A Death in Cameroon: Samantha Power And The Terrible Contradictions of US Power

The child was only seven, rushing to see the excitement. A US convoy was rolling through a Cameroonian village, led by Samantha Power, who was bravely going to meet with victims of the rapacious cruelty of Boko Haram. She was showing the soft face of US power. But the convoy was rushing, as convoys have to do when there are enemies all around, and the child was distracted, or over-excited, and the drivers sure had their eyes peeled for attacks, not for children. There was a collision, and a 7-yr-old was dead.

This was not intentional. This was not because the child was mistaken for a terrorist. There was grief and pain throughout the convoy, especially for Samantha Power, who had to balance the knowledge that the child would be alive if it weren’t for her visit; but then, who knows if her visit could make things better, including the life of that child, if it only weren’t for that hideous moment, that instant where fate forced the action, that terrible collision of plated steel and fragile flesh. Maybe if they were a little further to the side of the road, or someone had grabbed the child, or if the convoy wasn’t forced to rush through dangerous territory, the child would have remembered that day as the one where life started to get better, because America finally lifted itself to help the fight against violent militants. Maybe this would have been a day she talked about for generations.

That’s the horrible contradiction of American power in a changing world. The conflicts that we try to solve can’t be solved merely with the military, even if that is our default. But even when showing the soft face, we have to always be on the lookout for danger, and have to act as both the powerful and the persued, the rifle-toting hunstman and the quivering prey. We stumble with some good intentions, and some ill, into conflicts we barely understand, and leave pain as well as medicine and food and hope.

The problem is, that might be the inevitable outcome of being the last real traditional power in a changing world. Conflicts are both local and international, driven by internal ideologies and transnational ideas. They are old ideas being revived by new technologies, and mostly are a product of a global system that is slowly being replaced. The nation-state is no longer the primary actor. What we’re seeing is the final stages of collapse by the old empires, who created transnational conglomerations that broke up into nation states, and now are chafing under that. We see that in the Caucuses, in the Middle East, in Africa, in Canada and Latin America, and even in the American southwest. Some areas, like Western Europe, have been trying to go the other way, but even that is showing strain.

This isn’t to say we live in uniquely perilous times. Everyone wants to think they are in the most dangerous and interesting and hopefully end times (it lessens the agony of death if you think everyone is going with you). But we are in a very long period of transition, and it is doubtful that an old-school power like the US, especially one that has such a messy and possibly unworkable democracy, can handle it. Certainly not the way we are now. We’re too big, and too unwieldly. We carry too much baggage, and we don’t know which has clothes and which one has the bomb.

Samantha Power is a good person trying to make sense out of a dangerous world. She doesn’t deserve the guilt she must feel over this tragic death. But that is also the price we pay. When trying to impose and old order on a world where that order is decaying, there will be collateral damage. It’s the inveitable price of empire, but, as always, the cost is never borne by the empire itself. Whether or not we can sustain being one is a question that our leaders have to ask. It’s unfortunate very few have the courage to do so. Until that happens, we’re a blind convoy, hurtling through unknown jungles, and praying we get out without trampling over those we propose to save.

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