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Powerful Words

Samantha Power’s book on America’s role in international genocides has garnered awards right and left—and most recently, a Pulitzer.

By Nikki Usher, Crimson Staff Writer

After writing her 610-page indictment of the American government for ignoring instances of genocide around the world, Lecturer Samantha J. Power says she was concerned her efforts would be similarly ignored and her book would “get lost as a dark book about genocide.”

In A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Power, who directs the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School of Government, condemns the United States for failing to take action against genocide over the course of the past century.

And she could have been right—her first publisher, Random House, dropped the book after seeing the manuscript.

But since it did hit the shelves in April 2002, A Problem from Hell has snatched up one prestigious book award after another—including most recently, the most vaunted writing award of all: a Pulitzer Prize.

Power’s opus resonates with a central accusation: U.S. policymakers did nothing to halt cases of genocide when there was not a “vital national interest.” The “gatekeepers”—a term Power uses to refer to those in leadership positions—had to feel force of public opinion or other pressures before they took action.

“The world will replicate its tendencies unless the gatekeepers form an understanding that American ideals find genocide prevention as a way of affirming our central faith,” she warns.

But the strength of A Problem from Hell is not its protestations against the American government; nor is it the call to make genocide prevention a goal of U.S. officials in order to better reflect basic American values.

Rather, the work is at its best when Power turns killing statistics from numbers into personal stories. Even readers outside the world of academia will find these stories compelling.

Power Walk

Power’s book was born midway through a marathon training run in Boston. While jogging past the Holocaust memorial near Faneuil Hall, she was struck by the inscription “never again.”

Power says she could not reconcile the ubiquity of Holocaust remembrance with the NATO warplanes she watched pass over slaughter in the former Yugoslavia. While Bostonians were smiling and going about their day, Muslims were being slaughtered—and no one with the power to stop it was doing anything.

With this thought in mind, Power began her excavation and reinterpretation of seven genocides in the past century: Turkey’s murders of Armenians, the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Iraq’s Kurdish extermination efforts, the Bosnian Serbs’ killings of Muslims and the Hutu massacres in Rwanda.

She says she had “incredibly good fortune” with her book. It spread by word of mouth from bookstore to bookstore. An Atlantic Monthly piece from September 2001, arranged by Michael Kelly—the American journalist who recently died in Iraq—also gave Power’s message a larger audience.

And it’s garnered awards. In February, she received the 2003 National Book Critics Circle prize; the book has also taken the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize.

Surprise Prize

Two weeks ago Monday, a friend tipped Power off that the Pulitzers were about to be announced. Had this friend not mentioned it, Power says, she would not have been thinking about the award.

Then DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., a member of the Pulitzer committee, called her office as she was rushing to prepare for her class at the Kennedy School. “[For] twenty seconds, I thought I had won a Pulitzer,” Power says.

But Gates let on that he was calling to give her another award—a prize for the best book about race relations.

Later that afternoon, as she was about to begin an interview with the only openly HIV-positive South African judge, she heard her cellphone—which she had meant to turn off—ringing. When she answered, she found a Basic Books publishing executive on the line offering to take her to dinner.

“I thought that this wasn’t a particularly good time to celebrate with everything going to hell and Michael Kelly killed just three days before,” Power says.

Quickly, though, she says she realized that the dinner was to celebrate winning the Pulitzer and was “stupefied and breathless for the next twenty seconds.”

She describes the few days since then as having been an “out of body experience.”

Winning the Pulitzer will give Power an added platform—apart from her academic position—from which to stress the moral imperative of recognizing crimes against humanity. This “snob factor,” she says, will give her the opportunity to speak to the gatekeepers, though she plans to  “think strategically about how to use the battles.”

And she’s already thinking about where to turn now.

She says her next fight will likely focus on the AIDS problem in Africa.

“A whole continent is disappearing,” she said. “It’s so bad that we can’t wrap our mind around it and it doesn’t require risking lives to show commitment.”

The larger discussion Powers hopes to inspire is one reflecting upon the flaws of U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century, she says.

“The U.S. is a global citizen and must reflect a responsible citizenship,” she says. “This is something the book demands.”

—Staff writer Nicole B. Usher can be reached at

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