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SAIS Review 22.2 (2002) 361-366

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Ordinary Bystanders

Michael Innes

Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda. By Michael Barnett (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002). 215 pp. $25.
Genocide and the Global Village. By Kenneth J. Campbell (New York: Palgrave, 2001). 178 pp. $19.95.
"A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide. By Samantha Power (New York: Basic Books, 2002). 610 pp. $30.
Never Again? The United States and the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide Since the Holocaust. By Peter Ronayne (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001). 222 pp. $24.95.

Guilt and responsibility are regular themes of the literature on genocide. Despite the effort that scholars and analysts put into providing the subject with definable contours, the lack of a clearly articulated nexus between the two has continued to defy the usual conventions of legality and morality. Hannah Arendt suggested in The Human Condition that "men are unable to forgive what they cannot punish and they are . . . unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable." 1 Criminal prosecutions in recent years have gone some distance toward proving otherwise. What remains in doubt is the measure of transnational complicity for genocide, the lateral burden of shame and responsibility that should be shouldered by bystanders.

The books under review in this essay are particularly notable for the manner in which they address this moral ambiguity. 2 The imperative guiding much of the postconflict reaction to events in Rwanda, the Balkans, and elsewhere has involved a tendentious exercise in moral equivalence, perforating the membrane that [End Page 361] separates "free bystanders" from perpetrators. 3 It is also a more progressive project in which analysts attempt to extract the lessons of yesterday's horrors to forge a less blood-drenched future.

The post-Cold War proliferation of atrocities has invigorated the debate over whether any particular genocide can be considered "unique." This is an unfortunate sign of the ubiquity of the phenomenon. As Lawrence L. Langer once wrote, "the sudden, violent, irrational extinction of vast numbers of people is part of the personal and historical consciousness of the twentieth century." 4 How states respond to the threat of genocide has, by extension, become an important question for scholars and policymakers alike. As the world's lone superpower, the United States has come under an especially heavy degree of criticism for its relations with genocidal regimes.

The authors whose volumes are considered here broach the subject of the U.S. response to genocide with varying degrees of moral condemnation, theoretical depth, and overall sophistication. Their approaches differ, but their analyses all turn on the straightforward presumption that genocide is a universal threat to human security that exceeds normal diplomatic, military, and ideological constraints. It is difficult not to think of these books, their authors, and their arguments in terms of catharsis. Campbell, a political scientist specializing in use-of-force issues, experienced the carnage of war as a young soldier in Vietnam. Power, who teaches public policy at Harvard and is Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, covered the wars in the former Yugoslavia as a freelance journalist from 1992 to 1995. Barnett's own melancholy is quite striking. A political officer at the U.S. mission to the United Nations during the Rwanda genocide, he confesses, "[t]he Rwanda that now dwells inside me is not a geographical territory. Rather it is a metaphysical space—a space that changes with time and experience but ultimately is defined by a profound sense of loss."

Power's "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide takes a historical perspective, scrutinizing the dismal record of U.S. responses to genocide, from Armenia in 1915 to Kosovo in 1999. Atrocities abroad have acted as a curious brand of political soporific; leaders have been shackled by a stupefying inability to confront genocide with the sort of urgency needed for meaningful intervention. Domestically, the lack of public pressure has left politicians with sufficient wiggle room to avoid action. The question of whether or not to...


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