Early in her memoir, The Education of an Idealist, Samantha Power recounts her first assignment, in 1993, as a 23-year-old free-lance journalist covering the war in the Balkans, struggling to write her lead sentence, after more than a hundred drafts.
“I felt like the character Grand in Albert Camus’s The Plague, who, for the duration of the novel, obsessively tries to craft the ‘perfect’ sentence, as the plague kills off his neighbors.”
I must confess -- I've been through about a hundred drafts of my own, writing this piece as our 21st century plague rages. To get unstuck, I asked myself: What is the urgency of reading Samantha Power’s life story? What can, or must, we learn from the education of this idealist.
In her first book, A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, Power recounts arriving at the site of the “playground massacre,” in Sarajevo on a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1995. “If any event could have prepared a person to imagine evil,” she writes, “it should have been this one.” But it wasn’t.
One month later, Serb forces would round up and massacre seven thousand Bosnian Muslims. Power writes that she “was haunted … by my own failure to sound a proper early warning.”
“I could only imagine what I had already witnessed,” she writes. “It never dawned on me that General Mladic would or could systematically execute every last Muslim man and boy in his custody.”
That failure of imagination, that sickening feeling of “failing to sound a proper early warning,” would drive her to ask more questions – relentlessly.
After leaving Bosnia, as a student at Harvard Law School, she began an inquiry into the genocides of the twentieth century. What began as a 20 page paper grew to a 70 page paper, which led to more questions about why the U.S. had not done more in the past to stop genocide.
“Were there early warnings that mass killing was set to commence? How seriously were the warnings taken? By whom? … How and when did U.S. officials recognize that genocide was under way? Who inside or outside the U.S. government wanted to do what? What were the risks or costs? Who opposed them? Who prevailed.”
Power, who came to America from Dublin at the age of six with her Irish mother, says her inquiry was fueled, in part, by “an immigrant’s optimism.”
One of Power’s central findings in A Problem From Hell was that policymakers and journalists and citizens “are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil.”
And so, here we find ourselves today. Slow to imagine the worst. A failure of our leadership to heed early warnings -- to imagine what we have not experienced.
A Problem From Hell won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003, and would be Samantha Power’s entrée to the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama – and his entrée to her. As a key national security advisor to President Obama, Power would create the Atrocities Prevention Board, “the first White House-led structure tasked to react to early warnings of atrocities.”
“Every day,” Power writes in her memoir, “almost all of us find ourselves weighing whether we can or should do something to help others. We decide, on issues large and small, whether we will be bystanders or upstanders.”
Power’s weapon, as an upstander, is the weapon she had not yet mastered as a young journalist in Bosnia – the early warning siren – which she sounded loudly again this week in her New York Times op-ed entitled: This Won’t End For Anyone Until It Ends For Everyone. For those failing to imagine where this pandemic could lead, she writes:
“Covid-19 is poised to tear through poor, displaced and conflict-affected communities around the world. Three billion people are unable to wash their hands at home, making it impossible to follow sanitation protocols. Because clinics in these communities have few or no gloves, masks, coronavirus tests, ventilators (the entire country of South Sudan has four) or ability to isolate infected patients, the contagion will be exponentially more lethal than in the developed countries it is currently ravaging.”
When Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea in 2014, Power, as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., worked day and night to persuade Russia to withdraw its forces. Late one evening, the idealist mother explained to her five-year-old son, Declan, that she had made it clear to the Russians -- “just because Putin had big weapons did not mean he could take what belonged to other people.”
“Did it work , Mommy? Did Putin leave Crimea?”
”Not yet,” I said. But a Power never gives up, do we?”
“Never!” he said, his face bright with possibility .
“And tomorrow you can try again.”
Idealism can be contagious. That’s the hope.