Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Interview with Samantha Power

Interview with Samantha Power

Samantha Power is professor of practice of global leadership
and public policy at the Carr Center for Human Rights
Policy, where she was the founding executive director
(1998-2002). She is the recent author of Chasing the Flame:
Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World (see our
review on p. 10). Her book, A Problem from Hell: America and
the Age of Genocide (New Republic Books) was awarded the
2003 Pulitzer Prize for GeneralNon-Fiction.

Power’s article in the New Yorker on the horrors in Darfur
won the 2005 National Magazine Award for Best Reporting.
In 2007, Power became a foreign policy columnist at Time magazine.
From 1993-96, she covered the wars in the former Yugoslavia
as a reporter for the U.S. News and World Report, the
Boston Globe and the New Republic. She remains a working journalist,
reporting from such places as Burundi, East Timor, Kosovo,
Rwanda, Sudan and Zimbabwe, and contributing to the Atlantic
Monthly, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.
Earlier this month, Power resigned from her position as senior
political advisor to presidential candidate Barack Obama.

The following interview with Samantha Power was conducted
for the documentary film “The Armenian Genocide,”
directed and produced by Emmy Award-winning producer
Andrew Goldberg of Two Cats Productions (www.twocatstv.com).
Short segments of the interview appeared in the documentary. It
is published here, in the Armenian Weekly, for the first time
and in its entirety. The Weekly would like to
thank Andrew Goldberg and Two Cats TV for this collaboration.

Q—Can you discuss where the actual word “genocide”
comes from, it’s Greek and Latin origins and so forth?

Samantha Power—“Genocide” is a hybrid between the
Greek genos for people or tribe, and the Latin cidere, cide, for

Q- Could you go into the history of the word and Raphael Lemkin?

S.P.—The word “genocide” was invented by Raphael
Lemkin, a Polish-Jew, who in the interwar period tried to mobilize
states and statesmen to care about what he saw as the imminent destruction of ethnic, national and religious groups. He was partially concerned
about the Jews but he also had concerns about other groups
that he felt were threatened around the world. So he tried to
get the League of Nations to take this issue seriously and to
ban this crime, which at the time he called “barbarity”—the
crime of the destruction of groups. He was ignored and in
some cases laughed and yawned out of the conference. He went
back to Poland and, six years later, Hitler invaded Poland, allegedly
declaring, “Who now remembers the annihilation of the
Armenians?” Lemkin lost 49 members of
his family in the Holocaust. Hespent his days during the Holocaust
trying to understand why in the build up to World War II,
he had been so unsuccessful in convincing states and statesmen
to care about what to him looked like the imminent
destruction of the Jews. He told himself that his number
one failing was that he didn’t have a word that
was commensurate to the gravity of what would become
Hitler’s crime. And so his notebooks were filled
with his efforts to find that word. He struggled to find a word that was commensurate with the horrors that had occurred against the Armenians in 1915, and then the ones that were
ongoing in World War II against the Jews. In 1941,
he came up with the word“genocide.”

Q—Why is it necessary
to use the word “genocide”
to describe what happened to the Armenians
in 1915?

S.P.—What the word
“genocide” connotes is a
systematic campaign of
destruction. If you simply
call the horrors of 1915
“crimes against humanity”
or “atrocities,” it doesn’t fully
convey just how methodical this
campaign of slaughter and deportation
really was. There are
very few paradigmatic cases of
genocide where you can really
see either through the words of
the perpetrators or through the
policies undertaken in pursuit of
the goal to annihilate a certain
group—in this case, the Armenian
community in the Ottoman
Empire. I think that’s why Armenians
and other historians
look at the record and can come
to no other conclusion than this
word “genocide” applies to this
methodical campaign of destruction.
At the time the atrocities
were being carried out, the perpetrators
boasted about what it
was they were trying to do:
They were going to solve the
Armenian problem by getting
rid of the Armenians. In the aftermath
of the atrocities of 1915,
perpetrators were prosecuted for
the crimes that they committed.
Now, the word “genocide” did
not exist then. It wouldn’t come
into existence for another 25
years. But there was widespread
knowledge that what had been
attempted was a campaign of
destruction, hence, genocide.
What is so tragic is that in the
wake of the Armenian horrors
and in the wake of the trials of
Turkish perpetrators, a blanket
of denial has smothered Turkey
and there’s no willingness to acknowledge
what was boasted
about at the time.

Q—What impact did the suffering
of the Armenians have on

S.P.—In the 20’s and the 30’s,
Lemkin became a kind of amateur
historian of mass slaughter, and
the case that really moved him
was that of the Armenians. He
spent months and months just going
through the archives and trying
to understand how such a
crime could have been committed
in Europe. He was a great believer
in European civilization, and what
he encountered in the record was
what would later become known
as an orientalist framing of what
had occurred: The perpetrators
were these Turks and they
weren’t really Europeans. They
were tribal savages, Muslim
hordes, and Europe would never
suffer from anything quite like
that, it was argued. But as he studied
the records he understood that
the Armenian case offered great
insight into how genocides occur.
He understood the way in which
the Armenians were branded by
the Turkish government at the
time, and he saw the dehumanization
of Armenians as a community
and indeed how they lacked some
of the perks of people of Turkish
ethnicity and Muslim fate.
All this became very much a
part of his effort to understand
what the signals would be when a
regime was intent on wiping out
part of its population. In terms of
the genocide itself, he was struck
by the way in which the Turkish
government first went after the intellectuals
and the local leaders of
the Armenian communities in the
towns. He also made frequent reference
to the way in which the deportation
of Armenians became as
effective an implement of genocide
as those executions in the
town squares. He saw that you
could destroy a group not simply
by rounding up the men or
the leaders of the community
and hanging them or machinegunning
them, but by actually
deporting a group from a
country and, especially
in the Armenian case,
sending them into conditions
where there was
no way that they could
survive. So, you were
actually going to
achieve the same results
with a machine gun but
it was going to be much
cheaper and it was going
to draw much less

Q—What is the effect
of genocide denial?
S.P.—I think denial
is devastating both for
the victims or descendents
of victims on the
one hand and for the
descendents of perpetrator
societies on the
other. For victims or
their family members,
there just can’t be anything
worse than living
through the loss, the
obliteration of your livelihood,
your home, and
the systematic extermination
of your family—
extermination that is accompanied
by the taunt of “no one
will ever know,” “no one will
ever remember,” “no one will
ever believe you, even if you
make it out of here, no one will
believe you.”
So you live through all of
that, you make it out, you’ve
lost everything and then you
tell your story, just the story
you can best remember through
all the trauma. The details
stick and are sort of inexorably
planted in the backs of the eyes
so you can’t see anything else
that goes on in your life without
sort of filtering it through the
prism of death. But however
you come to deal with the
trauma, you tell your story and
you’re told not only by the
Turkish government or by
Turkish citizens, but also by the
American government and
other Western governments
that what you lived through
didn’t really happen quite that
way. You are told that it wasn’t
a plot to destroy you or your
family and it wasn’t an assault
on civilian life. It was a war,
there was a rebellion, and it
was just a counter-insurgency
campaign by the Turks. And,
you know, unfortunately some
civilians got caught up in that
counter-insurgency campaign.
In war, bad things happen.
Imagine what that would
feel like. You survive and you
live with those memories, you
tell your truth, a truth you
were told you would never get
to tell, and then you’re told that
your truth is inadequate or is
subjective or is overly emotional
and inaccurate.
The other community that I
think denial has affected in a
very harmful way is of course the
community in whose name these
horrors were committed. Turkish
officials and citizens today had
nothing to do with the acts that
were perpetrated, with the
forced marches, the executions
and the hangings that took place
in public squares. But because all
that information is acquirable,
because the genocide is manifestly
knowable, they are
complicit in denying a truth. As
a result, they are asked to go
back to their history and to scrutinize
it carefully, they are thus
asked to learn what there is to be
learned about why the genocide
was carried, and thus of course
asked to incorporate lessons from
that period.
No state is immune to excesses
and many states, including
the United States, are liable
to these kinds of excesses. The
key is to revisit what has been
done in your name by your state
as a way of trying to inoculate
yourself from future excesses.
The Turkish government is nowhere
close today to committing
atrocities of the scale that were
carried out in 1915, but human
rights is a big issue in Turkey and
I think by kind of closing their
ears and their eyes to what has
gone on in the past and by
spending such resources to ensure
that this climate of denial
persists, they’re really missing an
opportunity to create more amicable
ties with their neighbors.
But they’re also missing an opportunity
to understand their history
and to apply the lessons so
that those kinds of atrocities
don’t ever get carried out again.
Q—So, specifically in the
Turkish case, how should one respond
to denial? Do you debate
history? How do you respond to
S.P.—Denial is very hard to
respond to. It’s almost like little
kids who block their ears and
say, “I’m not listening, I’m not
listening.” It’s very hard to have
a rational conversation because
every set of facts that is presented
in defense of the truth is
met with a whole series of claims
about the future threat posed by
those Armenians to Turkish existence.
You know, there’s an
awful lot of extrapolation that is
done in order to justify the deportations.
So you end up having
a very fruitless and very frustrating
debate in which they say,
“Well, yes, but the Armenians
would have become a threat had
they not been removed, had the
problem not been solved.”
Sometimes you can make
headway talking to genocide deniers
by pointing out that by using
the word “genocide,” you’re
not saying that Talaat, the Minister
of Interior in Turkey in
1915, was intending to put Armenians
into gas chambers and
exterminate every last one of
them as the Nazis did. Sometimes
you can make headway by
simply saying you know genocide
does not mean the Holocaust.
What it means is a campaign of
destruction that includes extermination
or execution but also can entail outright ethnic cleansing
and deportation. They think
that when we say “genocide,”
we’re saying that Talaat intended
to exterminate every last
member of the Armenian group.
What genocide actually means,
what Lemkin actually intended,
was that you create a definition
around destruction and not
around outright extermination
because if you make the definition
of genocide extermination
of everyone, if you make Hitler
the standard, then you’ll inevitably
act too late, you’ll inevitably
act only when you have proof
that every last member of the
group has been destroyed or has
been systematically murdered.
So sometimes you can make
some headway by explaining
what it is you have in mind when
you use the word. But generally
the barriers and the cataracts
that have given rise to this denial
for so many decades are pretty
impenetrable. So what I have
suggested to Armenian friends
and colleagues is that the focus
be on building a kind of fortress
of fact and truth that gets salient
and gets picked up by communities
other than the Turks of Turkey
or the Turkish government
or even the U.S government.
So if every scholar referred to
the Armenian genocide as a
precursor to the Holocaust, if in
talking about the Holocaust
they talked about the ways in
which Hitler learned from what
had been done by the Turks to
the Armenians and made reference
to that kind of community
of perpetrators that really has
existed throughout time, it
would be an immensely effective
way of building a record
that no amount of Turkish government
denial would be able to
blot out.
When I wrote A Problem
from Hell and included the Armenian
genocide, I actually expected
in city after city to have
to defend the inclusion of that
case—because I understood
how much controversy there
was about use of the term
“genocide”—and what amazed
me was that the people who
raised their hands were always
either Turkish officials or individuals
who had been sent out
by the Turkish embassy in order
to stack the meetings. Not even
on one occasion did I have anybody
who wasn’t affiliated in
some way with the Turkish
cause challenge the inclusion of
the Armenian genocide among
the major genocides of the 20th
That’s a sign that already
Turkish deniers are becoming
the equivalent—socially and
culturally—of Holocaust deniers.
Where you hear somebody
raise their hand in the
back of the room and say “the
gas chambers didn’t exist” or
“Hitler wasn’t intending to exterminate
the Jews,” you know
you look at them like they’ve
lost their minds. You know that
they’ve missed that History 101
course or that they have some
kind of ulterior agenda. The
very same is true now of people
who deny the Armenian genocide.
So you can argue that
even though official recognition
remains elusive for Armenians
—and that’s incredibly
tragic for those who survived
the genocide and who are now
passing away, that they haven’t
seen the Turkish government
give them the recognition that
they deserve—on the other
hand, through their efforts and
the efforts of their descendants,
there is now a historical record
that shows that this genocide
did occur and that it has rendered
deniers the equivalent, almost,
of Holocaust deniers. And
I think strengthening that historical
record, strengthening
public awareness through film,
through art, through literature,
through course syllabi at universities
and elementary, middle
and high schools, is the way that
this genocide is going to become
official fact. And ultimately, the
day will come when neither the
Turks nor the American government
is going to be able to
deny it any longer.

Q—So when you did engage
them, was it in terms of the history
or the larger aspects? Getting
into the debates is, it seems,
not dangerous but problematic.
Isn’t it possible that that seed of
doubt is still planted in this context
much more so than the Holocaust?
S.P.—Well, there’s certainly
more doubt and ignorance
around the Armenian genocide
among ordinary non-Armenian
citizens than there is around the
Holocaust, there’s no question.
But if you had talked to American
citizens in the 50’s or even
the 60’s, you would’ve seen an
awful lot of ignorance about the
Holocaust as well. The difference
is that because we finally
got involved in World War II to
defeat Hitler, the basic narrative
about American foreign policy
was that we had gotten involved
to stop a monster and therefore it
was perfectly plausible to believe
that the monster had committed
the Holocaust.
In the Armenian case, because
we hung back, because
the U.S government hung back
and didn’t get involved on the
basis of the atrocities or even on
the basis of the threat to European
stability and European welfare,
and because we got involved
so late, it’s easier for
Americans to think of World
War I as a much more confused
time in which everyone seemed
to be fighting everybody else. So,
it’s easier for Turkish deniers to
deny the genocide because
there’s less of a historical foundation
in public consciousness in
Western countries.
Having said that, I think the
Armenians have been more successful
than they are willing to
give themselves credit for in
building an awareness of the
genocide. But part of the problem
with the Armenian recognition
campaign is that it has been
led almost exclusively by Armenians.
Now, that shouldn’t make
a difference; nobody knows better
what was done to the Armenians
than the Armenian community
in this country or the Armenian
survivors spread throughout
the world. But, for example,
one of the things that had great
credibility at the time of the Armenian
genocide was the reporting
of Henry Morgenthau, the
U.S. Ambassador in the Ottoman
Empire, who reported back
about what was occurring, and it
was his reports that then got
picked up by the New York
Times. A lot of books have been
written about the Armenian
genocide by Armenians, but I
think one of the reasons Turks
in particular have latched on to
the first chapter of my book is
that I’m not Armenian and I
didn’t come into this with some
“big bias” toward the Armenian
community, and I think that is
very threatening to a denier
If somebody from the outside
comes in and says, I’ve looked at
the Turkish claims and I’ve
looked at the Armenian socalled
claims and I’ve decide
that a genocide did occur, that is
very problematic for the Turkish
government and perhaps very
gratifying—I hope—for the Armenian
community. But there
should be many more people
from the outside making the
films, drawing attention to the
art that was produced in the aftermath
of the genocide, writing
the books and pouring over the
Q—Why do particular nations
deny genocide and then
why does Turkey deny the genocide?
Is it about pride? Is it about
not wanting to be labeled internationally
as another Germany?
Is it about the reparations and
the issue of money?
S.P.—Deniers in general
have several ways of evading responsibility.
One very characteristic
response is “They started it,”
“they rose up.” The “they,” of
course, is a whole group that rose
up, the implication is that any
abuse that was carried out was in
excess of what was ordered but it
was very much in response to
this sort of first-order sin which
was the rebellion. And in the
case of the Turks, that’s what
they say about the Armenians.
That the Armenians teamed up
with the Russians, that Turkey
was at war, and that it had to get
rid of any traitors within their
midst because of the security
threat that was posed, the existential
threat to Turkey as a
country and to the lives of Ottoman
citizens. So “they started it”
is sort of recourse number one.
The second recourse is uncontrolled
elements. They say, “We
as a state didn’t have any intention
of harming Armenian civilians
or citizens, but again once
you get involved in counter-insurgency
campaigns, bad things
tend to happen. It’s really unfortunate,
but name a war in which
torture, the killing of civilians,
the raping of women, hasn’t occurred.”
Denier communities, I think,
deny for lots of good, sound, totally
immoral but prudential reasons.
Denier communities deny
atrocities carried out not even by
them but by their predecessors
for prudential reasons and for
emotional reasons. Prudentially,
they really don’t want to have to
deal with the claims of the descendants
to this alleged genocide,
they do not want to have to
pay reparations for crimes, and
more fundamentally, they don’t
want the rights of return to be established,
they don’t want to
have to manage property claims.
Another factor is just plain old
unwillingness to wrap your mind
around atrocities carried out by
people like you. I think it’s again
the same factors that made
Americans very unwilling to believe
reports of torture in
Guantanamo, in Bagram, in Afghanistan
or in Abu Ghraib in
Iraq. They’re the same factors
you see at work when it comes to
Turkish disbelief to this day that
their kin could have rounded up
civilians, executed them in public
squares, and sent whole families
out into the desert with no
provision made for them, and
that most Turks as a whole could
have stood by while their neighbors
were being systematically
butchered. I think it’s really hard
to wrap your mind around that
and to admit the crime. Turkey
is not alone in denying abuses
carried out long ago. The difference
is that the Armenian community
has mobilized in a far
more effective way than many
other victim groups and survivor
Q—Do you think that recognition
brings emotional or otherwise
closure to the victim group?
Or is that an exaggeration or a
fantasy? Is that something that
you think will happen?
S.P.—To a certain extent,
once a surviving community decides
that something is important,
it is important. I mean, the
fact that so many Armenian survivors,
many of whom have
passed away, pinned their hopes
on recognition as a form of closure,
means that they were denied
closure. Had they said, “My
Turkish deniers are becoming the equivalent of Holocaust
deniers. Where you hear somebody raise their hand in
the back of the room and say ‘the gas chambers didn’t
exist’ or ‘Hitler wasn’t intending to exterminate the Jews,’
you look at them like they’ve lost their minds.
goal is to make it into an American
text book,” then they
would’ve been able to achieve
some form of closure.
In my experience with other
victim groups, closure is a little
bit like an oasis in the desert. It’s
out there as the place to sort of
strive to get to, but the closer you
get, the further away it seems.
So I don’t know that closure
should be the criteria for demanding
recognition. The reality
is that the genocide happened,
and it is tremendously destructive
to the descendants of Armenians
and to the few survivors
who are left to be told that it
didn’t happen. Whether being
told that it did happen gives
them the closure they need is
not relevant. What’s relevant is it
The question over whether or
not recognition will bring closure
or won’t bring closure is a
purely academic one. We’re nowhere
close to seeing the Turkish
government or the U.S government
at an official level recognizing
what was done. The
best reason for recognition is
probably not closure because
most of the people who needed
it most are no longer with us.
But the reason for recognition is
that the genocide happened and
denying that it happened has
incredibly painful, ongoing consequences
for the few survivors
who are left and for the descendants
who made only one promise
to their dying predecessors:
that they would not die without
seeing this genocide recognized.
And so for those reasons alone,
regardless of whether closure
makes anybody feel whole—
How can you feel whole after
you know between one and two
million people were systematically
taken from this earth?—
just on truth grounds and on deterrence
and prevention and in
a way punitive grounds—that is,
when you do something bad,
you should be known to have
done something bad—for those
reasons alone, recognition is essential.
Q—How would you respond
to someone saying that a documentary,
like this one, “should
be objective and tell both sides
of the story, in this case, the
Turkish and Armenian”? What
would your response be to that?
S.P.—I think that any journalistic
or historical record
needs to be objective, but being
objective is not the same as being
neutral. You know, you
don’t need to bend over backwards
to be neutral on whether
Hitler had a good argument for
exterminating the Jews. There’s
no neutrality on Hitler possible.
And for the same reason, I don’t
think that neutrality with regard
to the truth of what happened
in 1915 is required. We
don’t meet every Jewish
survivor’s claim about the Holocaust
with a German revisionist
claim about how there were no
gas chambers. And I think in the
Armenian case, as long as those
of us who come to the issue are
fair-minded and do review the
claims of Turkish government officials,
of Turks at the time, as
long as we do our best to go into
it with our eyes open, if our objective
conclusion is that a genocide
occurred, I don’t see why
the Armenian genocide should
be held to a different standard
than any other massive crime
against a people that has occurred
throughout history.
To a certain extent, once a surviving community decides
that something is important, it is important. I mean, the
fact that so many Armenian survivors, many of whom have
passed away, pinned their hopes on recognition as a form
of closure, means that they were denied closure.

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