Q+A: Sa­man­tha Power on her friend­ship with Elie Wiesel.

Part 2 in a se­ries about SA­MAN­THA POWER & ELIE WIESEL

Forward Magazine - - Contents -

A Pulitzer Prize-win­ning au­thor and aca­demic turned diplo­mat, Sa­man­tha Power is best known for her ef­forts to bring her work high­light­ing geno­cide prevention onto the na­tional and global stage.

Power is now writ­ing about her ex­pe­ri­ences from a perch at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, after con­clud­ing in Jan­uary a tu­mul­tuous four years as the United States am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions. Ac­tive in Barack Obama’s first pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, she served on the 2008 tran­si­tion team and then as se­nior di­rec­tor of mul­ti­lat­eral af­fairs and hu­man rights for the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil be­fore rep­re­sent­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in Tur­tle Bay.

A na­tive of Ireland, Power, 47, grew close to the late Elie Wiesel through their com­mon in­ter­est in geno­cide prevention; she wrote the new in­tro­duc­tion to Wiesel’s “Night,” which was pub­lished this fall and ex­cerpted in our Septem­ber magazine. She spoke to the For­ward’s ed­i­tor-in-chief, Jane Eis­ner, from Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts, about her friend­ship with Wiesel, why he’d be on a plane to Juba if he were still alive, and why Twit­ter is some­times bad for her health.

(This in­ter­view has been edited for space and clar­ity.)

JANE EIS­NER: The first of­fi­cial din­ner you hosted in your home after you be­came U.S. am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions was in honor of Elie Wiesel. Why did you choose to honor him then?

SA­MAN­THA POWER: What any­one who works in gov­ern­ment and at the U.N. ex­pe­ri­ences very quickly is how ab­stract the suf­fer­ing of

oth­ers can be when you are talk­ing about it in a win­dow­less room, when you are de­bat­ing thou­sands of miles away from the peo­ple who are af­fected by your de­ci­sions. And for me, and tens of mil­lions of peo­ple, Elie al­ways found a way to get real. He al­ways found a way to cut through jar­gon or make you feel em­bar­rassed by your own ab­strac­tions.

There’s no thinker or writer or per­son who has had more in­flu­ence on my moral un­der­stand­ing than Elie Wiesel, and I found my­self and my fam­ily sud­denly res­i­dent at the Wal­dorf As­to­ria, [the of­fi­cial res­i­dence of the U.N. am­bas­sador], and I thought what a won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity to pay trib­ute to a gi­ant.

Tell us about your re­la­tion­ship. When did you go from be­ing pro­fes­sion­als with a shared in­ter­est in pre­vent­ing geno­cide to es­tab­lish­ing a friend­ship?

I first got in­tro­duced to Elie and his life as a kid, like so many mil­lions of chil­dren do, read­ing his story. An Ir­ish im­mi­grant, I read “Night” for the first time in high school in At­lanta, Ge­or­gia. I never dreamed that I would ever meet the man, never mind de­velop a friend­ship with him. I con­sider it the bless­ing of a life­time that our re­la­tion­ship de­vel­oped over time.

I wrote “A Prob­lem From Hell,” my book on Amer­i­can re­sponses to geno­cide, and after I fin­ished it, I sought him out. He was some­one who kept pop­ping up in its pages as an ad­vo­cate when it mat­tered most. As I looked into Cam­bo­dia, Sad­dam Hus­sein, Bos­nia, Bit­burg, there was Elie Wiesel. Again and again he made him­self a his­toric voice, and an ex­tremely rel­e­vant voice, when is­sues of great moral mag­ni­tude were hang­ing in the bal­ance.

So I sought him out, and he was kind enough not to hate the book I had writ­ten! There is no greater ter­ror than send­ing off your bat­tered man­u­script, six years of work, to some­one who ap­pears re­peat­edly in the book, and also to some­one who has been such a foun­da­tional in­spi­ra­tion for the sen­si­bil­ity that gave rise to the ques­tion at its heart: Why are we by­standers in the face of geno­cide? In the wake of this first meet­ing, we be­gan a cor­re­spon­dence.

Soon there­after, the geno­cide in Dar­fur, Su­dan, oc­curred. And Elie, to his eter­nal credit and in keep­ing with how he had lived his life for decades, made him­self a public voice for ac­tion to try to help those peo­ple who were be­ing slaugh­tered in Dar­fur. We worked to­gether to press the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to do more, and we spoke at ral­lies in Wash­ing­ton and at ad­vo­cacy events in New York.

That pe­riod was quite grat­i­fy­ing for him — not be­cause there was any sil­ver bul­let to Dar­fur but be­cause what he saw across the U.S. was a burst of ac­tivism by young peo­ple on col­lege cam­puses who de­manded that the prin­ci­ple of “Never again” be brought to life.

In your fore­word to the new edi­tion of “Night,” you talk about be­ing haunted by Moishe the Bea­dle, an odd char­ac­ter from Wiesel’s town who tries to warn peo­ple about the Nazis, to no avail. Is there a Moishe the Bea­dle on the world stage to­day, who is try­ing to warn us of an im­pend­ing tragedy?

We all have these mo­ments where injustice is brought to us. It can be or­di­nary injustice, or it can be injustice on an epic scale, like Moishe the Bea­dle tried to con­vey. It’s tempt­ing not to be­lieve, or to be­lieve and not to fully process, to keep hor­ri­ble or in­con­ve­nient in­for­ma­tion at re­move.

I think of “Cae­sar,” the code name of the Syr­ian pho­tog­ra­pher who smug­gled out thou­sands of graphic photos [taken from 2011 to 2013] of Syr­ian pris­on­ers who had been sys­tem­at­i­cally tor­tured by the As­sad regime. Some peo­ple didn’t be­lieve him; oth­ers be­lieved, but pushed the in­for­ma­tion away. Amid the chal­lenges as­so­ci­ated with whether and how to in­ter­vene in Syria, we, the United States, and the world didn’t find a way to re­spond to those crimes in a way that Cae­sar would have imag­ined when he risked his life to bring us this damn­ing ev­i­dence.

That’s a very vivid, sin­gle in­di­vid­ual who did his part as much as the Bea­dle did to get the world to see, to shake the world. I know how dev­as­tated he is, not only by what he saw, but also by the fact that we and other gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials who saw the photos didn’t do far more in re­sponse.

You wrote that Wiesel would ven­ture to un­likely, iso­lated places

‘There’s no thinker or writer or per­son who has had more in­flu­ence on my moral un­der­stand­ing than Elie Wiesel’

— to meet with refugees es­cap­ing the Kh­mer Rouge and Miskito In­di­ans driven from their land in Nicaragua. If he were alive to­day, where would he go?

While the Holo­caust was the defin­ing event of his re­mark­able life, he didn’t be­lieve that some­thing had to be geno­cide, or even a mass atroc­ity, to be wor­thy of his ac­tivism, of his voice. He was aware of the power of his voice, and the im­por­tance of pre­serv­ing its heft, weight, so he didn’t throw his moral author­ity around on is­sues with­out deep re­flec­tion on the good that could be done if he lent sup­port to a cause.

Some­times as we seek to ap­ply “Never again,” as we re­solve not to be by­standers, we can miss in­jus­tices right be­fore our nose. Elie taught us not to do that. The bar need not be set as geno­cide for when we act. If it is, we may miss the op­por­tu­nity to do some­thing within our com­mu­ni­ties in our time, or we may miss the op­por­tu­nity to act abroad be­fore it is too late.

It is per­ilous to spec­u­late on what Elie might be do­ing or where he might be trav­el­ing to­day. But I sup­pose I can speak to is­sues that cry out for at­ten­tion. I know that Elie cared about the ghastly plight of refugees, as right now more peo­ple are dis­placed from their homes, 67 mil­lion, than at any time since World War II. In his life he of­ten showed sol­i­dar­ity with those in­di­vid­u­als, and, de­spite all the fear that peo­ple have about bring­ing refugees in — and we have to ad­dress peo­ple’s fears and not just blow past them — he served as a re­mark­able ex­am­ple of what a refugee who comes and is em­braced by the United States can give back. Through­out his life, through his trav­els, he gave faces to refugee crises, and man­aged to break down this ab­stract idea of a “refugee” into dis­crete fam­i­lies who are just try­ing to keep their chil­dren fed, safe, alive.

Elie of­ten would go to places where the news wasn’t. Ye­men to­day is a place where the suf­fer­ing is so acute, and where there is an alarm­ingly large gap be­tween the scale of the disas­ter and the amount of out­side cov­er­age, in­ter­est and re­sponse.

And South Su­dan — Elie was so heart­ened when that peo­ple who suf­fered a geno­cide achieved in­de­pen­dence from their tor­men­tors. And now their al­leged lead­ers have driven their coun­try to ruin. I imag­ine he would be on a plane to Juba right now.

In a 2014 New Yorker pro­file, you said: “My ca­reer is not well thought-out. Ev­ery choice has been in­stinc­tive, and quite lit­er­ally, im­pul­sive, in many ways.” Is that still the case? How would you de­scribe your ca­reer now?

I got to know Elie’s son when I was a fresh­man coun­selor at Yale and he was a fresh­man. I loved see­ing the way Elie re­lated to his boy and later to his grand­kids. He gave off the feel­ing with them as though time was standing still.

I had both my kids while work­ing in the White House. They are now 8 and 5. They grew up with a mother who was work­ing around the clock and never as fully present as she wished. I am right now fo­cused on mak­ing up for lost time and mak­ing my loved ones feel as though time stands still for them.

I’m writ­ing a book pro­vi­sion­ally called “The Ed­u­ca­tion of an Ideal­ist.” In our first lunch when I be­came U.N. am­bas­sador, I asked Elie for his ad­vice. He said that, at some point, when I was in the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, and each of the coun­tries went around and read the stale talk­ing points they’d been us­ing in ev­ery prior met­ing on the same topic, I should raise my hand and ask, “But what about moral­ity in all of this?” And I said to him, “That is so not how these de­bates gen­er­ally go; I can’t even imag­ine how that would go down.”

I never for­got that. As I tried to in­tro­duce the voices of in­di­vid­u­als into these ab­stract de­bates, I would think of Elie, and I would try to punc­ture this bub­ble that we of­ten in­habit when we are mak­ing de­ci­sions of great mag­ni­tude. As I write my book, I’m now grap­pling with that ques­tion: What about moral­ity in all of this? How can you best in­ject hu­man con­se­quences into de­ci­sion-mak­ing? I be­lieve it can be done.

You were quoted in The Ir­ish Times re­cently, say­ing that you would con­sider run­ning for of­fice one day. True?

The way the ques­tion was phrased was “would you con­sider?” Con­sider? Sure.

Hav­ing been a writer and a teacher and an ad­vo­cate on the out­side for my whole ca­reer be­fore work­ing for [Pres­i­dent] Obama, I’ve never felt so priv­i­leged and so use­ful as I did as a public ser­vant. If I had the chance to serve my coun­try again in some form, or if I could make a dif­fer­ence, in my com­mu­nity, in my own home state, I would be very in­ter­ested in do­ing it. For now I’m fo­cused on mak­ing up for lost time with my two beau­ti­ful chil­dren and try­ing to sort through what I have learned over these last years.

But you are ac­tive on Twit­ter.

I’m try­ing to stay off it, be­cause it’s bad for my health! My qual­ity of life plum­mets about 10% ev­ery time I open my Twit­ter feed. All that is on Twit­ter is ba­si­cally “Don­ald Trump did this ter­ri­ble thing to­day,” or “Don­ald Trump was pre­vented from do­ing this ter­ri­ble thing to­day.” The lat­ter is what passes for good news.

That said, even as I hun­ker down and try to get my book done, it is hard not to raise one’s voice against the cru­elty and cold­ness and the reck­less­ness of much of what’s be­ing done.

It’s heart­break­ing. If those who are mak­ing these de­ci­sions could just ex­pe­ri­ence the pain they are caus­ing to oth­ers for a minute — the pain of be­ing sep­a­rated from loved ones who are be­ing de­ported; the pain of fear­ing you are go­ing to lose your health in­surance; the pain of racism, of dis­crim­i­na­tion — if that was hap­pen­ing to them, would they be mak­ing the de­ci­sions they are mak­ing?

Peo­ple who have the priv­i­lege of serv­ing in gov­ern­ment are em­pow­ered to do things that af­fect other peo­ple’s des­tinies. That’s a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity. And it’s a re­spon­si­bil­ity be­ing born reck­lessly right now. Elie con­sis­tently raised his voice against cru­elty — it is in­cum­bent on all of us to fol­low his lead and do all we can to help those we can help and to com­bat the hate and ex­trem­ism that have gath­ered force.


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