc.) to persuade the United States to ratify the genocide convention. On January 11, 1967, Proxmire delivered his first genocide speech on the floor of the Senate. During the following 19 years, he would make over 3,000 speeches on the subject, until the Senate adopted a ratification resolution in February 1986. Full ratification did not occur until October 1988.

The remainder of Power's book can best be described as a series of post-Holocaust case studies: Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. In each instance, Power walks her reader through events and actions that constitute, for her, the pattern of genocide. She does not spare the reader the grim and horrific details: children delivering death blows to the back of the head with a hoe in Cambodia; four small Kurdish girls lying like discarded rag dolls in a stream, victims of Iraqi chemical weapons; Bosnian Muslims forced to watch family members have their throats slit by Serbian paramilitaries; Rwandan men, women, and children hacked to death with machetes in churches where they sought refuge.

Regardless of what one believes about what the United States could have and should have done to stop the killings, Power's book raises vital questions. It deserves the most serious possible response.

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