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“A Problem from Hell"

I am reposting some older pieces. These are my thoughts after reading "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide" by Samantha Power. (It should be noted that I wrote this around 2005. I am afraid there would be more examples if I updated this now.)

Though many men throughout history have sought to wipe out a civilian population, genocide on a widespread scale was simply not feasible before the 20th century. Technology has made genocide possible. What was unimaginable is now do-able.

These are the genocides of the 20th century documented in this book:


  • Turkey’s genocide of its Armenian minority in 1915, under the cover of the First World War. They pretended the Armenians were collaborating with the Russians.

  • Germany’s genocide of Europe’s Jews during WWII.

  • Cambodia’s genocide of its own citizens under the Khmer Rouge. They killed whoever they wanted. At one point they were killing anyone who wore glasses.

  • Saddam Hussein used Iraq’s war with Iran as a cover for his genocide of Iraq’s Kurdish population in the late 80s.

  • Bosnia’s Serbs did their best to wipe out their Muslim population after Yugoslavia self-destructed in the early 90s.

  • Rwanda’s Hutu extremists slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsis in 1994.

  • After several years of relative quiet after NATO bombing, Milosevic began brutalized ethnic Albanians in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo in 1997. This marks the only time Western powers have intervened to prevent genocide pre-emptively.

What is genocide?

Here’s what it looks like: Deportation, forced removals, rapes, terrorizing people, destroyed homes, separating men from women and children, concentration camps or work camps, systematic killing, mass graves, attempts to hide mass graves, to the extent of moving bodies later on.

As defined by the UN genocide convention, any of the following acts committed with intent ot destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:


  1. Killing members of the group;

  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

  3. Deliberate infliction on the group the conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

For a party to be found guilty of genocide, it had to:


  1. carry out one of the aforementioned acts

  2. with the intent to destroy all or part of

  3. one of the groups protected

The law does not require the extermination of an entire group, only acts committed with the intent to destroy a substantial part. Hussein did not set out to eliminate every Kurd in Iraq. But he set out to destroy the Kurdish insurgency, and the way he chose to accomplish this was to destroy Iraq’s rural Kurdish population.

If the perpetrator does not target a national, ethnic, or religious group as such, then killings would constitute mass homicide, not genocide.

The perpetrator’s motives are irrelevant.

The convention requires action, even when it means interferring in another nation’s internal affairs.

Response: The range of options

We often act like we have one option: ground forces, a full-on war – or nothing. All you have to do is say “Vietnam”, it’s like a secret code for “not our problem”. But the US has so much clout, so many options, so many ways to act other than ground troops.


  • diplomatic pressure, public condemnations, public warnings

  • embargos

  • cutting off aid, economic sanctions

  • removing diplomatic staff

  • freezing assets abroad

And when we do decide to use military force, whether with the UN or independently, we have a broad range of options without going to a Vietnam-style war.


  • use of military to seize airports or create corridors for humanitarian aid

  • selective bombing (like we did for Bosnia)

  • enforce a no-fly zone in protected airspace

  • UN peacekeepers to monitor refugee camps or transport centers for detainees

Response: Futility, perversity, jeopardy

Economist Albert Hirschman observed that when faced with evidence of genocide, we usually cite these factors as reasons for our inaction:


  1. Futility – it won’t do any good, those people have been killing each other for centuries

  2. Perversity – if we go in now, it might make things worse

  3. Jeopardy – it’s not worth the risk to us, our national interests are not at stake, it’s not our job to be policeman of the world

Early warnings proliferate and are downplayed as unreliable.

Refugee accounts are ignored or downplayed as exaggerated.

We use the Holocaust as “a threshold for action”. If events don’t add up to the horror of the Nazi concentration camps, we discount their severity.

Despite plenty of information and media coverage, we are very slow to recognize evil. We assume the major players will act in good faith. We urge a cease fire and donate humanitarian aid. We trust diplomacy and naively have faith that the ringleaders will behave rationally.

Rather than react to events as they are, we have a tendency to “fight the last war”. In Cambodia, we were thinking about Vietnam. In Rwanda, we were thinking about Somalia. We don’t even examine the situation’s realities because of our preoccupation with other places, other times.

How they do it

Genocide is often hidden under the cloak of war:


  • Turkey used WWI as an excuse to kill off their Armenians.

  • The Khmer Rouge came to power as a direct result of our war with Vietnam and our relations with Cambodia (including the secret bombing).

  • Iraq’s war with Iran was the excuse for their systematic destruction of their rural Kurdish minority.

  • The breakup of the former Yugoslavia provided the excuse for Serbian aggression.

  • Rwanda’s civil war provided the perfect ruse for the Hutu ringleaders to launch their genocide.

Often the authorities use the excuse of a third force, some other group doing the killing while they are trying to bring the situation under control.

Or the authorities pretend the victims are collaborating with the enemy (Turkey).

It may be conducted under a veil of utter secrecy (Cambodia). Or it will be done in plain view (Bosnia) while agreeing to outsiders that it’s complying with requests for this or that when in fact the killing goes on.

Sometimes the operational plans for the genocide are documented thoroughly (Cambodia). Other times no evidence is left, documentation is destroyed as a way of denying the genocide.

Sometimes they leave the bodies to rot (Rwanda) or sometimes the killings are hidden. Mass graves are disguised and bodies removed and reburied somewhere else. (Kosovo).

The victims are blamed as having been “destabilizing” a situation, harboring rebels, consorting with the enemy (Turkey)

The victims are demonized and turned into “cockroachs” or dehumanized. Hate proproganda is disseminated using mass media.

The so-called peace process becomes a stalling mechanism. Milosevic was masterful at this. He reminds me of the Martians in “Mars Attacks!” They call out “We come in peace! Don’t run, we are your friends!” while mowing down the stupidly naïve earthlings.

Leadership? Nah.

The US government not only does not send troops but takes few (if any) other steps along a continuum of involvement.

“It is in the realm of domestic politics that the battle for genocide is lost.” How does this abdication of responsibility take shape?

Policymakers assume silence means indifference, while potential sources of influence are quiet -- lawmakers on Capitol Hill, op-ed pages in the press, the media generally, non-governmental agencies, as well as ordinary people.

Other Western powers wait for the US to take the lead, while we say it’s not our problem.

We stall, hoping matters will resolve themselves.

We convince ourselves the killing two-sided and unavoidable, not genocidal.

We avoid the use of the word genocide.

People who want to get involved are branded as emotional, irresponsible and even dangerous.

The three elements, futility, perversity, and jeopardy, are cited.

The enemy of our enemy is our friend… NOT

Although ethnic and religious conflict are constants in human communities, at least two of the 20th century genocides were directly rooted in US intervention.

Our war in Vietnam destabilized Cambodia’s government. After we pulled out, we didn’t care who was in charge in Cambodia, as long as they were against Vietnam. We stubbornly, repeatedly ignored horrifying news from Cambodia – for years. Not just us, the whole world. Long after it was abundantly evident that the Khmer Rouge were commiting genocide, we continued to support that government.

We let Hussein get away with murder as long as he was at war with Iran. In 1987, Iraq became the first nation to use poison gas against its own citizens. Imagine if the US government went into Wyoming and North Dakota and used mustard gas to kill the people living there.

The heros are the ones who won’t shut up

An apt quote from the book: “The sharpest challenge to the world of bystanders is posed by those who have refused to remain silent in the age of genocide.” Here’s a partial list.


  • Henry Morganthau was the US ambassador to Constantinople in 1915. He repeatedly sounded the alarm about the genocide, funnelled information to Washington, and eventually resigned in frustration. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, Turkey continues to deny the genocide to this day.

  • Raphael Lemkin was an international lawyer known as the Father of the UN’s Genocide Convention. Most of his family was wiped out in the Holocaust. Lemkin worked tirelessly for decades for the convention’s passage in the UN and its ratification by the member nations.

  • Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin made it his mission to get the US to ratify the UN’s genocide convention. To our shame, this took 19 years, thanks to some special interests’ paranoid fears. Proxmire made 3,211 speeches on the Senate floor urging ratification.

  • Sen. Claiborne Pell worked with Proxmire on the convention’s ratification and also led efforts to hold Iraq accountable for its genocide.

  • Foreign service officer Charles Twining interviewed refugees escaping the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and sounded the alarm when he suspected genocide. Sen. George McGovern and Rep. Stephen Solarz took up the cause. At a time when nobody wanted anything to do with southeast Asia, they continually urged action against the deadly regime.

  • Peter Galbraith of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee saw first-hand the evidence of mass deportations, destroyed and empty villages where Iraq’s Kurdish minority once lived. Due in large part to his refusal to shut-up, eventually we set up Operation Provide Comfort to provide a safe haven for the refugee Kurds. In 1993, he was appointed ambassador to Croatia.

  • UN commander Romeo Dallaire did everything humanly possible to save lives and alert the world to the genocide in Rwanda. His refusal to shut up cost him his mental health and eventually his career.

  • There are a number of individuals who made us pay attention to the mess in what was Yugoslavia. One was Rep. Frank McCloskey. A visit to Bosnia in 1991 convinced him to do whatever he could to help. He made over a dozen trips to the area in the next few years and refused to stop pestering people here about it. He was attacked as a warmonger. He lost his next election cuz voters felt he was spending too much time worrying about Bosnia.

  • Bob Dole also went to bat for Bosnia’s Muslims and through his efforts persuaded Congress to lift the arms embargo that was strangling them. Without his push for the NATO bombing, it would not have happened. Joe Biden helped. Madeleine Albright was also advocated aggressive action including NATO bombing.

The villians have names too

In Turkey in 1915, it was a man named Mehmed Talaat, the Turkish interior minister.

In Cambodia it was Pol Pot, whose real name was Saloth Sar.

Hussein’s right-hand man in wiping out the Kurds was his cousin Ali Hassan Al-Majid.

In Rwanda it was a group effort, but one of the main players was Gen. Theoneste Bagosora.

In Bosnia of course it was Milosevic, but there were others. Gen. Ratko Mladic was in charge of Srebrenica, a heavily populated Muslim “safe area” protected by UN peacekeepers. In July 1995, they decided to clean out this area, whether the UN liked it or not: they deported everyone, separated men from women and children, and a whole bunch of the men just disappeared. We just stood by and let them. It’s unknown how many died; mass graves are still being found.

xx

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