I’m always a little surprised to be asked to be a commencement speaker. It is clear from your roster of past speakers that you could have lined up an Attorney General or a Cabinet Secretary to help you usher in your post-law school lives. But inexplicably you chose me: a woman who was a decidedly average student in law school, who never took the bar exam and who, despite shelling out 100,000 bucks, still can’t quite decide what she wants to do with her life. I can’t imagine why, after your three years in law school, any of you would identify with these particular qualities…
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love occasions like this one. Partly that’s because I’ve always liked to be the center of attention. This is a pretty obnoxious quality, and one that I can’t even blame on the travails of my childhood, as my overtherapized generation has been taught to do. In 1975, when I was just 5, my mother–a remarkable lady who had spent the previous three years playing world-caliber squash and attending medical school, while supporting me, my kid brother and my father–arrived home and proudly showed me and my dad her home-typed finished medical thesis, which in Ireland you needed in order to get an MD. She had just received the thesis back from the binder and she intended to deliver it to her committee the following morning. She placed the manuscript on the kitchen table, put me to bed and slept only fitfully, anticipating the sense of satisfaction that would come from delivering a product she had toiled over for so long. When she entered the kitchen the following morning and spotted her blue-bound thesis, however, she was horrified. Although the manuscript had not budged, it now bore a luminous scrawl, which in large orange crayon letters announced: “samantha power did this!!” My mother was remarkably understanding. Indeed, when my book on American responses to genocide, A Problem From Hell, was published in 2002, she referred to it as “my daughter’s second book.”
A Problem From Hell began as a paper for a class I took in law school. Its publication changed my life. Unfortunately, my aim in writing the book had never been to change my life. I had set out, far more humbly, to transform the way the United States conducted its foreign policy around the world. So, when the book started gaining momentum and people around the country began offering me a platform to discuss American foreign policy, I rode the wave of enthusiasm for A Problem From Hell and seized every opportunity I could–in blue and red states alike–to promote the central idea within it. That idea, incidentally, is that if the shapers of US foreign policy looked out for the human consequences of their decisions, the world and the United States would be far better off. In 2003 alone, I probably spoke to 200 classrooms, editorial boards, churches, synagogues and chambers of commerce.
But one day in 2004, after two years nonstop on the road, I decided that the time had come for me to retire from public speaking. As a garlic-breathed airport security guard gave me a particularly intrusive pat-down at Kennedy Airport, several thoughts flashed in my mind at once. First–and this definitely falls into the category of “more detail than you need”–I was on the move so much that security guard gropes were all that was passing for intimacy in my life. Second, I was talking so much that I had stopped learning. And third, none of my yammering was making the US government even a tad more willing to act morally abroad. We had invaded Iraq, which was falling to bits; our soldiers and guards had been revealed to be torturing detainees and, despite the pattern of abuse, only minor “bad apples” were being punished; and the Sudanese province of Darfur was on fire, literally, and nobody was doing a damn thing about it. By the time I had retrieved my laptop, my belt and my shoes from the X-ray machine at Kennedy, I had decided it was time to go underground. To read, to learn and, eventually, to write.