refuge as protection

On March 3, 1991, more than 150 refugees from the southern Somali town of Kismayo were entombed in a 60-foot boat near Malindi, along Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast. When the Somali refugees drowned, the boat was at capacity; hours before, the boat carried more than 500 additional refugees, who had fled to a small sandbar offshore where their boat “ran aground.” A Malindi diving instructor who spoke to the New York Times soon after the refugees’ arrival described the mass bedlam that preceded their deaths: “[I]t was hell, completely. There were people clinging to dead people to survive.” After the dead were counted, Malindi townspeople exhumed the refugees’ bodies from their seaborne coffin, and placed them “into a mass grave carved out of the sand.”

That was 1991. A gaze at Times stories of the mass deaths of forcibly displaced persons at sea from the ensuing quarter-century offer up a boundless infinity mirror of global suffering. In 1993, the waters of the Congo River swept up 147 Congolese deportees rushing across a ferry gangway in Kinshasa, their onetime capital; in 1998, 200 Bissau-Guineans disappeared into the Atlantic while escaping their country’s civil war. The Congo River; the Atlantic Ocean–these waters, among many others, have become recurring gravesites for people in flight. Back at home, these refugees and their bodies face extreme jeopardy; they might encounter physical torture, as in Eritrea’s prisons, or the encompassing devastation of artillery fire, as in the cities under the Syrian government’s stubborn siege. A sea voyage offers few more protections to these people, sheltered as they are by a well-worn vessel and the slippery assurances of a clandestine courier.

These refugees’ suffering is–has become–a regular testament to moral failure: of the smugglers, who, seeking the slimmest of profit margins, place their desperate clients in conditions of unlivable density; of the violent politics from which these refugees flee, which ensure the suffering of the families and neighbors left behind; of those who benefit from those politics, and who feign ignorance as their fellow countrypeople perish; of the violent politics to which these people flee, seeking refuge, only to find a mass hysteria lying in wait; of the international community, especially its wealthiest members, which offer these refugees few paths to safety beyond the false promise of a half-buoyant dinghy. As is often the case during violent conflict and its other consequences, there is plenty of blame to share.

There is a global refugee crisis–today, it is on Europe’s shores; two months ago, it was on Malaysia’s; one year ago, it was on the southern border of the United States. This is a crisis of no specific moment: it is persistent, because the violence whence it came is persistent. The refugees that violence creates occupy a worldly purgatory. In camps, the ramshackle residence that becomes their home is impermanent by definition, and their new society is governed at once by the formal legal codes of domestic and international humanitarian governance, and an informal assortment of evolutionary bodies. Even when these refugees are resettled–given permanent visas, permanent homes–the societies that host them place them at their margins.

The public politics of human rights–which atrocities public media, officials, and figures choose to discuss, and which they choose to condemn–embraces an implicit ranking of rights, which determine the will and the effort devoted to their protection. Atop this moral pyramid sit life and its absence, death. As I have written here before, the intentional and expansive act of causing death–that is to say, mass killing–provokes particular global sympathy and, rarely, response. (Even more rarely, that response achieves its intended purpose.) The individual act of killing erodes a community’s protective virtue; at scale, that same act is a grave assault on our common humanity. This belief shapes the moral consensus to which we aspire, that notion that both humans and their politics bear responsibility for those whom mass violence threatens most.

The mass deaths of refugees challenge this moral ranking. If the resolution of violence is unlikely, to where must our responsibility turn? If mass death is probable–not by violence, but through flight–does refuge not offer the greatest promise of protection?

end times

The cover feature of the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic carries the headline “What ISIS Really Wants.” What ISIS, the group currently occupying a large swath of territory in Syria and Iraq, wants is the End of Days, according to Graeme Wood, the article’s author. That is, ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, is a millenarian movement whose aim is nothing less than a quicker apocalypse, rather than the profane act of continuous mass violence. Wood’s reporting offers ample evidence of the group’s apocalyptic vision. Much of the piece revolves around the ideas and activities of Robert “Musa” Cerantonio, an Australian man with a “bookish demeanor” whom both researchers and the Islamic State’s fellow travelers describe as one of the group’s leading ideologues. Cerantonio’s millenarian teachings are a selective mix of existing Sunni Islamic thought and novel speculation, according to Wood’s description:

“[His visions] include the belief that there will be only 12 legitimate caliphs, and [Islamic State leader Abu-Bakr al-]Baghdadi is the eighth; that the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest.”

This is heavy stuff, and heavy stuff worth taking seriously, according to Wood. For Wood, the U.S. officials now engaged in a belated, bumbling, and insufficient battle against the Islamic State are too quick to misinterpret the group’s theology and, therefore, its military and political strategy. The axiom that guides Wood’s argument, that understanding must precede (policy) action, is plainly correct. But understanding the millenarian ideas that underpin the Islamic State’s theology is not enough. That same axiom falls short if we do not also grapple with the historical reasons for millenarianism’s emergence, and the ways in which the apocalyptic idea does–and does not–shape politics, both of the Islamic State and of others.

The principal concern of the apocalyptic idea is time: the shortcomings of the present-day, and the urgency of the future. Millenarianism is a wholesale rejection of the modern, of the ways in which its contemporaneous politics organize and determine the activities of human society. By modern, I refer to a specific mode of thought that has, in recent history, governed the politics of that society. “To be modern,” Marshall Berman writes in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, his wide-ranging investigation of “the experience of modernity,”

“is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world–and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.”

That we associate this phenomenon with our contemporary era is a result of the gradual convergence of these paradoxical forces. The fault lines of economic inequality have sharpened even as the mechanization of industry has made realer the promise of universal prosperity; the quickening pollution of our natural spaces has both accompanied and disrupted the preservation of wilderness. In 1872, the interests of both private American railroad companies, compelled by the promise of tourism, and a nascent environmental movement aligned to midwife the first national U.S. wilderness reserve–Yellowstone National Park, along the northwestern border of Wyoming. The Janus-faced spirit of that first American wilderness persists in the character of the contemporary U.S. Department of the Interior, which, tasked with both America’s national parks and its natural resources, simultaneously oversees the preservation and exploitation of wilderness. That experience of modernity, the ever-presence of contradiction, is precisely the present-day the apocalyptic idea rejects.

The apocalyptic future is an era in which the contradictions of modernity have fully converged, and in which its imperfections do not exist. Because millenarianism embraces this future, it is tempting to place its followers at a total remove from the modern era. (Set aside, if you can, the peculiar historicism of this argument: by definition, an organization that exists in the year 2015 necessarily bears the stamp, however faint, of its times.) In his article, Wood quibbles with those who elevate the Islamic State’s politics to a modern plane, who portray its gruesome, violent insurgency as anything but “a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment.” Wood describes Musa Cerantonio’s millenarianism along these lines, as “a medieval fantasy novel, only with real blood.” For Wood, the medieval character of the Islamic State emerges from practices that are both essential to and inextricable from the group’s apocalyptic vision for modernity’s destruction: namely, its violence (“medieval-style punishments for moral crimes”) and the apparent oddity of its political culture (“codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned”).

However “medieval” these practices appear, the millenarianism of the Islamic State is also fully a part of its place in modernity. This is not simply a consequence of the networked technologies, like YouTube, the Islamic State uses to communicate its violence. The institutions the Islamic State disavows, like the bureaucracy and borders of its secular state, are precisely the same ones that grant its authority. If these institutions hasten the apocalypse, in their marginal way, they are, first and foremost, concerned with the control and influence of civilians under the Islamic State’s domain. As Colin Dickey argues in his essay on the politics of time, “the notion of the Apocalypse adds an end point to the calendar, a termination date that infuses the present with meaning.” The Islamic State’s secular vision for power, and not its millenarianism, is the primary origin of the group’s mass violence.

The secular function of the apocalyptic idea is common among groups who claim millenarianism’s mantle. Before his public split from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X used a prolific assortment of apocalyptic images to proselytize the Nation’s vision of black liberation. These images followed an existing lineage, dating to Reconstruction-era slave narratives, of prophetic themes used to advance the slow-moving cause of black freedom. Malcolm’s radical eschatology, however, failed to keep pace with the demands of marginalized black communities in cities across the United States. It was Malcolm’s secular vision for political and economic equality, and his ability to organize communities to that end, that secured the preacher’s authority in the years preceding his assassination in 1965.


On December 15, 2014, the one-year anniversary of South Sudan’s first national conflict since independence, a group of South Sudanese volunteers announced a tribute to the deaths of South Sudanese civilians during the country’s violence. The memorial, digitally displayed in a PDF document titled “Naming the Ones We Lost–South Sudan Conflict: 15 Dec 2013 to the present day,” is a modest object. Its organizers’ two-page introduction precedes a 15-page chart, five columns across, that lists the names lost to mass violence. The names in question, listed in alphabetical order, currently number 572; for each of the dead, where possible, the chart also provides an approximate date of birth, and a location and date of death. The document’s single medium, Calibri text, is the default font of a Microsoft Word document, from which the PDF was likely created; the memorial contains neither photographs nor video, nor archived testimonies of the victims’ experience. The memorial’s organizers acknowledge, with somber resignation, that its list of names “will inevitably grow” as the country’s stubborn violence continues into 2015 and beyond.

South Sudan’s civil society boasts a large following, a decades-old global diaspora of refugees, humanitarian workers, diplomats, and activists. Since mid-December, the country’s memorial document has circulated, mostly online, among this global community. In some posts, those sympathetic to the recent suffering of South Sudan’s civilians simply offer condolences; others, such as the Boston-based World Peace Foundation, present the volunteers’ memorial as a case study in the collective remembrance of mass violence. In her post about the memorial, the Foundation’s research director Bridget Conley-Zilkic approvingly describes the document’s basic ethos: “[Memorialization] offers its most profound contribution when it absolutely refuses generalization, when it issues an exhortation, across the vast terrain of mass atrocities, to return to the loss of one person, whose loss is infinite.” For Conley-Zilkic, the cautionary lessons of remembrance are clear. Only through our quiet witness to past lives can the mass tragedies of others occupy our common present. The names, former occupations, and locations of the dead are the sole objects that grant remembrance meaning. The so-called “living memorial,” like the moral exhibitions of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum or the Kigali Genocide Memorial, “forgets more than it remembers.”

For those that refuse generalization, the moral consequences of South Sudan’s mass violence are confined to the country’s local boundaries, even as the immediacy of the violence recedes, and knowledge of its destruction passes from one place to the next. Nowhere is this clearer than in the memorial’s basic design, a PDF file. Like the moral memory of its subjects, the document’s memorial is fixed to a specific time and stored in a specific place. The content of this PDF file cannot be edited by those who read it, and can only be tweaked by its creators. In its current form, the document recalls no more than the 572 deaths now listed. A single additional name, confirmed and collected by the project’s volunteers, requires a fully new document, a new memorial. The file will be different, as will the memories its names evoke.

The appeal of the local, artificially preserved, is undeniable. In tragedy, we cherish that which is closest to us. Faced with mass violence, even from afar, we desire no less intimacy for its survivors than we offer our own. Even the most universal memorials to human suffering display smaller, more local tokens of devastation. At the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a three-story tower of family photographs segments the museum’s core exhibition. The collection commemorates the death of the Jewish community of Eisiskes, which along with two other Lithuanian shtetls was fully destroyed by Nazi Einsatzgruppen in June 1941. The photographs recall the multitudes of the villagers’ daily lives: where their children learn, and their parents work; how the villagers feast, and how they fast; how they pray, and how they mourn. On the museum’s top floor, the photographs are followed by a somber glass footbridge. The footbridge walls list the villages that, like Eisiskes, vanished amid the myriad violence of the Holocaust. This is Conley-Zilkic’s “vast terrain” of mass violence, infinite in the singularity of its suffering. All, one village and hundreds alike, refuse generalization.

In late December, I accompanied my grandmother and younger brothers to the 9/11 Memorial Museum in downtown New York. I have always approached the events of September 11, 2001, at an uncomfortable distance. A New Yorker by birth and habit, I was on a class trip in rural Connecticut the morning the towers fell. By contrast, my grandmother was married in New York the following day; for her, as for so many New Yorkers, the memory of September 11 abounds with love, for an injured city, and loss. The Memorial Museum is a remembrance of this loss, of the emptiness and uncertainty that afflicted New Yorkers then, and has afflicted so many other Americans since. The museum sits in the underbelly of the fallen towers, down the street from the cavernous fountains that now take their place. Its core exhibition recalls a concrete catacomb. It is peppered with artifacts of a pre-9/11 era: free-standing New York guide maps, a disassembled fire truck, severed parts of the buildings themselves. In one section, the multi-story slabs that line the central ramp feature images of missing persons. Surrounding the photos are passports and state IDs–bits and scraps of these persons’ lives, easily forgotten.

On the museum’s basement level, a separate section hosts a collection of the dead, like the yahrzeit lists that line the walls of my synagogue further uptown. Some victims, presumably those with generous families, have mementos on display, tokens of the normalcy of their pre-9/11 lives. Others only have a name, accompanied by the grey silhouette of an anonymous human. As the visitor walks through the collection, an audio recording of each victim’s name resounds in the background. Each name is preceded by a singular noun: “my father,” “my son.” The speaker’s possession implies the victim’s singularity amid the 2,751 others. But it also reinforces the common experience behind each name: to each mother, a daughter.

where warning works (chibok, nigeria)

The kidnappings at Chibok, in northern Nigeria, are difficult to recount; it is a story of hiding, and not of telling. The initial subterfuge of Nigerian military officials, the unknown identities of the Chibok girls’ captors, the perpetual two-step of government diplomacy with Boko Haram, the girls’ captors–as weeks pass, with most of the Chibok girls no closer to home, these obfuscations appear more common than transparency. When–if–the girls return, they will bring many stories to narrate; likely, many fewer will be heard.

It is unexpected, then, that we might view the events at Chibok as a positive case of early warning. Not prevention, of course; the girls’ eventual abduction suggests as much. Still, the essence of effective warning–the continuous, accessible flow of accurate information to Chibok’s vulnerable civilians–was apparent in the hours prior to Boko Haram’s violent swarm. A rare wealth of reporting describes the kidnappings’ preceding events. At approximately 9:30 pm, on April 14, the chairman of the Chibok school’s Parent Teacher Association contacted the town’s designated military commander to warn of an impending attack, according to a Reuters investigation. An earlier report by Amnesty International places an even earlier time-stamp–7:00 pm–on the military’s knowledge of the town’s imminent danger. According to the Amnesty report, the first to learn of Boko Haram’s plans was a group of community militiamen in Gagilam, near Chibok, who communicated the warning via phone to Chibok officials. Local security officials paid the warnings little heed, likely because of widespread fear among appointed military units. Many fled to the nearby mountainside; the Chibok girls were taken.

We can speculate about possible reasons why Chibok’s warnings worked, prior to the abject failure of the Nigerian state’s local security forces. The first appears to be the now-robust growth of community militias in Borno state and its surrounding regions. These groups, sometimes referred to as “vigilantes” or the “civilian JTF” (Joint Task Force, the Nigerian military moniker for an ad-hoc domestic operation) are a form of “hybrid governance.” The militias fill gaps in the services of the Nigerian state–in this case, for better and worse, violence–but reject formal incorporation by state authorities. Their efforts to gather and distribute information about Boko Haram’s civilian violence have apparently become more sophisticated, especially in areas of greatest need. The militias are a human infrastructure; as their networks strengthen, their ability to warn vulnerable civilians multiplies.

The second feature may be unique to Chibok. The site from which the girls were abducted was a boarding school, which hosted students and, sometimes, parents from across northeastern Nigeria. Chibok is a node–there, the flow of information is a bidirectional event. Civilians who received warnings from Gagilam, the neighboring town, passed that information as far as Maiduguri, the capital city of Borno state. In warning, networks matter, and Chibok’s–rather, its civilians’–was expansive.

Where warning is concerned, the circumstances are rarely as favorable as Chibok’s were. That local communities are an event’s first responders is a well-worn adage of early warning; still, the internal and external strength of these communities’ networks often vary. Where existing networks lag, international assistance may be useful. Global NGOs–Invisible Children, in LRA-affected communities in Central Africa, the Free Burma Rangers, in Burma’s Karen state, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Peace Direct, in Burundi–have developed extensive programs to strengthen information networks to vulnerable civilians in conflict zones. These are long-term initiatives, with long-term dividends. A short-term gap remains: among civilians who weather the immediate consequences of mass violence, but who lack a warning infrastructure like Chibok’s, where can local and global actors contribute?

a tale of two hashtags

Boko Haram, in northeast Nigeria, and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), somewhere near the Central African Republic, share several common factors. They are:

  • Destructive violence: In the years since its escalation of mass violence, in 2009, Boko Haram-affiliated attacks have killed large numbers of civilians in northeast Nigeria and, increasingly, northwest Cameroon. In its three decades of insurgency, the LRA has killed fewer but still many civilians. The relative scale of Boko Haram’s violence may have as much to do with the greater demographic size of its targets–towns and, sometimes, cities, in addition to small villages–as with the group’s tactics. Casualty counts aside, the groups’ devastation is constant. Each has crippled its affected local economy, and has caused mass displacement on an extraordinary scale. Those who have survived either group’s violence will not likely live to see their communities restored.
  • Ideology: The common-ground between the respective ideologies of Boko Haram and the LRA is not obvious; notionally, Boko Haram is Muslim, and the LRA is Christian. Whatever their notional differences, however, both Boko Haram and the LRA share an ugly millenarian politics: their respective interpretations of Islam and Christianity advocate mass social upheaval, rather than incremental change. Of course, the LRA’s millenarian belief is more explicit, and its links to the history of millenarianism in northern Uganda, where it was originally formed, are stronger. Historically, violence soon follows millenarianism; whether that’s a consequence of belief, or of other factors, is unclear. Some view ideas–here, ideology–as an important driver of violence; I am not among them.
  • Tactics of violence: Like government forces, violent insurgencies use specific tactics to accomplish strategic goals. Till recently, Boko Haram’s primary tactic was mass violence, which allowed the group to establish a political stranglehold over several local areas in northeast Nigeria. In recent months, Boko Haram has also added kidnapping to its violent arsenal, as during the recent abduction of more than two hundred schoolgirls in Chibok, in northeast Nigeria. LRA-linked fighters frequently abduct children from civilian communities; however, it is not clear that Boko Haram fighters learned the tactic from their counterparts in the LRA. Indeed, the two common tactics probably serve two different functions: many speculate that Boko Haram will hold the Chibok girls for ransom, while LRA fighters rarely use kidnapping for financial gain.
  • The Toto effect: Both Boko Haram and the LRA are located “in Africa.” Similarly, a bistro in France and a butcher in Poland are both located “in Europe.” Really, it’s irrelevant.

The respective violence of Boko Haram and the LRA has sparked two social movements–against Boko Haram (we’ll call this “Bring Back Our Girls”), and against the LRA (“Kony 2012”)–which also share several common factors. They are:

  • Norms: Each movement is accurately described as a member of a larger, global human rights community. Both advance “human rights norms”–that is, an aspirational belief in the safety and security of individual persons. Human rights entail the return and protection of Chibok’s schoolgirls, who remain vulnerable to various abuses while under Boko Haram’s control; likewise, rights require the capture and prosecution of the LRA’s key perpetrators of mass violence, including Joseph Kony, the group’s near-mythical chief. Where their priorities differ, either group shares a guiding principle, in a global sense.
  • Tricky avenues to securing those norms: If the safety and security of individual persons is the dominant concern of both Bring Back Our Girls and Kony 2012, neither campaign offers a morally pure path toward that goal. Neither the Nigerian military, which would rescue the Chibok schoolgirls, nor the Ugandan military, which would apprehend Kony, will accomplish either goal with minimal harm to civilians; abuses will occur, and often, because the business of these militaries–most militaries, in fact–is more often killing than protecting. Neither is the so-called “political solution” to either insurgency, sans violence, a morally praiseworthy affair. Such is the nature of securing rights: moral action rarely aligns with political reality.
  • A digital public: On Twitter, users refer to the campaign against Boko Haram by its hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls; Kony 2012, #Kony2012. By design, these hashtags are fleeting. Activism seeks to change the basic function and foundation of society; hashtag activism, if we must use the term, only offers a voice to those desires. Applied correctly, that voice can be just as powerful. Hashtagged communities think sentimentally; many fewer follow with moral action. But that’s fine: a digital public–fifty-nine Twitter followers, or twelve-thousand six-hundred and thirty two–is a fungible thing. For some, hashtags are a form of moral self-satisfaction; for others, they are genuine portraits of empathy. We should strive toward the latter, as a moral purpose, but the former is always a necessary intermediary. Leslie Jamison inscribed it best, in an essay “in defense of saccharin(e)”: “[W]e’re talking about people using text to imagine themselves across the distances of separate lives.”

These two categories, and the seven total factors that comprise them, have prompted several comparisons between the Bring Back Our Girls and Kony 2012 campaigns. In general, the comparison reads:

  • Kony 2012, a campaign largely branded, staged, and claimed by the San Diego-based advocacy organization Invisible Children, was an inorganic movement: it was, in Lydia Polgreen’s words, a campaign for Californians, and not for the survivors of the LRA’s violence. In contrast, Bring Back Our Girls is Nigerian-born, branded, staged, and claimed. Therefore, the campaign is an indigenous symbol of a democratic process so often absent from Nigeria’s governance.
  • Kony 2012 was a campaign of Western norms, projected globally. In contrast, Bring Back Our Girls is a campaign of global norms, projected locally.

These comparisons are both correct and incorrect:

  • Neither Kony 2012 nor Bring Back Our Girls are isolated moments, in space or time. As LRA researcher Ledio Cakaj observes, the Concerned Parents Association, a civil society group in northern Uganda, emerged in the aftermath of a mass LRA abduction in 1996. Its guiding norms–the return and protection of abducted children–more closely mimic the Bring Back Our Girls campaign’s than they do Kony 2012’s. Their values remained local in nature, and largely local in scale.
  • Kony 2012 was, fundamentally, a campaign of Western norms, but for reasons rarely referenced. The theory of change behind Kony 2012 was indirect: in its advocacy efforts, Invisible Children sought to alter U.S. foreign policy first, and the LRA’s operations second. By their telling, Kony 2012 participants shifted the moral compass of U.S. foreign policy to achieve new rights for LRA-affected civilians. For many, this citizen engagement–democratic participation, on behalf of others beyond ourselves–is a contradiction in terms; some days, I count myself among this crowd.
  • In a global ecosystem, how do we trace the location of a norm? Here, the theory of power is imperfect. The story of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, both analog and digital, is as follows: the parents of the abducted draw attention to their plight, which draws the attention of their local communities, which draws the attention of their national communities, which draws the attention of their international communities. This path is rarely static: the stories of the parents of the abducted resound alongside the empathy and sympathy of their global supporters. Instinctively, the Bring Back Our Girls campaign is a local event, staged before a global audience. But at what point is this no longer true, and how do we ensure that those local stories remain as resilient as their narrators?


The grand larceny of Chibok’s girls began under the cover of darkness, and there it has remained.

Three weeks ago, unknown insurgents, now widely linked to Boko Haram, a group active in Chibok’s surrounding Borno state, abducted dozens of schoolgirls, each reportedly preparing for their final exams. Of course, Boko Haram’s involvement is murky–its figurehead, Abubakar Shekau, has not claimed responsibility for his foot soldiers’ actions–but probable. Like the identity of their captors, the girls’ current location is unknown. Too-rare testimonies of exodus, such as that of Deborah Sanya, an eighteen year-old abductee, suggest the girls are located in the Sambisa Forest, the proximate site of multiple known Boko Haram training camps. Meanwhile, a grief-stricken “community leader” recently suggested that some girls, forcibly married to Boko Haram members, are now en route to either Cameroon or Chad, both of which closely border the group’s lightly forested territory.

Where Boko Haram’s violence are concerned, little is ever clear. Massive, brutal destruction is the only certainty of the group’s operations, and often of the government’s response as well. In the four years since Boko Haram’s violence has expanded, and the group’s eight years prior, thousands–perhaps tens of thousands–of civilians have died. The life of a civilian in northeast Nigeria is a constant gamble–in areas where Boko Haram is active, killing is a matter of when, and by whom. The anonymity of the disappeared is a common feature. Initially, the girls were one hundred; now, they are two hundred and thirty-four, perhaps more. For international observers, the numbers are immaterial: it’s a lot of girls, and very few names. Girls–women–like Deborah, whose suffering is known, are all too rare.

The parents of Chibok now speak in their daughters’ stead. The protests are mounting: against Boko Haram, but also against Nigeria’s government, for its bumbling response; international media, for its lagging coverage; and, international governments, for standing by. As during most crises, the response of President Goodluck Jonathan’s federal administration has been duplicitous at best. Two days after the initial abduction, Nigeria’s defense ministry claimed its troops in Borno state–its “joint task force” and their handy paramilitaries–had recovered the girls, then one hundred and twenty-nine, and both Nigerian and international media were quick to believe them. But the government’s deception quickly collapsed, and a half-hearted search-and-rescue has continued apace.

If international media has been slow to catch up, this is no longer the case. Unfortunately, no greater clarity has followed the abductions’ new global spotlight. As John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, observed last week, the basic facts of the crime are no clearer than they have been. Despite a multi-week swarm of local information-gathering, credible information about the girls’ location, or about their captors, is in short supply. Like any violent group, Boko Haram is an organization in name only–the culprits may be linked to Shekau, or they may not be. In a criminal sense, we know little about the captors’ motive. International media reports reference the group’s Hausa-language name–in English, it roughly translates to “Western education is a sin”–as an implicit clue; others, such as Nicholas Kristof, suggest the girls’ abduction is a human-trafficking event. Neither are certain: Boko Haram’s Islamist ideology is rarely a useful guide to their violence, and neither ransom nor illicit sales seem to fund the group’s operations at any scale.

Despite this information gap, international op-ed pages have now arrived at the What is to be done? stage of international coverage. As is often the case, recommendations follow protests by local groups and concerned members of the Nigerian diaspora, but scarcely align with these protests’ proposed actions. Some protestors suggest negotiations between the Nigerian government and the as-yet unknown captors; this proposal appears uncommon among Western op-eds. Instead, columnists like Nicholas Kristof recommend a more aggressive response. They lean on the blunt instrument of Nigerian military force, a reliable but often counterproductive instrument of counterterrorism. To assist the Nigerians’ efforts, Kristof suggests, intelligence-sharing–satellite imagery and ground-level information alike–should be frequent and unfettered. However, the recent surge of Nigerian military resources in Borno state, prompted in part by international outrage, likely does more to deepen the crisis than to resolve it. According to Amnesty International, Nigerian military violence killed more civilians in 2013 than did their insurgent adversaries.

The proposals of local protestors may be similarly misguided: one can imagine a scenario in which negotiation encourages more future abductions rather than fewer, whatever its immediate appeal. Given these two poles, each unattractive in their own right, I’m not confident that the solution to Chibok’s crisis is any clearer than our knowledge of its details.

beyond witness

At an unknown moment, to an unknown place, the witnesses began to disappear. For four years, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the patchwork global justice body, gathered a robust docket of anonymous eyewitnesses, each planning to testify against Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s sitting president, and his fellow architects of violence. Kenyatta’s colleagues, in the days following Mwai Kibaki’s probably-stolen 2007 election, stoked the mass killing of hundreds of people. Some were civilians, and some not; others, somewhere uncomfortably in between. These were Kenyatta’s crimes, the witnesses would say.

Except now, they will not. Its political future secure–Kenyatta’s party out-performed its opposition in a 2013 contest both fairer and less violent than its prequel–Kenya’s current national government has waged clandestine sabotage against the witnesses and their testimony. The ICC witnesses are identified, harassed, intimidated; disappeared, in that ominous passive voice. Once, a witness testimony was the only feature of their unspoken name; now, absent audience–stripped of key evidence, the Office of the Prosecutor recently requested a procedural delay–the act of witness is fully anonymous.

During the last several months, Kenyan poets have adopted the many mantles of the court’s silenced witnesses. The ICC Witness Project, as the poetry collection is titled, is a testimony never voiced. The collection tells a story, of the resilient violence of Kenya’s politics, but it never becomes one; there are neither characters to admire or despise nor arcs to follow. Despite this, as Aaron Bady writes, the poets’ stanzas are a narrative of sorts, hastily compiled from the anonymous trauma of Kenya’s violence. From Witness 130, of 144:

“After the killing blow

comes the
next one
And the one after”

Post-facto memory is the subject of Kenya’s witness-poetry; what comes before violence is of little concern. Even so, the anticipation of violence–policymakers refer to this as “early warning”–occupies a similar mode. Like the poets’ memory-fragments, the events that precede violence–“indicators”–are fractal objects. If indicators imply eventual violence, their conclusion is haphazard and undetermined. Rwanda’s present is a useful example. As Jay Ulfelder notes, following a summary of multiple expert opinions, future mass civilian violence by government-sponsored forces is likely. When precisely this event will occur is unknown.

That we can know better is a frequent assertion among mass atrocity analysts, who now use various tools–quantitative, qualitative, geospatial–to anticipate mass violence. Each early warning system differs in its research design, its algorithmic model, and its criteria for “success”–that is, whether its indicators correctly predicted new mass violence. In several cases, these systems are buttressed by new technologies, which collect, manage, and process new types of atrocity information. A recent OpenCanada post by Robert Muggah, a researcher and advocate, applauded the “breathtaking potential” of these digital systems:

“A first generation of early-warning systems designed to protect civilians from extreme violence emerged after the failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Many early innovations were taken up by inter-governmental, multilateral and bilateral agencies. A second generation of crisis mapping and prevention tools was spawned a decade later owing to widespread improvements in digital connectivity, cloud computing, and the proliferation of ICTs. The most prominent of these are Ushahidi, Frontline SMS, and other crisis mapping platforms. Both grassroots organizations and individuals are deploying these new tools in conflicts and humanitarian crises around the world. There is also a third generation of emerging digital systems that are providing 24/7 surveillance in the world’s hotspots through a combination of earlier methods together with Big Data analysis and drone surveillance.” [Emphasis in original.]

The use of these technologies is not monolithic, and these systems often work in tandem. Indeed, beyond their common humanitarian concern, it makes little sense to discuss the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s public early warning system, which uses large data-processing software, among other sources, to develop event forecasts, alongside the efforts of the Humanitarian UAV Network, which gathers humanitarian information through remotely-controlled aerial vehicles (“drones,” as it were).

Whatever their different approaches, each early warning system shares a single feature: a common theory of change, that better public knowledge–and foreknowledge–can reshape the future of mass atrocities. Almost every project at the small intersection of technology and mass atrocity prevention aligns with a recent wave of enthusiasm for the open-source. At its best, the project design is transparent, and its output, accessible. This makes sense: if you intend to improve public action against mass atrocities, the public should be able to access your tools.

Early warning advocates rightly champion Kenyan organizations who, in the face of escalating violence in early 2008, transmitted atrocity reports from the field. Organizations like Ushahidi recorded violence where communication technology allowed access to SMS-based platforms. In support of domestic security forces–those protecting civilians, at least–and international organizations, volunteers used digital means to record new local outbreaks. In the end, it was the digital “public”–in Kenya and abroad–that bore witness; where the appropriate technology was inaccessible, or where civilians remained too vulnerable to transmit reports, that “public” was a partial fiction. The same lyric testimonies, transcribed by the ICC Witness Project, that expanded this public in the aftermath of Kenya’s violence revealed its initial limits.

As both Sean Langberg and Danny Hirschel-Burns observe, the distribution of atrocity information to vulnerable populations is the next great challenge of mass atrocity response. Over the past three decades, witness-bearing has amply advanced both the general human condition and its guiding norms. But as civilian violence continues, it may be time to look beyond its moral virtues. The global flow of information is never a neutral arbiter; during some atrocity events, the same public knowledge that seeks to protect vulnerable populations may only deepen their insecurity. In those circumstances, witness, in the globally public sense, causes little impact at best, and significant harm, at worst. Meanwhile, atrocity information gathered by actors beyond the conflict zone–from the field, or through various surveillance technologies–rarely returns to the civilians who need it most. As presently designed, public digital witness will not restore that flow of information, nor warn civilians of emerging threats vulnerabilities. The reconstruction of either lies first in the renewed strength of civilians’ analog public–the social bonds that distribute information, and those that restrict it–and only then in the novelty of their digital technology.

The need beyond witness is a strategic question: how humanitarian organizations think about their role in civilian protection, and how they identify the purpose of the information they gather. Its operational counterpart is trickier. In this vein, humanitarian groups may learn a thing or two from the task of intelligence, albeit with wildly divergent objectives. For intelligence organizations, the security of information–in many cases, dangerous information–is paramount. Atrocity information should be no different. If global public knowledge of impending violence can make civilians vulnerable, the information returned to its potential beneficiaries should be secure.