A Problem From Hell


It started with a question. Samantha Power wanted to know why, time and time again, the United States had not responded to genocide. She was distracted from her work in law school by her desire for answers, so she decided to write a paper on the subject for one of her classes. Her question became a vision, and that 20-page paper became a 70-page paper, which in turn became A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide , the book that in 2003 won her the Pulitzer Prize in General Non-Fiction.

            Samantha Power calls the publication of her book a "lesson in perseverance." She "had a great difficulty getting [her] book published," but her continued efforts to do so were rewarded. In her own words, A Problem from Hell is "a book about the nature of bureaucracy, the nature of individual responsibility in bureaucracy, the role of the United States in the world more generally, and...whether single individuals can made a difference within systems. These are lessons that to me have broader ramifications than just genocide."

            Although she had not expected many people outside her immediate family to read the book, she admits that, if it were more widely read, she expected it would be by the president or senior officials in the American government. But the book has also been embraced by other concerned and politically-conscious citizens--especially students--, whom it has impacted on a deeply personal level. Her book has also served as a warning to leaders both in America and abroad that there will be consequences, however minor, for wrongdoing. These consequences might be for an author to criticize their actions, or for future generations to remember them in a negative light. Concern regarding the consequences, as well as the shame leaders have been made to feel, are motivating them to change their policies. Though Power expresses frustration at the idea that her book, though celebrated, is not one that many people have indeed read, those who have read her book have certainly been affected by the experience.

            A Problem from Hell is a literary testament to the necessity of "making noise," and is especially important now, in the wake of a national tragedy that has caused some to keep silent in the name of patriotism and security. 9/11, according to Power, had the unfortunate side effect of reverting the progress that had been made in United States foreign policy before its occurrence. Resources are no longer being directed towards international human rights, and the United States now lacks much of the support necessary to successfully undertake any endeavors beyond its borders. Even so, Power's book was an important factor in persuading government officials to recognize the conflict in the Darfur region as a "genocide." The use of the word resulted in an extended, debilitating debate over its applicability, but along with Power's book, it also increased awareness of the issue. Power herself views the situation in Darfur as an indication of her lack of influence, but through her book she has broadened America's perspective on the world, and inspired Americans to make change of international significance.