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She’s a true global thinker

Special to The Times

New York

“You go, girl!” It’s not what you usually hear shouted across tables on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and certainly not the kind of thing typically shouted at a social and political historian with a cause.

But when Pulitzer Prize winner Samantha Power walked into a restaurant after sharing a panel discussion with Christopher Hitchens, Anthony Lewis and Lewis Lapham -- public intellectuals who until now differed from Power not just in their testosterone but also in their fame -- the affirmation resounded from patrons.

Just last week, the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded its general nonfiction prize to Power’s first book, “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” The book tours through the last century’s outbursts of race and creed cleansing, from Turkey to the Holocaust to Cambodia to Rwanda to the Balkans, weaving together interviews with Washington lawmakers, millions of pages of declassified documents and Power’s own shrewd field reporting. It is a stunningly researched and critical account of the failure of the U.S. to confront global crimes against humanity.

The intense and verbose writer was a little stunned at winning the prize. “I’m floored,” she said. “I’m not sure that I have yet been able to internalize my name being issued with ‘Pulitzer’ in the same sentence. It will take a long, long time.”

But she believes the impact of the book will be far swifter. “I’m hoping that a whole milieu of civic and humanitarian journalism, even critical investigative journalism in this age of the sound bite, will be validated. I have to believe that more gates will swing open for serious reporting of serious issues. The accolades and acclaim for the book are reflective of a hunger in people for the exploration of these kinds of subjects.”

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She points out that the book is not just about the inhumanity of genocide, as it is so often characterized. “It is about individual responses and citizenship and leadership and our role in the world and the stories we tell ourselves to justify looking away,” said Powers.

“A Problem From Hell” is indeed a complex weaving of issues that, ultimately, boils down to the need for the U.S. to reassess the extent to which foreign citizens factor into its positions and policies.

“That’s what’s so great about the fall of Saddam Hussein. Now we can actually put our money and power where our might has been so far. We can demonstrate what we have claimed all along, that this war is about them,” she said, referring to the Iraqi people.

“The hard work is just beginning, in Iraq and also in restoring U.S. credibility as a global actor. I hope the book provides the spirit in which that can be done.”

Tall, with a mane of strawberry-blond hair and a face flecked with freckles, Power looks like the sort of woman who might suit up in Gore-Tex and command a ship through the Arctic or, clad in linen, stroll among African villagers (something she may yet do as her next project will look at AIDS in Africa). So, perhaps, it’s not surprising that the trajectory that led her to completion of the 584-page book is a bit of an adventure.

The native of Ireland moved to Georgia as a child. Her sharp mind brought her to Yale, though with no aspirations of becoming a social critic. Rather, Power dreamed of being a sportscaster. It was during a summer internship on the sports desk at an Atlanta CBS affiliate that Power’s life was changed by an image of horror on a TV screen. She was scribbling notes about a live Padres game when footage from the uprising in China’s Tiananmen Square broke the feed.

“I’ll never forget that sight -- all the cameras jostling, going to black and them coming back up with people screaming and swearing,” she remembers. “Suddenly, in that moment, I had a reaction that surprised me -- that I could care so much, that I could feel that impotent. Until that point, I wasn’t political at all,” she says.

After finishing her history major, Power accepted a fellowship at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, where she worked under mentor Mort Rosenbaum, whose work focused on the growing crisis in the Balkans. “It truly grabbed her. It was something to behold,” Rosenbaum says of his then-22-year-old charge. “She took it as seriously as anyone and she, in turn, had a great capacity to get people to take her seriously.”

Apparently so. Power one day marched into the office of the assigning editor of US News and World Report, which shared a building with the Carnegie Endowment. Without a writing clip to her name beyond college sports reporting, she asked if the magazine would send her to Croatia. Though Power didn’t get the answer she was hoping for -- the editor looked at her as if she were nuts, she says with a husky laugh -- she did get him to agree to answer her calls if she rang from the field.

That was enough to propel her on her own to the war-torn region, with no credentials or press contacts, but boundless ambition and concern about a place where, as she writes in the book, “picturesque parks had been transformed into cemeteries to accommodate the deluge of young arrivals.”

The editor did take her calls, and Power’s first published piece was a 600-word account filed from the center of the conflict. More stories followed and more publications. Soon, Power was the Economist’s special correspondent in the Balkans, and the New Republic was requesting report after report.

But a creeping, hideous feeling that her writing was doing nothing to truly ease the ghastly situation led her to return to the U.S. to attend Harvard Law School in the hopes that it would provide a more direct route to ending human rights abuses.

While there, she began the mammoth research project that would eventually be chiseled into her prizewinning book. But before the ink had dried on her diploma, the Kennedy School of Government had sponsored a Human Rights Center and placed her in the role of executive director. “I knew nothing about human rights, I just looked like an expert because I happened to care about the dead people and had the zeal of a scaredy-cat for what they were asking me to do,” she says with typical self-deprecation.

She took the position, and continued her research and writing. Her work was all-consuming and unrelenting. “Did I have a life? Ha! Sure, I spent all those years married to Lemkin,” she says, referring to her research on Raphael Lemkin, the Holocaust survivor who in 1944 coined the term “genocide” to give language to what he called “a crime without a name.”

Power’s views now influence not only her stable of mentors and friends -- including former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke and essayist and editor Leon Wieseltier -- but her book has also graced the nightstands of such leaders as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and spawned fervent public debate among such intellectuals as writer Tariq Ali and Hitchens.

Most recently, as she zigzags the country to speak to school groups and policy leaders, touching down in the Boston area once a week to teach at Harvard and sleep in her own bed, demand has grown for her thinking about foreign policy and human rights issues regarding Iraq. In the current conflict, as she believes is the case everywhere else in the world, “U.S. foreign policy should inject first-order concern for human rights into every policy decision,” she recently wrote in the New Republic.

But Power is also a staunch opponent of unilateralism. “Embedding U.S. power in an international system and demonstrating humility would be painful, unnatural steps for any empire, never mind the most potent empire in the history of mankind. But more pain now will mean far less pain later,” she wrote.


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