The twentieth century was arguably the bloodiest in modern history,
earning from one commentator the moniker of the Age of Barbarism. From
the Nazi genocide, to the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda, to the
"ethnically cleansed" areas of the former Yugoslavia, the twentieth
century was one of unprecedented horror for many.
Mass slaughter of civilians is, of course, much older than these
horrors. The modern world brought about by European expansionism, the
famed Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad once observed, is a time of
extraordinary unrecorded holocausts. How many of us, for instance, are
familiar with the deaths of upward of 10 million in the
Belgian-controlled Congo in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries? Or how about Australia's extermination of the indigenous
population of Tasmania? The decimation of inferior races in settler
colonies, brought about by Western imperialism and the associated
legitimizing ideologies, in fact, contends Sven Lindqvist in his
brilliant Exterminate All the Brutes, ostensibly laid the
groundwork for Hitler's crimes by creating particular habits of thought
and political precedents.
What was unique to the twentieth century--and thus the subtitle of
Samantha Power's very impressive "A Problem From Hell": America and
the Age of Genocide--was the invention of the very word "genocide"
and its establishment as a legal construct outlawing one of the most
egregious forms of state terror. That represents a great advancement in
the construction of international law and associated political and
juridical mechanisms, but the fact that genocide continues to occur and
to go unpunished speaks to the difficulties of giving life to a legal
While the parties most responsible for this shortcoming are those that
perpetrate genocide, Power focuses much of her opprobrium on the party
that is in her estimation best positioned to put an end to or at least
significantly curb such horror: the US government. "No US President has
ever made genocide prevention a priority," she writes, "and no US
President has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its
occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on."
The myriad horror stories of this age of genocide have many ugly
characters, several of whom Power profiles in her well written and
extensively documented book. But there are also many heroes, namely
those within and without the US government who have spoken the
proverbial truth to power with the goal of making Washington appreciate
or acknowledge--and thus take appropriate action--that genocide was
taking place in the various case studies that Power carefully details.
Perhaps the biggest hero in Power's book is Raphael Lemkin. A Polish Jew
who as a young boy had a fascination with the history of mass
slaughters, Lemkin became a lawyer and international legal scholar. He
set out to ban the destruction of ethnic, national or religious groups,
to end the national sovereignty-granted impunity of state actors
who perpetrate such atrocities and to insure universal jurisdiction for
Forced to flee his homeland when the Nazi army invaded in 1939, Lemkin
ended up in the United States soon thereafter. He worked indefatigably
to bring attention to and to record Hitler's extermination of Jews,
while urging Americans to do everything they could to put a stop to it.
At the same time, he endeavored to invent a word to characterize such
slaughters, one that, in Power's words, "would connote a practice so
horrid and so irreparable that the very utterance of the word would
galvanize all who heard it." When he coined the term "genocide" in 1944,
Western governments and political pundits quickly embraced it. This led
Lemkin to assume that actions to codify the term and fight the practices
comprehended in it would quickly follow. He soon learned that he had a
long fight on his hands--one that he waged incessantly until he died,
penniless, in 1959.
Before his demise, however, Lemkin saw the United Nations General
Assembly pass the genocide convention on December 9, 1948, the body's
first passage of a human rights treaty. And less than two years later,
the necessary twenty countries had ratified the convention, making it
international law. But he did not live to see the United States ratify
it, a necessary step, Lemkin thought, to insure its enforcement, given
American power. Indeed, it would not be until 1988 that the Senate did
so, but not before attaching a set of reservations, understandings and
declarations that insured that the United States itself could never be
charged with the crime, thus rendering American approval largely
The architects of the convention understood the danger of making
Hitler's crimes the standard by which to determine future genocides.
States must be able to identify as genocide acts aimed at destroying "in
whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group"--the
legal definition of the crime--well before they have the chance to reach
such a scale in order to trigger appropriate actions. (The convention
enjoins its signatories to take measures to prevent and punish the
crime.) Despite such intentions, the link between genocide and Hitler's
so-called Final Solution "would cause endless confusion for
policy-makers and ordinary people who assumed that genocide occurred
only where the perpetrator of atrocity could be shown, like Hitler, to
possess an intent to exterminate every last member of an ethnic,
national or religious group."
While the Hitler-standard problem did help to undermine effective
responses by American officials and opinion-makers to various
post-World War II genocides, there were other dilemmas as well,
including the difficulty of believing reports of horrific slaughter.
Even in the face of extensive and graphic media coverage, Power writes,
"American policymakers, journalists and citizens are extremely slow to
muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil." In addition, there
is a tendency to assume, before the fact, that the would-be perpetrators
of genocide are rational actors who will not engage in horrific terror;
that traditional diplomacy can resolve the crisis; and that civilians
who keep a low profile during the conflict will survive. At the same
time, cold geopolitical calculations underlie official reactions, and
they often spin the violence as two-sided, a result of age-old hatreds
and thus inevitable, while arguing that any type of serious intervention
would be futile and even counterproductive. Thus, not only does
Washington abstain from sending troops but it also takes very few steps
along a continuum of potential interventions to deter genocide.
This nonresponse, Power demonstrates, is not something unique to the
presidencies of George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton, who emerge looking
especially bad. It manifested itself to varying degrees in all the cases
she examines, beginning with the Ottoman Turks' slaughter of almost a
million Armenians in 1915. The United States under Woodrow
Wilson--despite being well informed of Turkey's crimes--did not support
the Allies' condemnation of Turkey's crimes against humanity, lest such
support undermine American neutrality. Disregarding the pleas of
Washington's ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, the Wilson Administration
refused even to issue a direct government-to-government appeal to cease
the killings or to pressure the Turkish authorities to allow
humanitarian aid deliveries to Armenians driven from their homes and on
the brink of starvation. For Power, Wilson's nonresponse "established
patterns that would be repeated."
But as Power illustrates, it was not simply that the United States did
nothing. Often Washington indirectly and directly aided the
genocidaires. In Cambodia, for example, the US bombing that
preceded Pol Pot's seizure of power "killed tens of thousands of
civilians." While horrific in its own right, "it also indirectly helped
give rise to a monstrous regime" responsible for the deaths of upwards
of an estimated 2 million Cambodians. And in the case of Iraq's
slaughter of the Kurds, the Reagan White House dismissed reports of
Saddam Hussein's gassings and other atrocities while maintaining aid to
his regime, preferring to maintain its unholy alliance with Iraq in its
war with Iran. The year after Saddam's forces decimated several thousand
Iraqi Kurdish villages and killed close to 100,000 Kurdish civilians
(1987-88), Washington, now under Bush Sr., actually doubled the
amount of agricultural credit it had been providing to Saddam's regime,
increasing it to more than $1 billion.
In other cases, the United States helped to undermine effective
international responses to genocide. Perhaps the most shameful case was
that involving the Clinton Administration during the 1994 slaughter in
Rwanda, which involved the killing of approximately 800,000 Tutsis and
moderate Hutus in the span of 100 days, making it the fastest, most
efficient killing spree of the twentieth century. Clinton, whom Power
inexplicably refers to as "a committed multilateralist," one with "faith
in the United Nations," did everything he could to avoid doing something
constructive. Throughout, and similar to their conduct through much of
the Serb-perpetrated atrocities in Bosnia, Administration officials
feigned ignorance of what was going on. US intelligence reports had
warned Washington of the likelihood of mass killings in Rwanda.
Nevertheless, Clinton refused Belgium's request to reinforce the small
UN peacekeeping mission to the country. And once the killing started,
the Administration denied almost until the end that genocide was taking
place, despite full knowledge to the contrary. To do otherwise would
have required that Washington take appropriate action. Instead, the
Administration insisted that UN peacekeepers withdraw from Rwanda and
then refused to authorize the deployment of a stronger UN force. It was
not until the Rwandan Patriotic Front had driven most of the
perpetrators out of the country and seized power in the capital that
Clinton ordered the closing of the Rwandan Embassy in Washington and the
seizure of its assets.
In her investigation, Power justifies her choice of case studies by two
key criteria: that each meets the terms of the 1948 genocide convention;
and that it presented the United States with the options for meaningful
diplomatic, economic, legal or military intervention. But as we shall
see, it is questionable whether all her cases satisfy the criteria.
In terms of the first, to suggest that what took place in Kosovo was a
genocide, or would have been had NATO not intervened, is a highly
contentious issue in the international legal and human rights community.
As for the Khmer Rouge, while they were guilty of killing large
percentages of the country's Muslim Chams, Vietnamese and Buddhist
monks, the bulk of their human targets were alleged political enemies.
In this regard, these killings would not form part of a genocide, at
least through the narrow criteria of the 1948 convention.
As Power explains, the architects of the genocide convention made the
explicit decision to exclude political groups--a move actively supported
by Lemkin. They did so in order to insure the support of many countries,
largely those of the Soviet bloc and some from Latin America as well,
that feared the inclusion of political groups would inhibit the ability
of states to suppress armed rebellions within their boundaries. It
appears that Lemkin was sympathetic to neither the underlying
assumptions nor the implications of such an argument but supported it
for pragmatic reasons--a position that Power seems to share. This might
explain why she has no problem including the horrors inflicted by the
Khmer Rouge under the general rubric of genocide. But given this more
flexible notion of what constitutes genocide, it begs the question of
why Power chose the cases she did in laying out her argument and ignored
other possible instances.
This question also relates to the second criterion for her choices,
namely that the United States had a variety of options available for
meaningful intervention. Here, Power is treading on even weaker ground
in some instances.
On Rwanda and Bosnia, Power makes her most convincing case that there
were concrete steps the United States could have taken that would have
had significant effects in lessening the bloodletting. In other
instances she examines, however, such as those of the Nazi and Khmer
Rouge holocausts, she is less convincing. Regarding Cambodia, for
example, she contends that the Khmer Rouge were less immune to outside
criticism than was claimed by American authorities. In this regard, she
argues that "bilateral denunciations by the United States may well have
had little effect on the Khmer Rouge's internal practices.
Unfortunately, because so few US officials spoke out publicly against
the genocide, we cannot know." In terms of the Nazis, Power appeals to
conventional wisdom and suggests that Washington could have done things
to prevent Hitler's crimes, but makes no serious effort to persuade the
reader or to engage the literature that has called such arguments into
question. As Peter Novick argues in his much-acclaimed The Holocaust
in American Life, the various ex post facto proposals for rescuing
Jews from Nazi clutches ignore what were very real constraints at the
time and often would have been of little practical use. Substantial
rescue efforts, Novick contends, would have had a marginal effect at
best. (Nevertheless, he asserts, it would have been worthwhile to carry
out the proposed actions; but they would have saved 1, or perhaps 2
percent at most, of those who died.)
Power applauds US action loudly in the case of Kosovo. Indeed, she
argues that hundreds of thousands of lives would have been lost had the
United States and its NATO allies not engaged in the bombing campaign
against the Serbs. She offers no substantiation for this claim. And, of
course, how could she? Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Kosovo
chapter, however, is that she does not engage any of the critiques put
forth by the likes of Noam Chomsky and other commentators--many writing
in this magazine--that there were alternatives to the NATO action, ones
that would have been consistent with international law and might have
actually lessened the killings and expulsions that increased
dramatically after the start of the bombing, to say nothing about its
effects on Serb civilians. At the very least, Power should have
presented and grappled with such arguments. Hardly anyone contends that
Milosevic & Co. were not capable and guilty of enormous brutality.
Indeed, Power graphically shows how Serb forces put this capacity to
horrific and massive use in Bosnia and the fatal consequences of the
failure of the West to acknowledge the bloodshed and respond
appropriately. In this regard, mass killings in Kosovo were arguably a
distinct possibility. But the question remains, Were there courses of
action other than that taken up by Washington and its NATO allies?
Power understandably feels outrage at international and, more
specifically, American inaction in the face of mass killing. With an
American audience in mind, she challenges the reader to do
something--whatever is in her power--to suppress and/or bring to justice
those responsible for the slaughter of innocents. She makes a compelling
case for a collective moral, as well as an international legal,
obligation for the US government to do so. But this also raises what is
perhaps the biggest problem with "A Problem From Hell": Even
though she acknowledges that the United States sometimes directly and
indirectly aids genocidal regimes, the overall effect of her examples
and the manner in which she frames the book is to situate Washington as
an outsider to such horrors. In the book's final pages, for example, she
asks, "Why does the United States stand so idly by?" In this sense,
Power's choice of cases is quite safe. Had she looked beyond the
parameters of the conventional and examined instances in which the
American role in mass slaughter has been less that of a bystander and
more that of a partner-in-crime perpetrator, her call for greater levels
of US intervention would seem at best unpersuasive and at worst
hypocritical and potentially dangerous. Three cases--those of Indonesia,
East Timor and Guatemala--illustrate this point.
Led by General Suharto, the Indonesian military and the civilian militia
that it armed and directed engaged in one of the worst bloodlettings of
the postwar era. Over the course of several months in 1965-66, they
slaughtered members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) along with
members of loosely affiliated organizations (women's groups, labor
unions, etc.). While Indonesia's holocaust does not meet the strict
guidelines of the genocide convention, the scale and nature of the
killing spree were undoubtedly genocide-like, similar to the bulk of the
Khmer Rouge's crimes in Cambodia. Amnesty International estimated "many
more than 1 million killed." The head of the Indonesian state security
system approximated the toll at half a million, with another 750,000
jailed or sent to concentration camps. The American political
establishment welcomed the slaughter and the emergence of Suharto's New
Order, with Time hailing it as "the West's best news for years in
The United States had effectively helped to lay the groundwork for the
military's seizure of power through its interference in Indonesian
affairs and support for the military over the years. Washington had also
long urged the military to move against the PKI. Accordingly, it
supplied weaponry and telecommunications equipment, as well as food and
other forms of aid, to the Indonesian Army in the early weeks of the
slaughter. The American embassy also provided the military with the
names of thousands of PKI cadres who were subsequently killed.
About ten years later, the Indonesian Frankenstein that Washington had
helped to create decided to invade Indonesia's tiny neighbor of East
Timor. Rather than just looking away, as Power incorrectly reports in
her one reference to East Timor, Washington aided and abetted an
international crime of aggression. While this has long been alleged, the
recent release of formerly classified documents by the Washington-based
National Security Archive now proves that then-President Gerald Ford and
Henry Kissinger, his foreign policy czar, gave Suharto the green light
for the December 7, 1975, invasion while meeting with him the previous
day. Over the following quarter-century, various US administrations
provided billions of dollars in weaponry, military training and economic
assistance to Jakarta during its more than two decades of occupation.
And in the early years of the slaughter, a time described by an
Australian government body as "indiscriminate killing on a scale
unprecedented in post-World War II history," Washington took
concerted steps to insure that the UN did not take effective action to
end Indonesia's annexation. The result was the death of well over
200,000 East Timorese, about one-third of the preinvasion population.
And, finally, Guatemala. There, more than 200,000, most of them
indigenous Mayans, lost their lives in the context of a brutal conflict
between a US-backed military oligarchy and a guerrilla force during the
1970s and '80s. The 1999 report of the internationally supported
Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification concluded that the
state was responsible for over 90 percent of the deaths and had
committed "acts of genocide." The commission also found that American
training of members of Guatemala's intelligence apparatus and officer
corps in counterinsurgency "had significant bearing on human rights
Because Samantha Power excludes cases like these from her analysis, she
seems to have little problem endorsing American global dominance and, on
the basis of such, calling for the United States to take the lead in
battling genocide. At the very end of an excellent chapter on the grisly
slaughter by Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica, for example, Power lets
Senator Bob Dole explain why the United States finally became involved
in helping to end the terror in Bosnia. "Because we happen to be the
leader of the world," Dole stated.
Clearly there is a problem with Washington taking the lead in fighting
something it has helped to perpetrate on numerous occasions, and for
which it has never atoned, apart from a halfhearted admission of
wrongdoing (but not an apology, by Clinton in the case of Guatemala).
Simply because the United States has been complicit in gross atrocities
in the past does not mean, of course, that it is therefore incapable of
doing good, if even for the wrong reasons. But it does mean that we
should remain extremely skeptical of American leadership on the global
stage. As the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict painfully
demonstrates, what Washington calls American leadership is, as often as
not, unilateralist, bullying, obstructionist. All of these manifest
themselves in Washington's acceptance of Israel's flouting of
international law regarding its ongoing occupation and dispossession of
the Palestinian people. The United States has long been a principal
obstacle to an internationally acceptable solution, and it has done what
it can to prevent a multilateral approach to resolving the conflict.
Such antipathy toward international law and political institutions means
that "genocide prevention" could turn out to be just another instrument
in Washington's empire-maintenance tool kit.
If one of the main objectives of Power's book is to get the United
States to take a more active role in ending mass slaughter, surely it
would seem to be more efficacious--as well as principled--to begin by
scrutinizing cases in which the United States has been directly
involved. In this regard, her appeal to the American political
establishment on the basis of morality and enlightened self-interest
(genocide, she argues, causes regional and international instability,
something bad for the United States) is ill conceived. Ending
Washington's role in the slaughter of innocents requires struggling
against American militarism and unilateralism, as well as against
Washington's refusal to submit to international security and legal
mechanisms that would have even a remote possibility of holding US
officials accountable. The US refusal to sign on to the recently
established International Criminal Court and to cooperate with efforts
by a number of countries to question Henry Kissinger regarding various
international crimes is merely the latest manifestation of such
This is not to suggest that if we could get the American house in order,
the world would be fine. As Power's book shows, there are plenty of
"evildoers" to go around. Something must be done to stop them, yes, but
it should be a truly international project. The best place to start is
at home, but not by first and foremost asking Washington to intercede
abroad. Demanding a US foreign policy consistent with international law
and human rights standards, as well as international accountability for
American officials who may have engaged in war crimes and crimes against
humanity, is the first step. Doing so will also increase the likelihood
of international cooperation in cases championed by Washington.
Finally, it is not obvious why mass killing that falls under the rubric
of genocide should be paramount in terms of international prevention and
adjudication. Power does not claim this explicitly, but it is a fair
conclusion to draw given that she does not discuss other terrible crimes
against humanity that result in massive loss of life. Why, for example,
should Serbian crimes in Bosnia be more worthy of scrutiny and demands
for accountability than, say, the US war against Vietnam, which caused
the deaths of 2-3 million civilians? In this regard, we must be
careful that the need to suppress and seek justice for genocide does not
prevent us from seeing all mass killings of civilians, no matter who
commits them, as unacceptable, and from acting accordingly.
"The original inspiration for The New Intifada," explains Roane
Carey in his foreword to this volume, "arose out of disgust at the
mainstream media's consistent misrepresentation of the basic facts of
this uprising." To "correct the balance," Carey, The Nation's
copy chief, assembled an impressive array of essays for this collection,
which aims to illuminate the myriad failings of the Oslo Agreements,
describe the struggles of the current peace movement, deconstruct the
media coverage of the Middle East and reveal the experiences of
Palestinians living under Israeli occupation before and during this new
Palestinians, Israelis, Americans and others ("voices rarely tolerated
in the US media") have contributed to this volume; some are well-known,
like Edward Said, Noam Chomsky and Robert Fisk, while others are less
so, though no less important. Harvard research associate Sara Roy writes
about the Palestinian economy, which, compared with those of other
states in the region, is weaker now than it was in 1967. Egyptian
novelist Ahdaf Soueif shares a diary of her first visit to Israel, a
place she never intended to go: "My life," she writes, "like the life of
every Egyptian of my generation, has been overcast by the shadow of
Israel." Photographs separate the sections of The New Intifada,
and give a sense of the devastated landscape and people this book brings
In an essay from 2000 reprinted here, Said asks, "Why is it that more
Israelis do not realize--as some already have--that a policy of
brutality against Arabs in a part of the world containing 300 million
Arabs and 1.2 billion Muslims will not make the Jewish state more
secure?" Despite the efforts of Carey, his contributors and others, a
year and a half later, the question still stands.
One year after the story broke that a Navy SEAL team under his command
was involved in an atrocity during the Vietnam War, former Nebraska
Senator Bob Kerrey stood before a packed hall in lower Manhattan as the
keynote speaker at a three-day conference on human rights. The
conference--"International Justice, War Crimes & Terrorism: the
U.S. Record"--took place at New School University, where Kerrey is
president, and grew out of Kerrey's own suggestion that his experience
in Vietnam be turned into an "educational moment." On hand were an array
of prominent writers (David Rieff, Samantha Power), advocates (Aryeh
Neier, president of the Open Society Institute), public officials
(former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke) and judges (Richard Goldstone,
former chief prosecutor at the international criminal tribunals for the
former Yugoslavia and Rwanda).
But while the conference featured lively panel discussions on important
subjects like prosecuting war crimes and responding to terrorism, Kerrey
was noticeably cagey when it came to discussing how his own experience
might shed light on America's culpability for human rights violations in
Vietnam. "When I said I hoped to turn my revelations last spring into an
educational moment," he announced, "I did not intend to meekly submit to
cross-examinations or self-indulgent one-sided criticism of US foreign
policy during the war in Vietnam."
Fair enough, but that is hardly what has happened in the year since
Gregory Vistica's excellent article on the incident involving Kerrey's
Navy SEAL unit appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Vistica
presented two conflicting versions of the incident in question.
According to Kerrey and five other platoon members, a group of
Vietnamese civilians was inadvertently killed following an exchange of
fire in the village of Thanh Phong, where US commandos were searching
for a representative of the National Liberation Front. According to the
more damning account of former Navy Seal Gerhard Klann, however--a
version corroborated by several Vietnamese survivors--roughly a dozen
women and children were lined up and executed at close range that night.
Five more civilians were killed at knife-point before the team had
reached the village.
When the story first appeared, the charges were deemed serious enough
that Human Rights Watch called on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for
an "urgent, thorough and independent inquiry" of the case. "For the US
to ignore allegations of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions as
have been made in this case would seriously undermine efforts around the
world to enforce these essential standards," the organization stated.
Twelve months later, all talk of investigating the Kerrey incident has
evaporated. Kerrey, meanwhile, has continued to preside over the New
School, a university with a proud progressive history that has found
itself enmeshed in moral and political controversy. Dismayed that Kerrey
never told school officials about the operation until the story made
international headlines, the Graduate Faculty Student Union called for
him to step down. But the Board of Trustees stuck by him, and the
faculty wavered, issuing a statement that Kerrey's public acknowledgment
should serve as an occasion for the United States "to consider its own
record in Vietnam against the standards it imposes elsewhere."
At least some faculty members are now regretting that decision, for the
controversy about Kerrey's past has been compounded by growing rancor
over his vision of the New School's future. In March, Kenneth Prewitt,
the popular dean of the school's vaunted Graduate Faculty of Political
and Social Science, resigned after concluding that "the emphasis was on
revenue flows rather than building academic excellence." At a public
forum in March, Prewitt revealed that at one point a provost suggested
awarding cash bonuses to deans who increased the number of
tuition-paying students in their divisions, a notion Kerrey admitted was
his own "bad idea." Other faculty members believe Kerrey has not been
straightforward about the future of the university's core division, the
Graduate Faculty. In March the GF was informed it would have to cut its
budget by $5 million to become self-sustaining (virtually all doctoral
programs rely on subsidies from other divisions to stay afloat). When
Kerrey was questioned about his plans in the Times, he reversed course,
indicating that the subsidy might actually increase. At a faculty dinner
two nights later, an associate dean who asked whether this was true was
reportedly told by Kerrey not to believe everything he read in the
Such lack of forthrightness is reminiscent of Kerrey's handling of the
Vietnam story. When Klann's account first appeared, after all, Kerrey
did not flat-out deny it ("I'm not going to make this worse by
questioning somebody else's memory"), but he accused the media of
"collaborating" with those who want to believe the worst about America.
He expressed anguish and regret ("If I'd have lost both arms and both
legs and my sight and my hearing, it wouldn't have been as much as I
lost that night"). But he hired public relations adviser John
Scanlon--who orchestrated the campaign against tobacco industry
whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (and has since died)--to spin the story.
In his keynote address, Kerrey did advocate more thorough training of US
troops in the laws of war, but he also complained that critics who harp
on Vietnam have made America excessively cautious about using force
Perhaps we should expect nothing different from a public figure whose
reputation is his livelihood. But many people do expect more from the
New School. "I really question the wisdom of the university leaders
here," said John Kim, an army veteran who attended the conference and
heads the New York chapter of Veterans for Peace. "If he had come out
openly and admitted his wrongdoing and apologized to the victims, I
would support him. But I think the trustees and students and faculty
should demand his resignation until there is an independent
investigation or he comes forward with a full admission of his role."
(Sung to the tune of "The Farmer and the Cowman" from Oklahoma!)
The Saudis and their oil rigs are our friends.
Oh, the Saudis and their oil rigs are our friends.
They can bomb us when they please, we need gas for SUVs.
We're infidels, but we can make amends.
Petrobusiness pals must stick together.
All the guzzlers' gas tanks must be filled.
We'll protect the Saudis' border
While they preach we should be killed.
They teach their kids the Protocols of Zion.
It's jail for women if their hair is showing.
They say that we're corrupt and that we're wicked.
We say, "Whatever. Keep that petrol flowing."
Petrobusiness pals must stick together.
All the guzzlers' gas tanks must be filled.
We'll protect the Saudis' border
While they preach we should be killed.
The Jenin refugee camp's jagged concrete hillside of
homes-turned-into-graves has yet to yield all its secrets.
The numbers and diversity of the April 20 protests in Washington
represented a giant step forward for the antiwar movement. The weekend's
events dealt a lethal blow to the notion--stoked by media and government
alike--that all Americans uncritically support George W. Bush's policies
and value Israeli lives more than those of Palestinians.
That morning activists held two antiwar rallies, each of which drew
thousands, almost within sight of each other. One, organized by ANSWER
(Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), was on the Ellipse, near the White
House. The other, sponsored by the National Youth and Student Peace
Coalition (NYSPC), among others, and perhaps misnamed "United We March,"
was held at the Washington Monument. Meanwhile, the Committee in
Solidarity for the People of Palestine protested the meeting of the
American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) at the Washington
Hilton, while the Mobilization for Global Justice and numerous
anarchists protested the IMF/World Bank meetings.
In the afternoon, all the morning rallies converged in a march. "In the
end," said Erica Smiley of the Black Radical Congress Youth Caucus, "we
realized we were all fighting the same thing." That march ended in a
rally by the Capitol of 50,000 to 80,000 protesters by several
organizers' estimates, the largest pro-Palestinian gathering ever in the
United States. Middle Eastern families--women in headscarves, strollers
in tow--marched alongside pink-haired, pierced 19-year-olds. Samir
Haleem, a Palestinian-American veteran who wore a Palestinian kaffiyeh
and carried an American flag, said, "We have never seen so much support
for Palestine in this country. Today is a beautiful day."
The afternoon's unity was a triumph over deep divisions, which at first
glance looked like symptoms of that old left affliction, the narcissism
of small differences. While the various groups had originally been
planning events on different days in April, ANSWER moved its event to
April 20 to avoid the turnout disaster of competing marches. Why not,
then, hold one big rally and march? Student organizers cited many
reasons for their desire to maintain independence from ANSWER, including
the group's politics (it is closely related to the Workers World Party),
its undemocratic structure and its reputation for unattractive behavior,
including taking credit for work done by others. ANSWER organizers, for
their part, felt the student coalition was too slow to take up the
Jessie Duvall, a recent Wesleyan graduate who was organizing the NYSPC
rally, said diplomatically that the separation of the two rallies was
"important for the integrity of both coalitions." ANSWER's rally--and
pre-rally publicity--focused entirely on Palestinian solidarity, and it
drew thousands of Middle Eastern immigrants, many of whom came on buses
sponsored by their mosques. By contrast, while most speakers at United
We March addressed the plight of the Palestinians, the pre-rally
publicity emphasized the coalition's founding concerns: Bush's "war on
the world" and its effects at home, particularly on students and young
people, who dominated the crowd.
The students' fears about ANSWER turned out to have been well founded.
"I'll make a deal with you," said an ANSWER organizer at the Capitol
rally to Terra Lawson-Remer of Students Transforming and Resisting
Corporations (STARC), who was coordinating media outreach for the NSYPC
event. "We won't play the Mumia tape again"--ANSWER had already
broadcast a taped speech by Mumia at the Ellipse--"if you'll tell the
press we had 150,000 people here." Lawson-Remer was in a bind; she
didn't want them to carry out this threat, but she believed the turnout
was in the 50,000 to 75,000 range. The ANSWER organizers pressed the
point, arguing that whatever they said, the media would report fewer.
This was not a difference of opinion about the truth. "It's not about
accuracy. It's about politics. It's not about counting," said ANSWER's
Tony Murphy condescendingly. "It's us against them. [The pro-Israel]
demonstrators had 100,000 here last week." (Responding to a web version
of this article, ANSWER's legal counsel called this account a
"disgusting fabrication," but I can attest to its accuracy because I was
ANSWER is notorious for inflating its demonstration numbers--and
clearly, its organizers don't play well with others. Yet they are also
very good at calling a rally on the right issue at the right time and
publicizing it widely. Both coalitions played an essential role in
attracting very different constituencies, and turnout far exceeded
expectations. Organizers on both sides acknowledge that working together
was difficult, and neither looks forward to doing it again. But to build
on April 20's momentum, activists may have to live with such alliances
and, of course, enter into others.
Organized labor's absence from the weekend's events was hardly
surprising; most of the events were antiwar in focus, and the mainstream
labor movement supports George W. Bush's foreign policies. But in
September, when anti-IMF/World Bank activists plan a large-scale protest
around those institutions' meetings, labor and globalization radicals
will have to work together.
The weekend also highlighted the growing Palestinian solidarity
movement's need to distance itself from the anti-Semitism of its most
ignorant adherents. STARC's Lawson-Remer, who is Jewish, says of some
pro-Palestinian activists: "Their attitude toward me makes them as bad
as Bush." In the middle of our conversation, I looked up and saw a sign
that said "Chosen People": It's Payback Time. Some demonstrators' signs
bore swastikas and SS symbols--intended to draw parallels between Hitler
and Sharon, but easily construed as pro-Nazi.
Given these problems, the presence of Jewish protesters who stressed
their own identity was all the more important. On Monday evening, when
some 4,000 people gathered to protest the AIPAC meeting (addressed by
Sharon via satellite), many carried signs with messages like Jews
Against the Occupation and I Am Jewish and AIPAC Does Not Speak for Me.
Despite the squabbling and the dearth of media coverage, the success of
A20 should be heartening to the antiwar movement. Lawson-Remer says,
"This is such a demonstration that the consensus is not what they say it
is." Marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, Latifa Hamad, a middle-aged
Palestinian woman wearing traditional head-to-toe coverings agreed,
saying simply, "We needed something good."
Nothing is more to be despised, in a time of crisis, than the affectation of "evenhandedness." But there are two very nasty delusions and euphemisms gaining ground at present. The first of these is that suicide bombing is a response to despair, and the second is that Sharon's policy is a riposte to suicide bombing.
Earthquake. Cataclysm. Electroshock. The 9/11 of French politics.
These were the recurring terms that established political leaders of
both left and right used to characterize the April 21 presidential
elections in France--in which nearly one in five voters cast
their lot with the two neofascist parties of the extreme right, and
racist National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen edged past Socialist
Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to become the sole candidate against
conservative President Jacques Chirac in the May 5 runoff. How did it
With opinion polls showing throughout the campaign that between
two-thirds and three-quarters of the electorate could find no difference
between the programs proposed by Chirac and Jospin, the elections
represented a stunning rejection of the French political establishment.
Roughly a third of the electorate (28.8 percent) abstained--a record in
France--or cast blank ballots. Only half of those who did vote supported
the governing parties of the traditional left and right. The rest voted
for one of the protest candidates in the field of sixteen, including
three Trotskyists; a candidate claiming to represent the interests of
rural France; an antihomosexual demagogue of the Catholic right; and the
two neofascists, Le Pen (who got 16.9 percent) and Bruno Megret (the
former Le Pen lieutenant whose tiny MNR Party got 2.35 percent). Thus,
two-thirds of the voters rejected the perceived stasis of politics as
It's important to remember that these elections took place against the
backdrop of the ongoing, hydra-headed political corruption scandals
making headlines for a decade, which have revealed that all the major
parties with the exception of the Greens--the Socialists and Communists
as well as the conservatives--were involved in highly organized systems
of bribes and kickbacks on the letting of government contracts, with
secret corporate contributions, laundered money and Swiss bank accounts.
In this context of massive voter alienation, it is the defeat of the
governing left that stands out. Only 195,000 votes separated Le Pen from
Jospin, but as Serge July editorialized in Libération,
"the left defeated the left." A bit of history: When the Socialist
Jospin--with the support of the Greens, the Communists and two tiny left
parties--lost the 1995 presidential runoff to Chirac, he obtained 44
percent of the vote, which represented the maximum strength of the
united left. After leading his "plural left" coalition to victory in the
1997 parliamentary elections, Jospin as prime minister dedicated himself
to finding the 6 percent of votes he needed to eventually win the
presidency by governing to the center-right on economic matters.
Jospin's austere, technocratic style of governance created legions of
the disaffected among "le peuple de gauche" (the left-identified
electorate), all the more so when he appeared impotent in the face of
industrial plant closings by multinationals with rich profit margins,
which threw tens of thousands of workers into the streets. Le Pen, who
blames the immigrants for unemployment and high taxes, got twice as many
working-class votes as Jospin did this time around, according to exit
polls. Jospin, who proclaimed early this year that his was "not a
Socialist program," was further undercut when the two most significant
Trotskyist candidates garnered a surprising 10 percent of the vote.
Chirac succeeded in making "insecurity"--the French code-word for crime,
blamed largely on immigrants--the central issue of the campaign, and
Jospin played into voters' fears on this issue by repeatedly claiming
that Chirac had "copied my program." Both Chirac and Jospin thus
legitimized the central discourse of Le Pen, whose law-and-order
immigrant-bashing has long been his staple stock in trade; and, as Le
Pen never stopped proclaiming, many voters "prefer the original to the
photocopy." September 11 only heightened fear of the immigrant Arab
population, as did the recent wave of violent anti-Semitic incidents by
French-Arab delinquents in the wake of the Israeli war in Palestine (303
in March alone). Le Pen's victory reflected the growing, Continent-wide
wave of racism that has led to startling breakthroughs by the xenophobic
extreme right, whose parties now participate in the governments of
Italy, Denmark, Portugal and Austria.
Although the parties of the French "plural left" lost 1.5 million votes
this time compared with their 1995 first round score, the traditional
right lost more: 3,846,000. France's president is relatively powerless,
and the real test of political strength will come in the two-stage
parliamentary elections on June 9 and 16. The left could well win these
elections if the National Front achieves the 12.5 percent
district-by-district threshold to stay on the ballot in the second round
of voting and divides the conservative vote. The Communists and the
Greens have already agreed to join the Socialists in supporting united
candidacies of the left in swing districts. Many of those who cast
protest votes for the Trotskyists to pressure the "plural left" back to
the left will return to the fold and support them. Meanwhile, Chirac has
just created a new formation, the Union for a Presidential Majority, to
run unified conservative candidates in June--but so far two smaller
parties in Chirac's coalition (they got 10 percent of the vote in the
presidential first round) are balking at joining. Whoever wins in June,
the incoming government will have to work creatively to heal the social
and racial fracture the presidential election revealed--and to stop the
racist virus from spreading even further.
As Afghanistan struggles to recover, the United States prepares to move on.
Hostility to the Palestinians has all but evaporated, thanks to Sharon's war.