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Viral video, vicious warlord
By By Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times , Taiwan News, Newspaper
2012-03-16 11:33 AM
I’d like to thank the makers of the “Kony 2012” video for goading me to write about Joseph Kony. With about 100 million views, it is now one of the most viral videos of all time.

My starting point is a “bravo” for film-makers for galvanizing young Americans to look up from their iPhones and seek to make a difference for villagers in central Africa who continue to be murdered, raped and mutilated by Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. Just in the last two months, the Lord’s Resistance Army has mounted 20 raids in Congo alone.

But nobody fights more wickedly than humanitarians, so there have been a series of attacks on the video. Let me try to address some of the criticisms.

Let Africans resolve their own problems. It’s neocolonialist for Americans to think that they can solve Congolese problems, when they can’t even solve their own. This is just one more example of “white man’s burden” imperialism.

When a warlord continues to kill and torture across a swath of Congo and Central African Republic, that’s not a white man’s burden. It’s a human burden.

To me, it feels repugnant to suggest that compassion should stop at a national boundary or color line. A common humanity binds us all, whatever the color of our skin – or passport.

The issue is complicated, in ways that don’t come through in a misleading video. For example, the video doesn’t make clear that Kony is no longer a threat in Uganda.

The video doesn’t contain errors, but it does simplify things greatly to hold attention. Complexity is, er, complicated: It has been a leading excuse for inaction during atrocities – during the Armenian genocide, during the Holocaust, during Rwanda, during the Bosnian slaughter. Each episode truly was complicated, but, in retrospect, we let nuance paralyze us.

It’s true that Kony’s forces are diminished and no longer a danger in Uganda, but he remains a threat in Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan. Those are tough neighborhoods – I’ve been held at gunpoint in Central African Republic and chased through the Congo jungle by a warlord whose massacres I interrupted – that rarely get attention and are little understood. Yes, the video glosses over details, but it has left the American public more informed. Last year, Rush Limbaugh defended the Lord’s Resistance Army because it sounded godly.

American kids worrying about Kony accomplish nothing. The video promotes feel-good gestures – wear a bracelet! – that enrich a do-nothing aid organization but have no benefit in the jungles of central Africa.

It’s true that indignation among Americans won’t by itself stop Kony. Yet I’ve learned over the years that public attention can create an environment in which solutions are more likely.

Public outrage over Serbian atrocities in the Balkans eventually led the Clinton administration to protect Kosovo and hammer out the Dayton peace accord. The Sudan civil war killed millions over half-a-century on and off, until public outrage – largely among evangelical Christians – led President George W. Bush to push successfully for a peace agreement in 2005.

I asked Anthony Lake, now the executive director of UNICEF who was Clinton’s national security adviser during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, whether a viral video about Rwanda would have made a difference then. “The answer is yes,” he said. He suggested that this kind of public attention would also have helped save more lives in Darfur and in Congo’s warring east.

In 1999, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright paid a brief visit to war-ravaged Sierra Leone and was photographed with a 3-year-old girl whose right arm had been chopped off. The photograph, widely circulated, helped galvanize outside powers to crush the militias. Sierra Leone is now at peace, and that girl is studying in the United States.

I asked Albright, who later led a task force on preventing genocide, what she thinks of the Kony video.

“Shining a light makes a lot of difference,” she said, adding that Kony’s prospects are probably less good now than before the video came out.

The bottom line is: A young man devotes nine years of his life to fight murder, rape and mutilation, he produces a video that goes viral and galvanizes mostly young Americans to show concern for needy villagers abroad – and he’s vilified?

I don’t know if this initiative will make a difference. But if I were a Congolese villager, I would welcome these uncertain efforts over the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics.

I’m delighted to announce the winner of my 2012 win-a-trip contest: Jordan Schermerhorn, an engineering student at Rice University who has never been outside the United States. One possibility for our trip is Malawi, but suggestions are welcome. More information is on my blog: nytimes.com/ontheground.

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