'Why Can't We?' | The Nation


'Why Can't We?'

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

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...

Samantha Power delivered this commencement address to the graduates of
Santa Clara University Law School on May 20. This is the latest in The Nation's series Moral Compass, focusing on the spoken word.

About the Author

Samantha Power
Samantha Power is a Professor of Human Rights Practice at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Her book "A...

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.

So why am I standing before you today? Well, first, I don't know about you, but I have found many of the recent criticisms of US foreign policy as unconstructive as US foreign policy itself. Therefore, I'd feel like a slacker if I stayed buried in the archives, working on another book, when an occasion like this one offered me an opportunity to make some small contribution to an adult conversation about America's role in the world. But second, much more importantly, people actually listen to commencement speeches. It's the weirdest thing--they really do!

In 2002 I gave my first-ever commencement address at Swarthmore College. A Problem From Hell, which had struggled to find a publisher, had just come out. It had won no prizes and at that point it had been read only by my very large Irish Catholic family (accounting for thriving early sales, I might add). I was so nervous about the speech that the night before I couldn't even cure my butterflies with the age-old Irish remedy of multiple stiff drinks. I don't honestly remember much of what I said, and if I went back and read the speech today, it would make me cringe. But I know I called upon Swarthmore students to become "upstanders" rather than bystanders in their post-college lives. I survived the speech, hightailed it out of town and haven't been back to that campus since.

In 2004, around the ten-year anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda (a genocide in which 800,000 Rwandan Tutsi were exterminated), and a couple of years after my Swarthmore speech, a ragged trio of Swarthmore students showed up at my office in Cambridge. They had come to inform me that they had heard my graduation speech and they intended to apply its lessons with regard to the ongoing genocide in Darfur. If the lesson of the twentieth century was that the American people had abetted US governmental indifference to genocide, a 22-year-old senior named Mark Hanis told me, he and his friends would show Washington that the American people cared. If the lesson of the twentieth century was that states were quick to feed the victims of genocide by delivering humanitarian aid but unwilling to actually use force to stop the murders, he and his friends would raise money not for relief but to help pay for protection forces.

I was skeptical. But Stephanie Nyombayire, an 18-year-old Swarthmore freshman from Rwanda who had lost more than 100 members of her family in the genocide, put it to me simply: "Professor Power, if the genocidaires in my country were able to kill 1 million people in 100 days in 1994," she said, "why can't we students raise $1 million in 100 days?" Why can't we?

The students told me that their new, Swarthmore-based Genocide Intervention Fund would raise the money and write a check to the African Union, which had sent peacekeepers to Darfur, but which was seriously ill-equipped. The money would help them buy the flak jackets, helmets and fuel they needed to move around Darfur and protect civilians.

I looked at the students blankly. As a now-responsible adult, I was afraid to encourage their charge toward windmills, but I was not about to discourage them either. As I drove home from the cafe where the students had eventually pinned me down, Stephanie's question stayed with me: "Why can't we?" And then I remembered a commencement address I had heard at Yale the year before I graduated. The political cartoonist Gary Trudeau had spoken, and he had urged students to "ask the impertinent questions." His message had stuck with me. My message had somehow stuck with these Swarthmore kids. Damn, I thought, I'd like to give a few more of these commencement addresses. I hope somebody asks me. Thank you, Dean Polden...

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.