Silence in the face of slaughter. The US and Britain have been attacked both for ignoring genocide and for intervening to stop it. After the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the massacres in the Balkans and the wars in Rwanda, are we any closer to the ri

A Problem from Hell: America and the age of genocide

Samantha Power <em>Flamingo, 656pp, £9.99</em

Evil is not banal. Quite the contrary: it infuses every aspect of the society from which it is born. This is the timely message of these two books. Both authors have established reputations in the field of genocide: Wolfgang Sofsky has written a much-lauded book on Nazi concentration camps, while Samantha Power is an accomplished reporter and founding executive director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard. Their most recent books are complementary. Sofsky provides a broad overview of humanity's inhumanity through the centuries. In contrast, Power's book focuses on particular atrocities, notably the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, Saddam Hussein's use of poison gas against the Kurds, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, the massacre at Srebrenica and the atrocities in Kosovo. Both are just as interested in bystanders as in perpetrators. But both fail to answer satisfactorily the question: what should we do to prevent mass slaughter in the future?

Sofsky is best when describing the complex psychological processes involved in mass killing. He delineates factors that facilitate the erosion of inhibitions to violence. For example, there are insightful discussions of the ability of charismatic leaders to plant seeds of murder in the hearts of followers, and the devastating effects of fear and hatred on communities are painstakingly outlined. Sofsky is particularly good in describing the ease with which groups dehumanise other groups perceived as threatening. He correctly observes that, for perpetrators of mass violence, it is important to encourage the fiction that the people being killed are not "really" human. Even if we focus only on 20th-century atrocities, there are innumerable examples of this process. The genocide of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915 was facilitated by the Turks' word for Armenians: "dog food". During the massacres in Rwanda in 1994, Hutus described Tutsis as "cockroaches" and were simply engaging in "bush-clearing". Hutus were ordered to "remove tall weeds" (adults) as well as the "shoots" (children). Genocidal campaigns both pervert language and depend on perverted language for their success. According to the Nazis, Jews needed "resettlement". The "deportation" of women, children and the elderly was necessary for "the restoration of order". Killing was reconceptualised as "severe measures", "reprisal action", "rendering harmless", "evacuating" or "giving special treatment".

In contrast, Power is best when analysing the political and legal languages of genocide. She is less interested in the psychology of violence and more concerned with the concept of genocide, invented in 1944 by her hero, the Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin, and kept relevant as a "living document" by a number of "screamers" or moral arbitrators. Power's principal charge is that perpetrators remain substantially immune from the law. She wants this to change, and launches an attack on American political apathy. In all the major genocides of the 20th century, US administrations had full knowledge of what was happening. They either ignored the slaughter, on the grounds that it was "none of their business", or they positively supported genocidal regimes. She reminds us that, despite evidence documenting the murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds, Bush Sr's financial support enabled Saddam Hussein's murderous regime to stockpile deadly chemicals.

But perhaps Power's most persuasive argument is that, even when the "will" existed to prosecute perpetrators of genocide, the difficulties were daunting. Legally, the courts were hamstrung from the start. After the Second World War, the Nuremberg court was accused of operating "victor's justice", while later tribunals investigating the atrocities carried out by Rwandan Tutsis and Bosnian Serbs were like "a giant who has no arms or legs". Resources to search, arrest and prosecute alleged criminals were scarce. International opinion was largely apathetic; courtrooms were often empty. During the trials of Balkan perpetrators at The Hague, the UN press office did not even bother to translate press releases into Serbo-Croat until February 2000. Furthermore, there was the thorny question of accountability. Does "mass murder" mean "mass accountability"?

After the 1994 massacres, the Rwandan government decided to take a hard line. As a consequence, at the end of the 1990s, nearly 130,000 people were being held in prison awaiting trial for crimes against humanity and genocide. This constituted 10 per cent of the adult male population of Rwanda. Limited resources meant that only 300 had gone on trial. Even with the promise of speeding up the rate of trials, it would be another 25 years before all could be judged. Given that some of these prisoners were innocent and most of those who were guilty regarded themselves as prisoners of war, the rationale of mass accountability created a set of intractable problems. These difficulties raise the question of whether judicial proceedings are an appropriate response to mass atrocities, since clearly they are not effective.

For both Power and Sofsky, the main problem is that exceptional violence involves almost unimaginable levels of complicity. Atrocious and genocidal acts are nourished within political, military and civilian communities. The Turkish attack on the Armenians was planned at the highest governmental levels, as was the Holocaust. In Rwanda, the Hutus were fairly confident of the support of their allies in France, Zaire and Egypt. Perpetrators insisted that they were "only obeying orders". Killing went hand in hand with rape, looting and the "redistribution" of property. For all sides in the heat of battle, atrocious behaviour easily becomes an integral part of warfare. As one British colonel admitted during the First World War: "I've seen my own men commit atrocities, and should expect to see it again. You can't stimulate and let loose the animal in man and then expect to be able to cage it up again at a moment's notice."

Neither author falls for such complacent attitudes about the alleged "beast within". But nor do they provide any satisfactory solution to the atrocious potentials within societies. While reading Sofsky's book, I found myself wondering what is new in his investigation into violence. Rigorous analysis is lacking, as he capers from one atrocity to another, attempting to encompass all periods, all nations. Platitude follows platitude, creating an almost nauseating sense of familiarity.

Unquestionably, A Problem from Hell is the more sophisticated book. The author successfully demonstrates that, des- pite the rhetoric of "never again", the American political response to attempted genocide has been tame. Samantha Power is right to upbraid the broader American public for complicity in their bystander status: the executive failed to act because it recognised that the costs of doing so outweighed any political benefits that might accrue. What she fails to address is the main reason for disquiet about US intervention: the fear about the growth of an American empire. After all, even with the best intentions, governments and armies possessing overwhelming power and imbued with an unwavering belief in the rightness of their own cause will commit brutalities in turn.

Although both authors rightly stress that the guilt of bystanders is never straightforward, they fail to address a number of pertinent questions: are we to recommend US intervention in all instances, and what level of proof is needed to establish genocidal intent? Disturbingly, Power hints that she would be content to accept hearsay and circumstantial evidence. For her, "a bias towards belief would do less harm than a bias towards disbelief". It is an argument that might be welcomed among the hawks in the US administration. Power's book is addressed to an American audience and seems oblivious to international fears of US imperialism. In a period when the legitimacy of America's or, for that matter, Britain's actions outside their own borders is under attack, neither book adequately answers the question: how should we respond to atrocities committed elsewhere in the world? What both do, however, is confront us with our own silence in the face of the slaughter of innocents.

Joanna Bourke is the author of An Intimate History of Killing: face-to-face killing in 20th-century warfare (Granta)