My day began with Jason Russell’s interview on NBC’s Today Show. He’s an appealing and earnest guy, a San Diego-based filmmaker, whose 30-minute video about capturing Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony has gone viral on youtube.com faster than any other video in internet history. Almost overnight, a mass movement has begun.
Russell and his nonprofit organization, Invisible Children, have launched what appears to be a highly effective internet campaign to find the infamous Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony and bring him to trial before the International Criminal Court, where he was indicted in 2005. He and his so-called Lord’s Resistance Army (LSA) are accused of abducting thousands of children, forcing many of them to kill their own parents, and kill innocent civilians entirely on the command of Joseph Kony. He is also accused of forcing thousands of girls and women into sexual slavery during the 1990s and the early 2000s. LSA often savagely mutilated the faces of Ugandans, frequently slicing off their lips of villagers.
In just a few days, the video has attracted nearly 50 million viewers worldwide. I logged on and watched the production. I admit, I was deeply moved. Utilizing a former child solder, Jacob, who had been abducted by Kony as one of his child soldiers and forced to kill, and the filmmaker’s own son, Gavin, an extremely appealing toddler, Russell manages to pull all the heartstrings. It is an emotionally powerful story, told through a slick, Hollywood-style presentation. It includes a plan of mass movement action worthy of the best social media marketers, which includes enlisting celebrities (“culturemakers”) and “policymakers”, and a massive overnight mass action on April 20 to “make Kony famous.” (Infamous, actually.) Volunteers in cities around the world will put up posters in as many places as possible, so the larger community will wake up to find their neighborhoods covered with messages about the world’s most wanted war criminal.
[pullquote]Russell and his Invisible Children organization hope to mobilize millions of people worldwide to demand the capture of Joseph Kony, this internationally “most wanted” criminal, including support for military action.[/pullquote] Why do I have so many reservations about signing onto this Invisible Children campaign? Do I not believe this monster who wrought such bloodshed in Uganda should be brought to justice? No, of course not.
I have several reasons.
- First, I am concerned about any mass movement which calls for military action, even if only on a limited basis. It begins to seem more like a lynch mob than a movement for justice. The memory of U.S. intervention in Iraq is too fresh in my mind.
- Second, I see little support for this movement led by Invisible Children among the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the ground in Uganda. They say Kony, the indicted war criminal, fled the country several years ago, changing their tactics and settling in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and that his LSA has been reduced to 200 members or less. As horrendous as Kony’s actions were, NGOs in Uganda say the time came long ago to shift focus toward rehabilitation, restoration, reunification of displaced persons with their families, return to their homes, if possible. Many express the sentiment: this would have been a good action…ten years ago. Now, they fear, the mass movement will sap financial resources and distract public awareness away from the crying needs on the ground right now.
- Third, there is a tendency to make the search for Kony about us, not about Uganda. Several commentators have used the word “narcissism.” I’ve seen the term, “slactivism” applied to the young people who are responding to the calls for action. This seems to me to be a generationally biased accusation, diminishing the activism of younger people as a slacker form of activism. I don’t think online activism and the use of social media should be underrated or dismissed; to do so would be foolish.
- Fourth, the filmmakers are oversimplifying the politics of Africa, not so much because they depict Kony as an evil man, but because they overlook the horrific human rights abuses of the army of Uganda.
Western engagement with African nations must be undertaken with a level of sophistication and awareness of historical context. Without intending to do so, I think the filmmakers who are mobilizing the intervention run the risk of implicitly conveying the message, “Those poor Africans can’t handle anything on their own, so we must fix their problems for them.” (I hasten to add – nowhere in the video is this concept explicitly stated, nor do I believe it is a motivator of “Invisible Children” or the filmmakers. I do believe, however, that this is often an unstated element of American intervention in the affairs of African nations.)
Having said all this, I’d still encourage you to watch the video and make your own assessment. There is much to be applauded here and much to be supported. And, let’s face it, there is an international war criminal to be apprehended and brought to justice.