Samantha Power
Baccalaureate Address, 1 June 2002


Thank you. This is an enourmous honor.

Ten years ago, I sat where you are sitting. Now, I stand here because somebody thought that what I had experienced and seen might move, affirm or inspire you. I'm not sure that these addresses can serve that function, but I will share with you a few experiences, and make a few humble pleas.

This is my first trip to your stunning campus. But it is not my first introduction to it. This college came to my attention as soon as I had entered what used to be known as the real world [until September 11 defied our concept of reality].

When you cobble together a career, you come across all kinds of people. Some stand out. Some stand up. Some stand back. And some, indeed, the vast majority, stand by. Again and again, I have been struck by the fact that those who have turned heads by standing up for what they believe in, have had their start on the Swarthmore campus.

Last week, nervous at the responsibility of this task, I went to see a few colleagues at Harvard for advice on how to prepare a baccalaureate address. One, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who has given hundreds such speeches, told me to relax and enjoy it. "These things are easy," he said, "you'll have a captive audience: they will be sleepy and probably quite hungover." Just as I was leaving his home, though, he asked me which university I was speaking at. When I told him Swarthmore, his complexion darkened. He said, "Oh, that's very different. Swarthmore is not Harvard. At Swarthmore, they will actually pay attention to what you say."

The testament to the seriousness of your purpose may well be my very presence here. My Class Day speaker at Yale was the humorist Calvin Trillin. You have chosen the much lesser-known Samantha Power, who will speak on genocide.

Duly psyched out by your reputations for intellectual rigor, let me say that when I graduated from college ten years ago today, though I was not especially rigorous, my graduating class did have a few things in common with yours: A man named George Bush was president. His arch enemy was Saddam Hussein. And because of a recent upsurge in ethnic violence, people had become nostalgic for the virtues of the Cold War.

Soon after graduation, I went to Berlin for six months to teach English. The Wall had recently fallen and east and west Berliners were getting reacquainted after decades of separation. But the city's most noticeable feature was, for the second time in a century, its refugees. This time, they weren't Jewish; they were Muslim: Bosnian Muslim.

I had never seen a refugee before. My parents are Irish, and I immigrated with them to America from Ireland at the age of nine. But refugees are very different from immigrants. The people who tumbled into Berlin were fleeing for their lives. They were filthy. They were needy. And they were angry. Many were reliving the horrors they had experienced: concentration camps, rape camps, little boys and girls picked off their bicycles by Sarajevo snipers. Yet these refugees caused me then to do only one thing: walk as quickly as I could in the other direction.

I saw only people I had no capacity to help. And very quickly, as a way of easing or preempting any sense of guilt, I told myself the same story that American politicians were using: Bosnia was "a problem from hell," I said, "we could never make these people like one another." "They" had been killing one another for centuries. If something is a problem from hell, it places little burden on outsiders to problem-solve.

I lacked something very important in those days: sight. In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison writes about the "peculiar disposition behind the whites of the eyes," a disposition that blinds us to injustice before us, that causes us to look through people. And we are never more prone to look away than when we don't want to face the implications of what we might see.

I returned to the United States to take up an internship in Washington. I happened to be assigned to work for an extraordinary man, named Mort Abramowitz. He had just left the US government after 35 years, and become president of a Washington think tank. Yet, despite having achieved the highest ranks of office, and despite all the career and bureaucratic incentives to look away, he had managed to retain his vision. For him, Bosnia was the singular moral challenge of the 1990s. Either we were going to stop genocide in Europe - a genocide we could watch on the nightly news - or we were going to legitimize terror and ethnic cleansing and send a powerful signal to dictators everywhere that the new world order was one that abetted genocide. I had found a shepard for life.

I had been a New York Times reader and could sketch what was going on in the Balkans, but I had read with glazed-eyes. Because Mort cared about Bosnia, and because I worked for him, I suddenly had to lose the glaze and focus. In so doing, I quickly came to realize what people who lived through the Holocaust had long said: there is knowledge, and then there is knowledge - knee-buckling knowledge, the kind that makes you cry or knocks the wind out of you. The kind that makes you shudder as you imagine someone you love similarly situated. Because I was tasked to learn, I could not avert my gaze. And because I learned, I was revolted. Revolted by the crimes but also by my country's refusal to stop them.

I was stuck. Anybody who got close to the issue was stuck. Once you knew, really knew, then you had lost your alibi. I still felt powerless to help, but the urgency of what I knew finally made me creative. I racked my brain for the contribution a well-meaning 22-year-old could make. Like many a liberal arts graduate, I lamented the fact that I had no skills. I had no medical training. I couldn't rebuild demolished houses. And I had only an intern's wages to give away. Then I remembered I had learned how to do one thing in college: I could write.

Remembering that led me to the first of many unreasonable leaps: Since I could write, I would move to Bosnia and become a journalist.

I called the UN headquarters in the former Yugoslavia and learned that to get accredited I needed a letter from a major western news outlet. Who did I know? Nobody. But the offices of US News and World Report were in the building where I worked. I marched downstairs and studied the name plates on the doors. When I came to the door marked "Chief of correspondents," I poked my head inside, mumbling something about wanting to cover the wars in the former Yugoslavia. The skeptic seated at his desk asked a few questions. What is your current job? "Uh. I'm an intern." I said. Your reporting experience? "I covered the Yale women's volleyball team for a season." Your language skills? "Bad Spanish." Your war experience? "The usual," I said. "I lived through a divorce as a child." Did I have a flak jacket? No, but, living in Washington, I had in fact just learned what a flak was: a press spokesman. I didn't understand why I would need a press spokesman's jacket to cover the war in Bosnia.

He was unimpressed. He said the magazine already had a correspondent in Europe who covered the Balkans. Undaunted, as I left, I asked him if he would take my collect phone calls if I telephoned from Bosnia with an idea. He shrugged and nodded. The meeting had been a disaster, but I left his office, pumped my fist in delight, and began packing for my two week vacation. Because I was determined, all I could hear then was what I wanted to hear: he would take my phone calls.

When I reached Bosnia, there was no shortage of news or feature stories. The chief of correspondents kept his word, took my phone calls, and eventually liked one of my ideas. In 1993, a year after graduating from Yale, US News published my first article, a 600-word box. Now having published one piece, I made a second unreasonable leap. I was sure I could become a full-time war correspondent. I called the Boston Globe. By then, I had managed to learn some of the lingo. Did they need a stringer? I asked. They weren't sure. They asked me to send them my best clip. My best clip? Hmmmm. Why I happened to have found just the one.

I lived in the former Yugoslavia for two years. I wrote something close to a million words for a variety of publications. Most crucially, in an elaborate game of smoke and mirrors, I managed to convince my mother I was living in relatively peaceful Croatia - and not Bosnia - until I had arrived home safely.

Parents, please rest easy, I am not here to encourage your children to run off to Afghanistan or Congo to become war correspondents, but I do think this tale reveals several lessons that are generalizable across passions and fields:

  • Find your shepards. People whose values and agendas you share can teach you a great deal - strategically and tactically. No matter how mundane your day-to-day tasks, if you associate yourself with principle, you will prosper.

  • Don't let your understanding of what is possible or realistic interfere with your understanding of what is desirable. Be unreasonable.

  • And don't underestimate what you have to offer. We are all generalists now. With the values that brought you to Swarthmore College, and the analytic skills and writing crafts they taught you here, you are equipped to do good.

I returned to the United States after the war in Bosnia in order to attend law school. I was frustrated with the powerlessness of the pen, and thought a legal education would give me a real skill - an ability to prosecute war criminals at the Hague. But I was distracted by something potent in American culture. Everywhere I went, I heard "never again." Steven Spielberg's "Shindler's List" had been a smash hit. The Holocaust Museum had opened on the Mall in Washington. College seminars were taught on the "lessons" of the singular crime of the twentieth century. But why, I wondered, had nobody applied those lessons to the atrocities of the 1990s: the systematic murder of 200,000 Bosnian civilians in Europe between 1992 and 1995 and the extermination of some 800,000 Rwandan Tutsi in 1994. Did Never Again simply mean "never again will Germans kill Jews in Europe between 1939 and 1945?"

I began researching American responses to genocide in the twentieth century. Surely, I reasoned, in order for this attitude to persist, there must have been some occasions where this country had mustered its resources to stop genocide in the past. But, it didn't take long for me to realize that the United States had never intervened to stop genocide. Indeed, we had rarely even condemned it while it occurred. The Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, Pol Pot's murder of two million Cambodians, Saddam Hussein's gassing of the Kurds, Bosnia, Rwanda. The list of twentieth century genocides was long. And we were bystanders again and again.

But the other thing I quickly discovered was that, in every case of genocide in the twentieth century, there were upstanders. People who defied logic, risked their careers and lives, and spoke up on behalf of distant victims. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew born in 1901, had tried in 1933 to get lawyers at the League of Nations to outlaw the crime of "race murder." He had been laughed out of the conference. "Lemkin," they said, "this crime that you describe takes place too seldom to legislate." Six years later, Hitler would invade Poland, and Lemkin would lose 49 members of his family in the Holocaust. In 1941, Lemkin, who had managed to escape Poland and eventually end up in the United States, heard a broadcast delivered by Winston Churchill in which the British Prime Minister said "We are in the presence of a crime without a name." Churchill was of course not talking about the extermination of the Jews. But Lemkin heard what he wanted to hear. He told himself that if, at that 1933 law conference, he had only had the right word to describe the systematic destruction of peoples, those lawyers would have listened to him. Maybe the Holocaust could have been averted. He thought he needed a word - a name - that would connote the ultimate moral imperative and thus trigger action. In 1944, having joined the War Department in Washington, Raphael Lemkin invented the word "genocide."

He then drafted the Genocide Convention, the first ever UN human rights treaty, which committed states to preventing and punishing genocide when it occurred. Lemkin hounded the delegates in the halls of the new United Nations, his briefcase bulging with gruesome case studies. The Mongols, the Japanese Catholics. The Armenians. The diplomats would run for cover at the sight of this disheveled, harried Holocaust survivor, coming after them, tie flapping, genocide story at the ready. In the end, probably as a way of getting rid of Lemkin, they agreed to vote for the law. The United States did too. The Genocide Convention passed the General Assembly unanimously in 1948, committing states to prevent and punish the "ultimate crime."

But the US Senate then refused to ratify the genocide ban. Today, in the interest of protecting US sovereignty, we refuse to ratify the treaty banning landmines, the treaty establishing an International Criminal Court, the treaty protecting the rights of the child. Back then, Southern Senators were afraid they would be accused of genocide for Jim Crowe laws or lynchings. The passive majority in this country would likely have favored ratification, but the vocal, isolationist minority carried the day. Lemkin died in 1959, alone and broken. Genocide raged on.

In 1967, William Proxmire, the idiosyncratic senator from Wisconsin, was shocked to learn that a genocide convention was still unratified. He stood up on the Senate floor and innocently pledged to give a speech a day until the convention passed - after all, who could be against preventing genocide, he asked? He thought it would take a year at most. Nineteen years, and 3,211 speeches later, Proxmire was still rising on the senate floor.

In 1988, the United States finally passed the Genocide Convention. But that same year Iraq's Saddam Hussein committed genocide against its Kurdish minority. Peter Galbraith, the son of the economist, who was a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, read in the New York Times about Saddam Hussein's chemical gas attacks against Kurds. The US was then aligned with Hussein, the enemy of our enemy, Iran. We gave Saddam $1 billion per year in credits to buy US goods. But Galbraith was unreasonable. Even though he knew Saddam was then prized as a strategic counterweight to Iran, he thought that gassing your own people should disqualify you from receiving US aid. He convinced Claiborne Pell and Jesse Helms, who happened to attend church with two Kurds, to support a sanctions package that would penalize Saddam for genocide, cutting off the generous US aid. But the bill was roundly defeated. The upstanders were overridden by the determined bystanders: the Reagan White House and the farm lobby.

American history is filled with loners like Lemkin, Proxmire, and Galbraith - loners who defy convention, loners who stand up when the herd stands by. These men did not succeed in any conventional way. Their efforts failed in the short term, and they were written off by the mainstream as "emotional" and "irrational."

What is extraordinary about the world you are about to enter is the way in which the values that define you now go unspoken. Indeed, if you speak about values, or make arguments about what is "the right thing to do," you may not get invited to the next meeting. The lingua franca of our world is not that of values, but of interests. Security interests, economic interests, institutional interests, career interests. Stopping genocide, advancing human rights, giving money to African health clinics so they can make a dent in treating and preventing AIDS, the greatest single pandemic of our time. We can all agree these are noble things to do, but, when the issue actually comes before us, in a world of limited resources, short-term interests trump. Issues that embody and advance our values tend not to qualify. Because so many decision-making bodies prize interests and discount our most cherished values, it is those who remind us of our principles that we are most afraid of, and that we most need to disparage.

This is not just true of those who try to stop genocide. It is true of any who take risks to advance what they believe in. Be warned: The upstanders usually feel like failures. And they often pay a hefty professional and personal price.

But look at what the men I mentioned eventually achieved.

  • The United States intervened with its Allies to set up a safe area for the Kurds in northern Iraq in 1991. They would likely not have done so if Peter Galbraith had not raised awareness in Washington about the plight of the Kurds in the sanctions debate three years before. Galbraith was also a prophet. He knew that stopping Saddam was not only the right thing to do; it was the wise thing to do. Sure enough, the chemicals that Saddam tested out against the Kurds are the very chemicals we are now afraid he will use against Americans.

  • The UN war crimes tribunal is now prosecuting Slobodan Milosevic for genocide. Milosevic would not be on trial today at the Hague if Lemkin had not invented the word genocide or drafted his convention.

  • It was the United States that took the lead in pressing Serbia to turn Milosevic over. It could not have done so if Proxmire had not prattled on for nineteen years to finally secure US ratification of the genocide convention.

You never know how what you do today will effect the world tomorrow. You have the power - with your sight and your voices - to cause ripples to flow. The impact of your actions will be measured later.

During World War II, Arthur Koestler described those frustrated few who spoke up in the newspapers and public meetings against Nazi atrocities as "Screamers." The Screamers succeeded in reaching listeners for a moment, Koestler wrote, only to watch them shake themselves "like puppies who have got their fur wet" and return to the blissful place of ignorance and uninvolvement. "You can convince them for an hour," Koestler noted, but then "their mental half-defense begins to work and in a week the shrug of incredulity has returned."

The Screamers often appear overly credulous and politically obtuse. But how many of us who look back at the twentieth century do not believe that Lemkin and Proxmire and Galbraith were right? How many of us do not believe that the presidents, senators, bureaucrats, journalists, and ordinary citizens who did nothing, choosing to look away rather than to face hard choices and wrenching moral dilemmas, were wrong? And how can something so clear in retrospect become so muddled at the time by rationalizations, institutional constraints, and a lack of imagination? How can it be that those who fight on behalf of these principles are the ones deemed unreasonable?

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

I wish you, Swarthmore's graduating class of 2002, all the best in the journey that lies ahead. And I pray that you join the ranks of the unreasonable.


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