Hey, we don’t want to ruin what’s left of your nice summer by bringing up the subject of genocide. But remember that Rwanda thing back in 1994? You know, that civil war somewhere over there in Central Africa, where 800,000 human beings shot, stabbed but mostly hacked each other to death with machetes and garden tools?

To most Americans, Rwanda was just another war being fought in some unknown, uncivilized corner of the Third or Fourth World by wretchedly poor people they’d never heard of or cared about. Instead of squabbling Somalian warlords, or Bosnians killing Croats, or Serbs murdering Albania Kosovars, though, in Rwanda it was Tutsi vs. Hutu. Or was it Hutsi vs. Tutu?

No matter. The slaughter in Rwanda – which an article in Atlantic Monthly dubs “the most efficient killing spree of the 20th century” – lasted only 100 days.

It was too politically or morally complicated for Americans to understand – much less to choose sides or get riled up about. No Tutsi Hollywood film stars appeared before Congress to plead for support.

Rwanda is ancient, sad history now. It’s been reduced to a handy metaphor for the failure of America and the modern civilized world, in general, to use its great power to act decisively and responsibly to stop an obvious case of genocide.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. And if you want to relive the awful events in Rwanda in gruesome detail, and understand why they were deliberately not prevented by U.S. officials, read the Atlantic Monthly’s “Bystanders to Genocide: Why the United States Let the Rwandan Tragedy Happen” by Samantha Power.

Whether you think America has the right or duty to intervene militarily in places like Kosovo or Haiti – even for the best-intended geopolitical or humanitarian reasons – Power’s chilling story is illuminating and depressing.

Based on three years of research and interviews, Power shows how the United States – mainly, the Clinton administration’s timid, over-calculating state department and a risk-averse Pentagon afraid of another Somalian fiasco – “did much more than fail to send troops.”

The U.S. “led a successful effort to remove most of the U.N. peacekeepers who were already in Rwanda. It aggressively worked to block the subsequent authorization of U.N. reinforcements.”

The U.S. government wouldn’t even use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that “were a crucial instrument in the coordination and perpetuation of the genocide,” Power says. More important, as 8,000 Rwandans were butchered on average each day, U.S. officials carefully “shunned the term ‘genocide'” because it would legally oblige the U.S. to act.

Power concludes that America’s non-intervention in Rwanda was not “a story of willful complicity with evil.” There was no domestic political pressure to do something in Rwanda and no strong leadership from the top – namely, Bill Clinton.

U.S. officials thought they were doing all they could – and should – do in a complicated world filled with competing crises, Power says. But 50 years after the Holocaust, her piece demonstrates that, as she says, “whatever their convictions about ‘never again,'” many U.S. officials “did allow genocide to happen.”

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