For Joseph Brodsky, mass violence was a close, unwanted companion. The Russian poet’s career began in earnest under repression’s shadow, in the exiled cold of the northern Arkhangelsk region. In 1964, Brodsky wrote “Spring Season of Muddy Roads,” a quaint and subtly tragic pastoral. The verse portrays a weary road, recently muddied by a spring rain. The road’s new season, so often refreshing, is now uncertain: “It’s not quite spring, but some- / thing like it. / The world is scattered now, / and crooked. / The ragged villages / are limping. / There’s straightness only in / bored glances.”
The year 2013 was scattered, too, and crooked. For all that went well, much also went poorly. In the wake of South Sudan’s horrific violence, Jay Ulfelder reports, “2013 may become worst year for onsets of state-led mass killing since early 1990s.” By Ulfelder’s count, mass killing began, nationally, in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, and Egypt, and continued in Syria and Iraq. That these events–“mass killing in South Sudan,” for example–are statistical inventions does not less the human significance of their politics. Mass killing is a very particular form of conflict, with particularly grave consequences for its victims. Its persistence–in those four new events, and in the thousands of microscopic conflicts that comprise them–may explain a tragic feature of our present politics.
Since the regional Arab uprisings of 2011, the “global upsurge” in protest has become an accepted proxy for our present era of instability. Global civil society appears, often in tandem, to carve new political space against a backdrop of regime repression. These civil society actions represent an increasing fraction of anti-state activity, writ large. Beyond them, the Central African Republic’s anti-balaka militias now violently contest the Seleka movement’s revolutionary rule; until last spring, when a heavy-handed counterinsurgency pushed them out, Boko Haram’s implants secured near-complete authority over Nigeria’s northeastern Borno State. In this context, mass killing is often the state’s last barricade–an extreme measure in the most desperate times.
Anti-state activity was not necessarily more frequent in 2013, nor will it always precipitate mass killing. But as protest and insurgency reemerge, the type of extraordinary politics that mass killing represents may prove more frequent. As Brodsky writes, there’s straightness only in bored glances.
Update: In the comments, Jay Ulfelder chimed in with the following comment on the above-mentioned data:
One point of clarification: I don’t see *state-led* mass killing in all of the cases you list, and I do see state-led and non-state mass killing in some cases not listed here. Here’s a quick list that will probably turn into a blog post before year’s end:
* Ongoing episodes of state-led mass killing: Syria (opposition), Sudan (multiple), Egypt (Islamists), North Korea (gulags), Myanmar (Kachin); now maybe also Nigeria (anti-Boko Haram), South Sudan (anti-Machar faction/Nuer); and maybe still DRC (eastern)
* Other conflicts producing episodes of mass killing that aren’t state-led: Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria (Boko Haram), Mexico, now also CAR, and surely others I’m forgetting
I look forward to Ulfelder’s post.