Wednesday, August 01, 2007

"A Problem From Hell" by Samantha Powers [2]

Chapter One, "Race Murder," begins the story of the United States and 20th Century Genocide by way of the infamous genocide against ethnic Armenians by the Ottoman imperial government. The term "race murder" was coined by the US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time, Henry Morgentuau. Morgenthau risked his diplomatic relations with the Turkish government and went outside the limits of his job in his efforts--ultimately unsuccessful--to provoke a reaction from the Wilson Administration and Congress. Morgenthau, then, is the first in a long line of principled and conscience-stricken Americans (keep in mind this book focuses specifically on official US responses to genocide) who swam against the tide of official indifference and tried to make a difference. There are many people in this book who deserve to be remembered, and he is the first.

I will not go into details of the Armenian Genocide here--I trust that most readers of this blog are aware of at least the broad outlines of the story, and are aware that to this day the modern Turkish government continues to insult the memory of those killed by perversely maintaining the fiction that the killings and deaths were merely the unfortunate collateral damage associated with total war and the instability of a multinational empire coming apart at the seams. Any readers of this blog who might criticize me for dredging up the recent past rather than moving on and allowing for "healing" might pause to consider this.

The pattern of increasing violence against an unwanted group--couched in euphemisms about "security" and so forth--as well as an unwillingness by the outside world to act or even to acknowledge the reality of the situation, would become distressingly familiar as the the bloodiest century in human history played itself out.

The Armenian Genocide occurred before Raphael Lemkin (who is a central figure in this book) had even coined the word "genocide"--Morgenthau's anachronistic "race murder" was only one of many attempts to convey the scale and nature of the atrocity. This not only left concerned observers (of which there were tragically very few) grappling for words, it also presented a challenge to those morally brave souls who cried out for some sort of international response--there was no mechanism for such a response, nor was there any legal, procedural, or ideological basis for doing so.

The crucial point is illustrated in a couple of places in this chapter. On page 8, Powers writes:

"Morgenthau had to remind himself that one of the prerogatives of sovereignty was that states and statesmen could do as they pleased within their own borders. "Technically," he noted to himself, "I had no right to interfere. According to the cold-blooded legalities of the situation, the treatment of Turkish subjects by the Turkish Government was purely a domestic affair; unless it directly affected American lives and American interests, it was outside the concern of the American Government." the ambassador found this maddening."

And then, on page 14, U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing argued against setting up what would have been the first international tribunal for war crimes to try German and Turkish leaders for "violations of the laws of war and "laws of humanity."" Lansing's reasons for doing so are worth quoting:

"In general the Wilson administration opposed the Allies' proposals to emasculate Germany. But it also rejected the notion that some allegedly "universal" principle of justice should allow punishment. The laws of humanity, Lansing argued, "vary with the individual." Reflecting the widespread view of the time, Lansing said that sovereign leaders should be immune from prosecution. "The essence of sovereignty," he said, was "the absence of responsibility." The United State could judge only those violations that were committed upon American persons or American property."

There's that word 'sovereign' again. We will consider this further in the next post on Power's book.

1 comment:

Shaina said...

I'm so glad you are doing a review of this book. I first read this book in high school; and it was my first introduction to the concept of genocide, the legal history of the genocide convention and examples of modern day genocides.
I've read the book many times since then.
My major complaint with this book is that I wish Powers' would focus at least one chapter on genocidal killings in central and/or south America.
But, other than that, I find the book excellent, and very well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize.