“A Problem From Hell”

The United States has never in its history intervened to stop genocide and has in fact rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred.”
–Samantha Power, “A Problem From Hell”
Caitriona at Lough Derg
At college, my best friend Caitríona studied History and Politics. I got Hob-Nob crumbs on the western canon, and wondered how she crawled through those dull books. She went to Bosnia after we graduated, and wore white Levi’s as her UN observer uniform. Afterwards, in Boston, she won a Fulbright scholarship to study Balkan conflict resolution, which I rarely asked her about for fear she would tell me. She went back to Bosnia. This time she lived in Tuzla, near where General Mladic had executed more than 7,000 men in a UN “safe area”. She worked for a group called Physicians for Human Rights. They gathered forensic evidence from the Srebrenica massacre so that each case could be prosecuted as a murder. She spoke daily with the widows and families, trying to reunite them with the bodies of their missing, murdered men. She drew media attention to the work they were doing, and needed to do. Later, she was called as an expert witness at the first war crimes tribunal held at the International Court in The Hague.

I spent those years caught up in the New York internet culture. I read _The Economist_, but often as not I skipped the depressing International news section. Why bother? I worked long hours, made more money than I needed, and puffed up on the importance of the startup company that grew out of my living room. The word “revolution” appeared in the business plan and nobody laughed. We used to call late-night code “hero check-ins”. CEOs studied _The Art of War_. When bad things happened to go projects, I would say “Babies won’t die, kids.”

Twice I went to visit Caitríona in The Hague, after she broke her back when knocked off her bike on the way to her first week at the tribunal. I met her friends: human rights lawyers, activists, and war reporters. Their intensity reminded me of the geeky evangelists in my world, only more so. They were animated as they tried to explain what had happened, who had stood aside, who was evil, why this _mattered_. All night I couldn’t get the Bowie song out of my head: “This ain’t rock and roll. This is…GENOCIDE.” I concentrated on getting the names of the generals right, and failed. These old Yugoslavia hands struck me as institutionalised, addicted to the intensity of a war zone, unable to let go. They drank too much. They acted like this was life and death.

I had never visited Cait in Bosnia, though she was there for three years. I was afraid. I wanted to spend my few holidays in comfort. I didn’t want to know about this unpleasant world, and I didn’t want to feel guilty for doing nothing to improve it. She came to me instead, in busy, glitzy, boomtown New York. I showed her my new toys and lectured her on the wireless revolution. I worried that she didn’t earn enough, that she lived in horrible conditions, that she dealt with decomposing bodies and desperate widows every day. She has always had an uncanny ability to interest influential people, and I thought she should use that to her own advantage, for once.

I was booted out of that New York life just as I turned thirty. I could only afford to travel in cheap countries, so I started to go to the kinds of places that Caitríona had studied and lived in. I wept in the War Crimes Museum in Saigon. Why, I wondered, had Cambodia turned out like this? What was wrong with Bolivia? With Burma? Politics, which I had seen as a dull, corrupt abstraction, began to seem real at last. In Laos, a sixteen-year-old monk said, “Why did America bomb my village?” I didn’t know how to explain the Domino Theory to a kid from the Plain of Jars.

I gave up most novels and scrounged books to puzzle it out. I read The Quiet American. William Shawcross’s Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. Robert McNamara’s confession. Air America. The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War. Norman Lewis’s Indochina books. Aung San Suu Kyi’s Letters from Burma. War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges.

They told me, over and over, that bloodbaths and famines are rarely unexpected or inevitable; that wars are usually caused by a very tiny number of influential people; that genocide can often be prevented by a very tiny number of influential people, but rarely is; that the law of unintended consequences leads to catastrophe in geopolitics. It was fresh news.


As a Christmas present this year, Caitríona gave me “A Problem from Hell” : America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power. Power is a friend of hers from their Bosnia days, and she is Irish too, though she moved to the US when she was nine. She is 33; fabulously young to win both the Pulitzer and the National Book award, but this book deserves all its praise. I couldn’t wish for a more patient teacher to sew together the scraps of an education I picked up in the last few years. In one chapter, for example, she sets out how the United States directly created the conditions for the Khmer Rouge to come to power, and then looked away as Pol Pot killed almost a third of his own countrymen in under three years. It was left to Vietnam, still reeling itself, to invade and overthrow Pol Pot–but since they were on the “wrong” side in the Cold War, the US and the UN continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge for many years after the Killing Fields had been dug up for the west. Her charges are clear and devastating.

She believes that much of the misery of the last century was predicted in advance and could have been averted. Failure to stop it was due not to ignorance but to considered decisions not to intervene. Referring to the many instances of genocide in the last hundred years, she says that “No US president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence.”

Several heroic figures did work to oppose and expose ethnic cleansing as it took place, but the quiet majority of American politicians chose always to do nothing, as did the American public.

I am ashamed to be a silent voice in that majority.

Caitríona lives in Iran now, with her American husband Dan, who writes for the Guardian and The Economist. She and I just spent a few days together here in Limerick, catching up after too long apart, as usual. She had come back from a Christmas trip to the US and Dublin, and felt down. People couldn’t understand why she and Dan were still caught up in their little human rights kick. In New York, friends who “made a window” barely asked about Iran; they were busy telling her about the ups and downs of their own careers. In California, their family wanted to know when they were going to come back to America and start living like proper, middle-class adults.

Iran is not easy. She tells me about the men who scream obscenities and sexual come-ons in the street, no matter how modest her _hejab_, and about the rich Tehran women who talk of little but cosmetic surgery and clothes. Her phone is bugged. She caught typhoid. Still, she presses on, and will continue to, like Mary Robinson before her. As well as reporting for the Irish media, she volunteers helping victims of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons attacks; the Iranian women and children who were unlucky enough to be on the side not supported by the Americans. Sixteen years later, they have been long forgotten by all but the few like Caitríona.

7 thoughts on ““A Problem From Hell””

  1. Those two women make me feel proud of all I have achieved in a lifetime in accountancy..er..NOT.

    Funny, how when most of us Irish are selling out for a mess of pottage and an O4 registered car, there are still a few of us to be proud of.


  2. So, why is the US position unique? During the first half of the previous century this country wasn’t considered the dominant world power. I accept that since 1989 we’ve assumed a greater responsibility, but didn’t the entire UN effectively ignore Rwanda?


  3. Power’s book is about American policy. (The full title is ‘America and the Age of Genocide’) She’s not arguing, nor am I, that the rest of the world didn’t ignore Rwanda too. She simply focuses on why the US did. Since it is the dominant power now, and has recently shown the UN to be toothless, that seems fair enough; theirs is the foreign policy most worth trying to influence. Her arguments do apply, by extension, to the rest of the first world.

    I’m interested in America’s role in particular because the parts of the world I’ve recently visited–in particular, Southeast Asia–were directly messed up by America acting mostly alone. I don’t blame the UN for Kissinger and Nixon’s secret wars in Cambodia and Laos, which had such disastrous consequences.

    I’m not anti-American, or I wouldn’t want to live there. I do feel, as do many of my American friends, frequently frustrated by its foreign policy. With great power comes great responsibilty.


  4. The question I keep asking myself is, is there a way to help human rights *without* full-scale immersion — that is, without going over there, cutting off links with your family and friends, and dedicating your life to it?

    I try to do little bits to help these causes here and there — like developing open source software that’s useful for everyone; I’m ecstatic when I hear of an NGO getting good use from one of those apps. I keep contemplating doing more. But I haven’t — yet — and the idea of breaking away to such a degree is the big problem.


  5. Every little bit helps Justin. In fact, the most important person in our little office in Tuzla was Andre, our computer expert. He designed a special software to match postmortem data from the bodies we exhumed with ‘antemortem’ or ‘living’ information from the surviving families. His work alone reuinted countless families with their missing loved ones.


  6. There’s no money to be made from it, i.e., taking responsibility. Taking responsibility also imposes an obligation to be informed. That’s time consuming. There’s great satisfaction in teaching under educated children in the Mississippi delta area how to read and write. But after a while those raised in the pleasure dome lose interest and move on. Nation states have never taken “responsibility” for their actions. Why start now?


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