To the Editor:
Samantha Power has done extraordinary work in chronicling the genocides of our time, and in exposing how the Western powers were complicit by their inaction.
However, in her review of four books on terrorism, especially Talal Asad’s “On Suicide Bombing” (July 29), she claims a moral distinction between “inadvertent” killing of civilians in bombings and “deliberate” targeting of civilians in suicide attacks. Her position is not only illogical, but (against her intention, I believe) makes it easier to justify such bombings.
She believes that “there is a moral difference between setting out to destroy as many civilians as possible and killing civilians unintentionally and reluctantly in pursuit of a military objective.” Of course, there’s a difference, but is there a “moral” difference? That is, can you say one action is more reprehensible than the other?
In countless news briefings, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, responding to reporters’ questions about civilian deaths in bombing, would say those deaths were “unintentional” or “inadvertent” or “accidental,” as if that disposed of the problem. In the Vietnam War, the massive deaths of civilians by bombing were justified in the same way by Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon and various generals.
These words are misleading because they assume an action is either “deliberate” or “unintentional.” There is something in between, for which the word is “inevitable.” If you engage in an action, like aerial bombing, in which you cannot possibly distinguish between combatants and civilians (as a former Air Force bombardier, I will attest to that), the deaths of civilians are inevitable, even if not “intentional.” Does that difference exonerate you morally?
The terrorism of the suicide bomber and the terrorism of aerial bombardment are indeed morally equivalent. To say otherwise (as either side might) is to give one moral superiority over the other, and thus serve to perpetuate the horrors of our time.
Responce to Zinn on Samantha Power
August, 27 2007
By Edward S. Herman
[Responce to Zinn’s letter to NYT’s]
Your first sentence in your reply on Samantha Power astounded me. Did you actually read her book? I’m pretty sure you never read my two pieces dealing with her. The long text item below is from a review of her work that I wrote in Z in 2004. You should also read the following: Edward S. Herman, “Richard Holbrooke, Samantha Power, and the ‘Worthy-Genocide’ Establishment” (Kafka Era Studies Number 5), ZNet, March 24, 2007
[part of review article on Power’s book}
The cruise missile left also adheres closely to the party line on genocide, which is why its members thrive in the New York Times and other establishment vehicles. This is true of Paul Berman, Michael Ignatieff and David Rieff, but I will focus here on Samantha Power, whose large volume on genocide, “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide won a Pulitzer prize, and who is currently the expert of choice on the subject in the mainstream media (and even in The Nation and on the Bill Moyers show).
Power never departs from the selectivity dictated by the establishment party line. That requires, first and foremost, simply ignoring cases of direct U.S. or U.S.-sponsored (or otherwise approved) genocide. Thus the Vietnam war, in which millions were directly killed by U.S. forces, does not show up in Power’s index or text. Guatemala, where there was a mass killing of as many as 100,000 Mayan Indians between 1978 and 1985, in what Amnesty International called “A Government Program of Political Murder,” but by a government installed and supported by the United States, also does not show up in Power’s index. Cambodia is of course included, but only for the second phase of the genocide—the first phase, from 1969-1975, in which the United States dropped some 500,000 tons of bombs on the Cambodian countryside and killed vast numbers, she fails to mention. On the Khmer Rouge genocide, Power says they killed 2 million, a figure widely cited after Jean Lacouture gave that number; his subsequent admission that this number was invented had no effect on its use, and it suits Power’s purpose.
A major U.S.-encouraged and supported genocide occurred in Indonesia in 1965-66 in which over 700,000 people were murdered. This genocide is not mentioned by Samantha Power and the names Indonesia and Suharto do not appear in her index. She also fails to mention West Papua, where Indonesia’s 40 years of murderous occupation would constitute genocide under her criteria, if carried out under different auspices. Power does refer to East Timor, with extreme brevity, saying that “In 1975, when its ally, the oil-producing, anti-Communist Indonesia, invaded East Timor, killing between 100,000 and 200,000 civilians, the United States looked away” (146-7). That exhausts her treatment of the subject, although the killings in East Timor involved a larger fraction of the population than in Cambodia, and the numbers killed were probably larger than the grand total for Bosnia and Kosovo, to which she devotes a large fraction of her book. She also misrepresents the U.S. role—it did not “look away,” it gave its approval, protected the aggression from any effective UN response (in his autobiography, then U.S. Ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan bragged about his effectiveness in protecting Indonesia from any UN action), and greatly increased its arms aid to Indonesia, thereby facilitating the genocide.
Power engages in a similar suppression and failure to recognize the U.S. role in her treatment of genocide in Iraq. She attends carefully and at length to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical warfare and killing of Kurds at Halabja and elsewhere, and she does discuss the U.S. failure to oppose and take any action against Saddam Hussein at this juncture. But she does not mention the diplomatic rapproachement with Saddam in the midst of his war with Iran in 1983, the active U.S. logistical support of Saddam during that war, and the U.S. approval of sales and transfers of chemical and biological weapons during the period in which he was using chemical weapons against the Kurds. She also doesn’t mention the active efforts by the United States and Britain to block UN actions that might have obstructed Saddam’s killings.
The killing of over a million Iraqis via the “sanctions of mass destruction,” more than were killed by all the weapons of mass destruction in history, according to John and Karl Mueller (“Sanctions of Mass Destruction,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999), was one of major genocides of the post-World War 2 era. It is unmentioned by Samantha Power. Again, the correlation between exclusion, U.S. responsibility, and the view that such killings were, in Madeleine Albright’s words, “worth it” from the standpoint of U.S. interests, is clear. There is a similar political basis for Power’s failure to include Israel’s low-intensity genocide of the Palestinians and South Africa’s “destructive engagement” with the frontline states in the 1980s, the latter with a death toll greatly exceeding all the deaths in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Neither Israel nor South Africa, both “constructively engaged” by the United States, show up in Power’s index.
Samantha Power’s conclusion is that the U.S. policy toward genocide has been very imperfect and needs reorientation, less opportunism, and greater vigor. For Power, the United States is the solution, not the problem. These conclusions and policy recommendations rest heavily on her spectacular bias in case selection: She simply bypasses those that are ideologically inconvenient, where the United States has arguably committed genocide (Vietnam, Cambodia 1969-75, Iraq 1991-2003), or has given genocidal processes positive support (Indonesia, West Papua, East Timor, Guatemala, Israel, and South Africa). Incorporating them into an analysis would lead to sharply different conclusions and policy agendas, such as calling upon the United States to simply stop doing it, or urging stronger global opposition to U.S. aggression and support of genocide, and proposing a much needed revolutionary change within the United States to remove the roots of its imperialistic and genocidal thrust. But the actual huge bias, nicely leavened by admissions of imperfections and need for improvement in U.S. policy, readily explains why Samantha Power is loved by the New York Times and won a Pulitzer prize for her masterpiece of evasion and apologetics for “our” genocides and call for a more aggressive pursuit of “theirs.”