The following is the transcript of a video recording of a talk Samantha Power gave in March of 2006 at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. for a group of high-school students from Boston Latin School in Boston, Massachusetts.

Power’s Beginnings

I thought what I would do, since you’ve read [A Problem From Hell] and since it’s 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. 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. Nobody goes into government to make a lot of money; some go into elected office because they want to be famous, 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 Schindler’s List, they've now all seen Hotel Rwanda, and yet when genocide happens, again and again and again, good people do nothing.

That was the mystery that, for me, drove [A Problem From Hell]. It’s not all that interesting to figure out why bad people do nothing, but if good people—the very people you'd want in those jobs are doing nothing, then we have a problem. Then more moral people in those jobs aren’t 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.

That requires collective upstanding and serious, serious pressure on governments to do things that don't really come naturally to them. 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 Costas. 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, [When] I went to Yale, I became the play-by-play voice for the men's basketball team, and traveled around the country with them, and I had a sports show. Everything was going according to plan.

Tiananmen Square

After my freshman year in college, I went back to Atlanta, and I was taking notes on an Atlanta Braves San Diego Padres game. On the feed next to the feed I was watching, came the footage from Tiananmen Square. This was an epic event in my generation, where young people 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? They’re 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 they’d 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 think, oh, I’ve 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, I 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 cameras start to go tumble over and then they go to another cameraman. He’s 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, “Aaah we got to get of here!” and I was just like, Whoa, how is this happening? And that sense of acute powerlessness when something terrible is happening to people who you don’t 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. There’s 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, 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, it’s not a case of genocide as such, but it was that same kind of sense of, wait a minute, don't we at least stand for, as a country, the idea that you don’t 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, the Saddam Hussein case: I would think that a rule of American foreign policy is, you don’t give a billion dollars in credits to buy American farm products to a government that is using chemical weapons against its own people. That has to be one of the rules, surely, that we don’t aid governments that make people’s skin burn and faces turn purple. It just has to be a rule. And it turns out it isn’t, which is very, very strange.

Being in Bosnia

So after I reoriented myself, I graduated from college in 1992, a long, long time ago, and by pure coincidence, just before I graduated, the war in Bosnia was starting. [In A Problem From Hell], there's this terrible photograph of these emaciated men behind barbed wire. And if you didn’t look at the caption, you wouldn’t know if it was from [the Holocaust] 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, I had worked for about six months after I graduated and had saved up enough money, and I said, well now, I’m 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, I had no skills, but the place where I was working was actually in this town for an amazing guy named Mort Abramowitz, who was a career foreign service officer. He’d worked for the U.S. government and managed to maintain a sense of outrage 35 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, et cetera. But his office happened to be in the same building as U.S. New 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, and many of us can’t. It’s a great thing to work on by the way, it’s 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 guy’s like, “What?” And I said, “Bosnia. You know the concentration camps, the emaciated men behind barbed wire, in Europe, a-gain!” And he said, “OK, you just want to go be a war correspondent.” I said, “Well, no, I don’t 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, “Well, I’ve covered the Yale women’s 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 was a way to make a difference, or to try, that if people only knew, things would be so very different. But in the wake of the Holocaust, people said the same thing, if we’d only known, 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 wasn’t that people in this town didn’t 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 explain why your government—your world—wasn’t helping. That was a very, very strange experience especially because 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 wasn’t, and eventually, three and a half years into the war, there was an intervention, which we can talk about.

The Book’s Evolution

came back to America after that pretty disillusioned actually about the power of the pen, and kind of determined…I went to law school with some vague idea, 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 [a teenager], there was no notion that if you murdered your own people you'd ever be put behind bars. So again, [Raphael] Lemkin and some of these upstanders have really had a profound effect, at least on what we do after the crimes are being committed. We’re still not so good while they can still be prevented.

But when I got to law school, I was still puzzling, very naively perhaps, over why we hadn’t done anything to help these people. I mean it’s totally naïve; it was an immigrant’s question. Or [during the Holocaust], 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 Nazis’s lives just a little more difficult. How could we not have done that? And I just kept puzzling over it and that 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 was supposed to be a 20-page paper. It became a 70-page paper, and in turn was the foundation for [A Problem From Hell].

Rwanda: Noise and Gorillas

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 first happened on April 21, 1994. A woman, an incredible American woman from Buffalo, N.Y., who spoke Rwandan, who spoke Kinyarwanda…who had done her graduate work, 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, and ‘70s, after the UN, after the Holocaust, et cetera, someone like this woman, Alison DeForge, would have had all of her little ideas about Rwanda, all of her anthropologist’s 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 Adviser of the United States of America, which is 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 weren’t 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 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 such… She said, let’s jam the radio, let’s stop those instructions. It’s basically a tool of the genocide—the radio—or as one of the courts has found recently, the radio was the largest machete. That’s how it’s come to be branded. Also, the radio was being used to incite people and say kill or be killed, the cockroaches are coming. She said 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 they’re listening to the radio—if you’re not going to jam the radio, they’ve 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 there’s 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 Adviser 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 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. I’ve got to create the impression to my president and to my constituents, the people who pay the foreign aid bills to Congress, that there’s a domestic constituency for this, that people actually care that a people is being systematically exterminated in central Africa. So that’s little anecdote number one.

Anecdote number two: There’s 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, I’ve 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, that’s 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?

Not on My Watch

Okay, flashing forward. My hope in writing [A Problem From Hell] was that somehow some American president or very senior official would read the book and just say, wow, we’ve never done anything about genocide. We’ve got to change that. That’s wrong. God, it's bad for our interests, it's bad for our values, let’s bring in the cabinet, let’s have a conversation about what would need to be done and how we might burden-share internationally to deal with this terrible problem. 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; 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? 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!”

Now there are a couple of interpretations of this. One was that he was saying it didn’t 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 don’t want this happening on my watch. Never again, again. A president 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, I’m trying to find my watch! So I’ll leave it to you…

A Critical Mass

But anyway, in fact what has happened with the book is that it’s actually [regular people] 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 that’s incredibly important. The lesson is 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 if there will be a history book written about you someday and you’ll look like a jerk for having allowed 800,000 people to die… That's a cost. It’s 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: the U.S. government hasn't done enough, but it has done more than any other government on the earth. It’s 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 that’s needed to be done, but is doing a job, and many more people would be dead already if the A.U. weren’t there. This administration is the first to use the word “genocide” to describe an ongoing campaign of atrocity—they 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. John Bolton, our ambassador at the UN, said that the day that he unsigned President Clinton’s signature on this treaty in which we basically agreed to support this International Court. We didn’t agree to join it, we just agreed to be for it and wish it well. We’re afraid of joining it because we’re 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 justice…?

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. It’s 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. It’s 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, 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, they’ll 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.