Tributes to Sheldon Seevak

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Posted May 06, 2006 in Genocide
Samantha Power, Remarks to BLS FH students at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, March 10, 2006

You've read portions of my book I know and thank you for that. Do you remember Lemkin? Lemkin. Your teacher. Lemkin. Lemkin. Relentless. Relentless and committed. Umm, yeah. That's your teacher.

I thought what I would do, since youíve read the book and since itís 4,000 degrees in this room, is begin by telling you a little bit about how I got into this business, not an obvious career choice, and then talk about what I take to be the big lesson of the book, and the lesson really does involve upstanders and the importance of making noise in the face of injustice of this gravity, noise of the kind that your colleague made on the bus, noise that reaches people in this town, because it turns out that all the incentives that individuals who grow up and go into government, but nobody goes into government to make a lot of money, people go into government for the most part, some go into elected office because they want to be famous or something, but people who go into the foreign service are interested in the world. They want to fix the world. They're not going to be rewarded in a big way. They often have to stamp visas for many years before they have positions of power, and they were all groomed on Holocaust documentaries. They all saw Schindlerís List, they've now all seen Hotel Rwanda, and yet when genocide happens, again and again and again, good people do nothing.

And so it's a bit of a mystery, and that was the mystery that for me drove the book that you're reading. Itís not all that interesting to figure out why bad people do nothing, but if good people, if the very people you'd want in those jobs are doing nothing, then we have a problem, because then more moral people in those jobs arenít necessarily going to change the outcomes, unless we change the sort of domestic conversation about what America stands for, and unless other countries do the same, and that requires collective upstanding and serious, serious pressure on governments to do things that don't really come naturally to them. So I'm going to talk about that in a minute and then kind of what the book taught me in a more concrete way. And then what I thought I would do is just close with a few words about Darfur and then really try to open it up, because you've read the book, you have questions, youíre processing it in your own ways, it will be more interesting I think when we're interacting together.

So first, how does one become genocide chick? For me, it was all I ever wanted. I'm originally Irish. I came to America when I was nine, to Pittsburgh, and from the moment I set foot on these shores, I wanted to do one thing, and that was to become Bob Kostis. I wanted to be a sports reporter and I was very, very directed in that very, very worthy goal. The year I moved to America was the year the Pirates won the World Series and the Steelers won their last Super Bowl prior to this one, and I was on a track. I went to high school in Georgia and continued to be a bit of a fanatic about whatever I do, a particular baseball junkie, and then I went to Yale, and I became the play-by-play voice for the men's basketball team, and traveled around the country with them, and had a sports show, and everything was going according to plan.

After my freshman year in college, I went back to Atlanta, which again was where I was at that point from, and was taking notes on an Atlanta Braves San Diego Padres team, with great vigor and rigor those notes were being taken. On the feed next to the feed that I was watching, which was of the very bad at that time Atlanta Braves team, came the footage from Tiananmen Square, which again was before your time, but this was an epic event in sort of my generation's life, where young people like you, just a little bit older than you, gathered for the first time, basically since 1949, to ask for choice, and to ask for democracy, and to ask for the freedom of association that we all get to enjoy in this country, and to ask for freedom of expression and freedom of press. So I saw the beginnings of this protest, and I thought what the hell is going on in China? Theyíre not going to allow this! And people just flooding to the square, because one of the things you see, and this is true in the genocide context as well, is the degree to which people get emboldened by what they see other people doing. So if theyíd had the instinct inside, like I'd really like actually to be able to say anything I want about my government or about anything else, that instinct might have been buried for even generations, and suddenly you see one group of people out there claiming it. You go oh, Iíve been thinking that for a long time too, so go out to the square. I could just see the square filling up with people, and I just sat there, mesmerized, completely failing in my Braves-Padres task.

Then, within about an hour of when I first started watching the feed, suddenly you could see encroaching on the square the tanks that were coming to crush this nascent flowering of democracy. And sure enough, before my very eyes, it was unfiltered, because it was just some guy or guys who were in the square holding their cameras, just caught in the panic themselves, not having expected anything of this scale and certainly not the repression that ensued, but before my eyes this incredible flowering just got crushed. It started where you could see people running, and then you can imagine the scene where cameras start to go tumbling over and then they go to another cameraman. Heís running around and you hear people screaming, a lot of Chinese language screaming but also a lot of the journalists who had been holding the cameras swearing, and just like aah we got to get of here! and I was just like whoa, how is this happening? And that sense of, Iím sure youíve all felt it, just acute powerlessness when something terrible is happening to people who you donít know anything about, but you have some basic instinct that they should not be getting run over with tanks.

So I was like well, I think I'm perhaps maybe pursuing the wrong career path here. Thereís shit to do! And so that was a bit disturbing. And then I of course had no skills beyond my great statistical grasp of the very bad Atlanta Braves lineup and farm system and so on, so I went back to college and really committed myself to learning more about American foreign policy, because one of the things that happened in the wake of that terrible massacre in Tiananmen Square was that the U.S. government really did almost nothing. So again, itís not a case of genocide as such, but it was that same kind of sense of like, wait a minute, don't we at least stand for, as a country, the idea that you donít run over peaceful protesters in tanks? Can we just come up with a list of things we stand for? Surely that's got to be on the list. Just as in the book, I don't know if you've come to the Saddam Hussein case, I would think that a rule of American foreign policy is, you donít give a billion dollars in credits to buy American farm products to a government that is using chemical weapons against its own people. Like that has to be one of the rules, surely, that we donít aid governments that make peopleís skin burn and faces turn purple. It just has to be a rule. And it turns out it isnít, which is very, very strange.

So after I sort of reoriented myself, I graduated from college in 1992, a long, long time ago, and when I graduated, just by pure coincidence, just before I graduated, the war in Bosnia was starting. Again, I'm not sure how deep into that chapter you are, but what you might remember from the book is a photograph of, for those of you who donít read the text, check out the photographs, you can tell pretty much the story of the century just through the photographs, but there's this terrible photograph of these emaciated men behind barbed wire. For any of you who have seen the photograph, if you didnít look at the caption, you wouldnít know if it was from the time that this museum is focused on or from the 1990s. It was again bone-thin men peering out from behind barbed wire in concentration camps in Europe. And unlike three years before where I had been working at CBS Sports and had no freedom of movement and no money and so on, I had worked for about six months after I graduated and had saved up enough money, and I said well God, well this, now, Iím in a position to be free. I have no commitments in this country, and I could just go and try to do something, which I couldn't do a few years before.

The problem was, again, to repeat, I had no skills, but the place I was working was actually in this town for an amazing guy named Mort Abramowitz, who was a career foreign service officer. Heíd worked for the U.S. government and managed to maintain a sense of outrage thirty-five years into working for the government, like actually retained the ability to be surprised, which is an amazing thing. He was running a think-tank here, and I was just his assistant, his coffee-pourer, etc., but his office happened to be in the same building as U.S. News and World Report. So just as I happened to be taking notes during that awful massacre, and happened to be able to see the revolution, the democratic revolution get crushed before my very eyes, I just coincidentally happened to be working for somebody who was in the building of a major magazine at that time. So I was like, look, I'd gone to NGOs, tried to get a job feeding people, building things, but I can hardly work my T-bone, so it was manifest that I had nothing to offer to any of these organizations.

But I thought, I can write, many of us canít. Itís a great thing to work on by the way, itís like the best skill, everybody talks about all the skills you need to get, if you can just learn how to write, really work on your writing, you can get a job in almost any industry, it turns out. Or so I thought. So I showed up, and I knocked on the door. I said, I'm Samantha Power, I work upstairs, and I'd like to go cover the war in Bosnia, for you. And the guyís like, what? And I said Bosnia, you know the concentration camps, the emaciated men behind barbed wire, in Europe, a-gain! And he was like okay, you just want to go be a war correspondent. I said well, no, I donít actually want to be a war correspondent, but I think that might be the only thing I can do. I want those skinny people not to be in concentration camps, in Europe, a-gain! Fifty years later. And he said, well what writing experience do you have? And I said, [CLEARS THROAT] well, Iíve covered the Yale womenís volleyball team. And that didn't work. So I ended up having to go over there, as one does, and it turns out it was very easy to break into the business.

I became a correspondent there, thinking that that was a way to sort of make a difference, or to try, that if people only knew, things would be so very different. But youíre about to go around the museum, youíll see that in the wake of the Holocaust people said the same thing, if weíd only known, you know, but it turns out information was readily available to people who chose to know. So my original conceit going over there was that information was a problem, that information was something that people needed. But when I got there and lived there for two years, I realized that even though I was part of this group of people who were really trying to get the story out, it wasnít that people in this town didnít know the story that was stopping them from doing anything.

So living in Bosnia was totally surreal. It was much worse than shot-cheating a Braves game and seeing Tiananmen, because you would actually make friends with people to whom you had to sort of explain why your government, your world wasnít helping. That was a very, very strange experience, and especially because, again, you'll come to it in the book, but NATO planes were flying overhead every day, because we were involved in Bosnia. We America, we the world, were involved enough that we really wanted to know what was going on every day. We were paying careful attention lest the conflict actually come to affect our national interests, so we were involved just enough to create this tantalizing promise that we might come and help these people, but it was just a tease, in a way. Until it wasnít, and eventually, you know again, three and a half years into the war, there was an intervention, which we can talk about, about why that came about.

So I came back to America after that pretty disillusioned actually about the power of the pen, and kind of determinedÖI went to law school, which every one of you will do at some point, Iím sure, the path of last resort, the path of first resort. I went, and thatís how I ended up in Boston, and went to law school with some vague idea, I didnít think enough about it, but that if I could only use the law, I could somehow at least put the perpetrators behind bars. There was a new international justice movement, new courts, this was all new, the structures that you know about that exist in the Hague or exist for Rwanda. When I was you age there was no notion that if you murdered your own people you'd ever be put behind bars. So again, Lemkin and some of these upstanders have really had a profound effect, at least on what we do after the crimes are being committed. Weíre still not so good while they can still be prevented.

But when I got to law school, I was still puzzling, very naively perhaps, but over why we, I still didnít understand why we hadnít done anything to help these people. I mean itís totally naÔve, it was an immigrantís question. Or when you go through this museum today, Iím sure youíll have the same thing, itís like how did we not let more Jews into the country? How did we not bomb the railroad tracks? Well, so what if they could rebuild the railroad tracks a week later? At least for a week we would have made the Nazisí lives just a little more difficult. How could we not have done that? And I just kept puzzling over it and that, while I was in law school, was distracting me from my studies. So I decided to write a paper for a class on why we didn't do anything about mass atrocity, and that paper, it was supposed to be a twenty-page paper, became a seventy-page paper, and in turn was the foundation for the book that was inflicted upon you.

So, you have the book itself. For me, the important lesson of that book is, I think there are two moments in the book that tell you almost all you need to know about what the problem is. Not the problem with genocide, that's a bit obvious, but the problem structurally with American responses to genocide. The two stories I would tell you, which youíve probably already read, come in the Rwanda chapter. The first is April 21, 1994, a woman, an incredible American woman from Buffalo, New York, who speaks Rwandan, who speaks KinyarwandaÖWho knew there was someone living in Buffalo, New York who had done their graduate work, spoke Kinyarwanda, and was so plugged in with the community over there that she knew exactly which of her friends were living and which were dying? This was two weeks into the genocide. And to give you a sense, in the old days, like in the 50s, 60s, 70s, after the UN, after the Holocaust, etc., someone like this woman, her name is Alison DesForges, would have had all of her little ideas about Rwanda, all of her anthropologistís understanding of the society, and there's not a chance in hell anybody in power in Washington would have seen her. She would have been the type that would have inhabited church basements and raised money and food and so on, but things have changed, and in 1994, this woman who knew things was actually able to get a meeting with the National Security Advisor of the United States of America, which is incredible, incredibly important, somebody who actually knew something in the office with somebody who could actually do something.

She gave him a list of things to do in the midst of the Rwandan genocide. Now we werenít going to put troops on the ground, that was obvious, because Somalia had just happened, but there were all kinds of little things she said that we could do. We could do radio jamming. Radio was being used to broadcast the names and addresses of Tutsi who had managed to escape the initial round of killing. So and so is traveling in a red van, license plate such and suchÖ She said letís jam the radio, letís stop those instructions, itís basically a tool of the genocide, the radio, or as one of the courts has found recently, the radio was the largest machete. Thatís how itís come to be branded. Also, the radio of course was being used to incite people and say kill or be killed, the cockroaches are coming. She said stop with theÖ just get rid of this propaganda. Again, even if only for a week, that's a week in which you give people a chance to flee and you disable the genocide just a little bit. So that was one thing.

The other thing, denunciation. Name names, she said. Here is a list of the ten people most responsible, and they care much more about themselves than they do even about murdering Tutsi. So if you could get President Clinton to put those names out there on the airways, we know theyíre listening to the radio, if youíre not going to jam the radio, theyíve got radio. Communicate to them that they are going to be held responsible in the aftermath of this crime. Go to the U.N., we know America is not going to send troops, but go to the Security Council, and put out a call, a 911, and say thereís a genocide underway. Who among you will contribute troops? We America will fly you in, or we will pay for you to go, or we will equip you. So she gave this very, very tangible list of things to do, and the National Security Advisor took notes and was an Africanist himself, exactly the kind of person you would have wanted in that job at that time, and she saw that he was paying close attention. So as she was leaving she said this meeting seemed to have gone quite well, what do I need to do to make sure that these kinds of things are done, or to ensure that these things happen? And he just looks at her almost plaintively and he says, make noise. You've got to make noise. The phones are not ringing. I have not had one call from Congress about this killing spree. It sounds like those things are just checkable boxes. Nothing in government is a checkable box. Iíve got to create the impression to my president and to my constituents, the people who pay the foreign aid bills to Congress, that thereís a domestic constituency for this, that people actually care that a people is being systematically exterminated in central Africa. So thatís little anecdote number one.

Anecdote number two, thereís a congresswoman named Pat Schroeder, who in the midst of all this, about two or three weeks after the incident I just mentioned, was interviewed by a newspaper. They asked about Rwanda, and about whether or not she was hearing about Rwanda. At that point several hundred thousand people had already been killed. Even though no one was using the word genocide, it was clear that it was a genocide. She was just puzzling over it and she said you know, it's really strange, Iíve received so many more calls about the gorillas who are endangered in Rwanda, G-O-R-I-L, two Rs?, but not G-U-E, thatís the part I know, one R, the gorillas in Rwanda, than I have about the people. We know that the animal rights groups can kick into gear when it comes to endangered species and so on, but where are the human endangered species groups? How can we kick into gear and be influential?

Okay, flashing forward. My hope in writing this book was I think, again, youíll detect a pattern in my life, it was naive, but my hope was that somehow, I think this was my hope, that some American president or very senior official would read the book and just be like, wow, weíve never done anything about genocide. Weíve got to change that, thatís wrong. God, it's bad for our interests, it's bad for our values, letís bring in the cabinet, letís have a conversation about what would need to be done and how we might burden-share internationally to deal with this terrible problem. So I had this image that it would be top-down, that the influence of the book, if it occurred at all, I wasnít expecting a terribly wide readership, beyond my immediate familyÖBut that was how I thought it would happen. I got a little bit of encouragement in that when the Rwanda portion of the book was published in the Atlantic Monthly, somebody wrote a memo summarizing the Rwanda findings, basically how did we let 800,000 people, how did the Clinton administration let 800,000 people die, given that those were the good guys, the progressives, who cared about Africa, and so on, and so wrote a long article about that. Somebody summarized that and put it in a memo form for the president. In the margins of the memo, according to two or three people who saw this transpire, the president wrote not on my watch, exclamation mark.

Now there are a couple of interpretations of this. One was that he was saying it didnít happen on my watch, so why are you bothering me with this analysis on Rwanda? But the more generous, and the interpretation I chose, was of course I donít want this happening on my watch. Never again, again. A president sort of staking his claim. Now, this great friend of mine, when I told him this story, said that I was totally wrong on both counts, that the only conceivable explanation for not on my watch was that somebody had in fact placed the memo on the president's watch, and he was like, not on my, would people stop putting memos on my watch? Not on my watch! Just, Iím trying to find my watch! So Iíll leave it to you. After your time Iíll have you take a vote as to which of the three not on my watches...

But anyway, in fact what has happened with the book is that itís actually people like you who have taken the lesson of the gorilla story or the lesson of the make noise story to heart, more than the U.S. government has, and thatís incredibly important. That lesson is that unless we as a society create the impression that there will be a domestic political price to be paid if you do nothing about genocide, even if the price seems small, like just that there will be a history book written about you someday and youíll kind of look like a jerk for having allowed 800,000 people toÖ That's a cost. Itís different than an electoral cost. I think we're a long way from being able to convince politicians that people are going to go into the voting booths and make judgments on the basis of what they do about Darfur. Voting issues tend to be more education, tax policy, health. Things that affect people in their daily lives. But there are other kinds of costs with the impression of benefits, in fact, that we are uniquely positioned to communicate and to convey exist in our society.

On Darfur, Iíll just close with that, the U.S. government hasn't done enough, but it has done more than any other government on the earth. Itís spending a billion dollars keeping those people alive in those dreadful camps. It is lifting and funding the African Union force that is woefully overstretched and incapable of doing the job thatís needed to be done, but is doing a job, and many more people would be dead already if the A.U. werenít there. This administration is the first administration to use the word ďgenocideĒ to describe an ongoing campaign of atrocity, tried to retreat a little bit of late from the use of the word, but they did that. And we do have this thing called the International Criminal Court that exists now that this administration despises, despises. John Bolton, our ambassador at the UN, said that the day that he unsigned President Clintonís signature on this treaty in which we basically agreed to support this International CourtÖWe didnít agree to join it, we just agreed to be for it and wish it well. Weíre afraid of joining it because weíre afraid that Americans might end up there someday. But John Bolton unsigned President Clinton's signature on this treaty and he said it was the best day of his entire life. Now what kind of life has a young man like that lived if unsigning a commitment to international justiceÖ?

Anyway, but that same administration that boasted about unsigning their commitment has referred the crimes that have occurred in Darfur to that despised International Criminal Court through the U.N. Security Council. And the reason they've done all of the things that I have mentioned, which again are woefully insufficient given that 300,000, 400,000 people have already died and many more will, is because of the domestic political constituencies. Itís because people are getting arrested in front of the Sudanese embassy. It's because Evangelicals are teaming up with African American groups and student groups. Itís because of the divestment movement that is taking hold across America's campuses. Nothing like this kind of constituency around injustice has been seen since the anti-Apartheid movement, and last time I checked, that had a pretty profound effect, not just on South Africa, but on the state of the world. So while there's much to despair, and certainly when you walk the halls of this museum you will get all the introduction you need to the human consequences of the kind of inaction that Iíve talked about and that exists on this earth, the lesson of the upstanding is that you just have to create a critical mass of people, and convey to your leaders, people who are acting in our names, using us, in fact, theyíll say well the American people will never go along with X. We've got to create a different narrative, and convince them that not only will the American people go along with X, but the American people demand that our foreign policy be conducted in a way that is hypersensitive to human consequences, where every decision is vetted according to what its affect on human lives will be. Not just those lives abroad, also lives at home. It is a balancing act, but it's a balancing act that tends not to be undertaken in government without noise from people like you. So let me leave it there and open it up to questions and comments. Thank you.

Category: Genocide