information as institution

Last month, rumors emerged of an Ebola outbreak in Guinea; by March 26, Guinean health officials reported 63 deaths as a result of hemorrhagic fever, a key symptom of the virus. When interviewed, Guinean citizens, humanitarian workers, and health officials have referenced the social corrosion of Ebola’s viral spread. “Rumors are rife among communities,” said one Guinean aid worker. If the response of Guinea’s health ministry and its regional partners has improved, all but containing Ebola’s spread, disinformation remains rampant. Earlier this week, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has provided emergency medical services in Guinea since 2001, surged its in-country staff, in part to more broadly deliver public health information to Ebola-prone communities.

Remote Guinean communities are globally opaque; located abroad, humanitarian groups may arrive with limited information about access points, infrastructure, quarantine spots, and potential sites of Ebola outbreak. As during recent separate crises, humanitarian crisis-mappers have attempted to fill these gaps. Since early this week, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOTOSM), a volunteer-based coalition of geographers, imagery analysts, and data scientists, has mapped three key towns to which MSF may deploy. HOTOSM’s “open” platform refers to the group’s crowd-sourced operations rather than its output, which exists on a restricted-access site. Other OpenStreetMap efforts, such as the group’s flagship map, are fully public. To confront MSF’s Guinea operations, HOTOSM has adapted its parent-group’s design to manage and produce sensitive data.

In past writing, I have described information as a resource: it is scarce or abundant, or somewhere in between, and various groups may control its distribution. Indeed, the scarcity of information is among the motivating factors behind MSF’s response to the Guinean Ebola outbreak. Here, information also mimics–albeit imperfectly–a discrete institution. Institutions have rules that restrict their members, and structures that govern relationships in their internal society. Public health services determine who lives, who is treated, who is infected, and, too often, who dies. As an institution, information is similarly fickle. Rumors generate violence; disinformation may further endanger a vulnerable civilian; and, true, accurate information may enable that same person’s survival. Power and privilege, which govern institutions the world over, also determine a civilian’s unequal access to the institution of information, and to knowledge of their health, safety, and security.

The right to information, as a moral notion, is a product of a global democratic norm that promotes transparent governance as its keystone. In the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) sense, the right to information presumes capacity–that is, that the institution from which public information is acquired is able to collect, protect, restrict, and distribute its knowledge. Recently, humanitarian groups, such as the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Signal Program, have invoked a humanitarian right to information, to enable various state and non-state groups to better use information communication technologies (ICTs) to assist civilians in disaster-affected areas. The humanitarian right to information applies to the context in which civilians use information, and not the institution that supplies it.

Both norms–the transparency of information and its humanitarian right–view information as a resource, to be given by some and removed by others. This frame is sensible but limiting. If information is primarily a resource, and ICTs its vessel, those civilians who lack the latter must logically also lack the former. This is rarely the case. Guinean residents have had information amid the Ebola crisis; however, that information, especially prior to MSF’s arrival, was often inaccurate or delayed. Likewise, civilians during conflict have information, but it is often poor and insecure.

If information exists throughout, and is neither simply scarce nor abundant, “institution” may be our most effective metaphor for its social function. Weak institutions provide an inadequate basis for social cohesion, while strong ones unite and secure human livelihoods. In securing the right to information during crises, especially conflict, international actors should seek to strengthen crippled institutions, rather than to provide a lacking resource. Only then can humanitarians expect a brighter future for civilian protection.

Update: Kate Chapman, the director of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, has provided the following comment below, reposted here: “Which restricted access site are you referring? All the data being digitized goes directly into OpenStreetMap and is available publicly.” For those users interested in the mechanics of HOTOSM’s crowd-mapping exercise, this clarification is helpful. Thanks, Kate.


on ukraine’s mass violence

Each viewer observes the photography of the ongoing street battles in Ukraine’s capital through a different violent analogue. “Shit, Kiev” may refer to a clustered unit of riot police; a rolling, ashen cumulus; a ramshackle barricade; or, an injured protester wandering amid the city’s flaming carcass. These scenes are Civilization V, Zack Snyder’s latest superheroic melee, an imagined siege of Stalingrad–at once, or each alone, depending on your vantage. The impression of the carnage, of that protester overwhelmed by his crumbling environs, dehumanizes as it empowers.

If Kiev is the current center-stage, Ukrainian politics, especially since the country’s national elections in 2012, is a tragedy of continuous errors. Triggered by the current government’s side-step towards the authoritarian patronage of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the EuroMaidan movement trumpets its cosmopolitan virtue. As elsewhere, however, Ukraine’s European future is merely the movement’s vanguard. The EuroMaidan–literally, the “European square”–is a rendezvous between grievances local and global. While the movement’s core contests the pro-Russia stance of President Viktor Yanukovych, others raise the country’s oligarchic turn, or the repression of civil society, or of media, or of political opposition. Ukraine’s democratic promise, a voguish topic during the Cold War’s aftermath, is now a tattered work of historical fiction.

Kiev is the EuroMaidan’s icon, as Tahrir or Taksim were Egypt’s or Turkey’s, respectively. The gradual fracture of the Ukrainian polity also extends far beyond the rubbled borders of Independence Square. To Lviv, where, at time of writing, opposition protesters seize control of local municipal buildings. To Crimea, that historically autonomous thruway along the Eurasian Black Sea, where pro-Russian MPs now gains an ever-stronger foothold. Ukraine’s internal disorder, so momentous, betrays the false rhythm of its capital city’s repressive barrage.

Kiev’s violence, like any violence, is no bold romance. The Square’s apocalypse–the billowing smoke-monsters, and what they represent–absorbs the half-life of Ukraine’s civil society, which struggles against the subtle violence of the Yanukovych regime. The glacial decay of the Ukrainian public sphere, as a political thing, is a years-long, intentional affair. In the decade since the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, Ukraine’s governing patrons have engaged an aggressive campaign of civic subterfuge. Hired hands extract, scalpel-like, the popular grist of Ukrainian social movements. By authoritarian design, the organizations that comprise the EuroMaidan have become the weak, vulnerable pillars of now-shrinking public.

This, too, is an image of mass violence, albeit one quite unlike its contemporary counterparts in Syria and the Central African Republic. An event’s massiveness refers to a measurement far greater than its basic body count, which, in Ukraine, is infinitesimal, however tragic. Kiev’s apocalyptic photographs display the imminent destruction of Ukraine’s public sphere, a human innovation: fallen buildings and scorched storefronts, darkened thresholds, uncobbled avenues. The terror-stricken bystander, a lone civilian, masked in her own blood.

why have mass atrocities declined in east asia?

The politics of East Asia have many problems, but mass violence ain’t one. So says Alex Bellamy, who compiles the relevant event data to describe the recent historical decline of mass atrocities in the region:

There are now fewer cases of genocide and mass atrocities in East Asia today than at any point in history for which we have reliable records. This article demonstrates and then tries to account for the dramatic decline of mass atrocities in East Asia. It argues that the decline was enabled by a combination of three major structural changes: reduction in the selection of mass atrocities as a weapon of war, increase in incomes, and progress towards democratization combined with the emergence of new ideas about sovereignty and their accommodation with existing principles of non-interference. Together, these structural and ideational changes created a changed regional context of increased costs and reduced payoffs for the commission of mass atrocities.

The imminent decline of mass atrocities contrasts against another recent, more tragic trend in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia: the region’s widespread occurrence of mass violence. As the current humanitarian crisis of Burma‘s Rohingya population suggests, the regional outlook is a patch-quilt of violent politics with inconsistent spots of non-conflict, and not the reverse. To his credit, Bellamy acknowledges the fragility of his first trend, which may yet conclude in a more dismal future for East Asia’s civilians. Even so, the post-Cold War data indisputably imply these civilians’ relative, if temporary security.

But why? In an earlier draft, Bellamy places the strategic use of mass violence, income growth, and regional democratization alongside shifting norms of human security; in this edition, the first three variables are separate, but interact with their latter counterpart. While human security norms–human rights, collective security, and the “responsibility to protect,” among others–proliferated amid East Asia’s era of mass violence, the political, economic, and social trends that Bellamy describes elevated the norms’ institutional importance. This explanation projects a liberal future for regional human security: the more peaceful, the more prosperous, and the more democratic East Asia becomes, the fewer civilians will die.

The liberal theory of mass atrocities’ decline feels good. Its empirical value, however, is foggier. Two gaps stick out: the political consequences of East Asia, as an aggregated regional unit, for human security are marginal; and, the “post-sovereignty” norms of East Asia’s “new” consensus are less new than Bellamy describes.

Breaking down “East Asia”: In some contexts, it makes sense to describe “regional trends.” A “region” like East Asia is many things–a geographic unit, a series of political bodies, an economic zone. If a river spans across multiple states, provinces, or local government areas, its riparian politics are accurately described as a “regional” event. Perhaps as a consequence of the region’s geography, the impact of East Asia’s human security crises is often more diffuse. In the 17 East Asian mass atrocity events Bellamy lists in a 2012 report, few beyond the (several) events linked to the 19-year Vietnam war–repression, mass killing, and civil conflict in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia–are regional phenomena. The events are not isolated, per se; in several, like Indonesia or North Korea, the geopolitics of U.S.-Soviet proxy violence or China’s regional sphere of influence, respectively, prompt their occurrence. In contrast to Central Africa, where regional security crises like the Rwandan genocide spawned subsequent mass suffering, or West Africa, where Liberia’s civil war spawned the same, East Asian mass atrocity events appear either significantly interdependent (Vietnam, et al.), or scarcely so (Indonesia, the Philippines, North Korea, and China).

East Asia’s norm “consensus”: Bellamy describes the “responsibility to protect” norm as an emerging consensus among East Asian states and security institutions. As Bellamy writes elsewhere, prominent security documents, treaty commitments, public statements, and diplomatic priorities suggest that, where possible, East Asian foreign policy agendas adopt human security priorities. That “where possible,” however, is key. Public statements of regional groups like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations demonstrate the partial success of human security norms; on the other hand, China’s inconsistent posture towards Burmese military abuses suggest these norms are less active than Bellamy asserts.

we’re getting better at thinking about mass atrocities

Every year, the U.S. government’s director of national intelligence, the Grand Poobah of the U.S. intelligence community, releases a public, unclassified “worldwide threat assessment.” Most years, the threat assessment is a tedious, bureaucratic document: it signals, to Congress, foreign policy priorities that are obvious to the average U.S. news-reader. Strictly speaking, it is not an analytic document, but a political one. It conveys–to Congress, to the general public, to the internal U.S. government bureaucracy–what policymakers want other political officials to find important, to fund, and to authorize. It does not capture, vacuum-like, the full scope of global threats to the national security, safety, and livelihood of the United States and its citizens.

In that sense, the document is useful because it describes the things that policymakers care about, and, more importantly, how policymakers themselves describe those things. Since 2010, the worldwide threat assessment has included a brief section about mass killing, genocide, or mass atrocities. The section, as John Allen Gay observes, is “always about one box-checking paragraph long.” Mass atrocity prevention is, and will remain, a marginal priority for the U.S. government, and five years of annual threat assessments reflect its unimpressive stature.

Still, this year’s threat assessment is remarkable–not because it conveys a new focus on mass atrocities, but because it frames the old focus in a better way:

“The overall risk of mass atrocities worldwide will probably increase in 2014 and beyond. Trends driving this increase include more social mobilization, violent conflict, including communal violence, and other forms of instability that spill over borders and exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions; diminished or stagnant quality of governance; and widespread impunity for past abuses. Many countries at risk of mass atrocities will likely be open to influence to prevent or mitigate them. This is because they are dependent on Western assistance or multilateral missions in their countries, have the political will to prevent mass atrocities, or would be responsive to international scrutiny. Overall international will and capability to prevent or mitigate mass atrocities will likely diminish in 2014 and beyond, although support for human rights norms to prevent atrocities will almost certainly deepen among some non-government organizations. Much of the world will almost certainly turn to the United States for leadership to prevent and respond to mass atrocities.”

As Jay Ulfelder observes, the contents of this paragraph are debatable: twelve years after the establishment of the International Criminal Court, it’s not clear that international criminal justice–the popular salve for grave impunity–contributes much to the onset of mass atrocities; additionally, “international will” is a clichéd, unhelpful bellwether of mass atrocity response. Even so, the paragraph suggests that the U.S. government, or at least the U.S. intelligence community, now views mass atrocities as a systemic trend, rather than a haphazard assortment of violent conflicts. For example, compare the 2014 threat assessment to the 2012 edition, the first published after the release of President Obama’s landmark directive on mass atrocity prevention:

“Unfortunately, mass atrocities have been a recurring feature of the global landscape. Since the turn of century, hundreds of thousands of civilians have lost their lives during conflicts in the Darfur region of Sudan and in the eastern Congo (Kinshasa). Recently, atrocities in Libya and Syria have occurred against the backdrop of major political upheavals. Mass atrocities usually occur in the context of other instability events and often result from calculated strategies by new or threatened ruling elites to assert or retain control, regardless of the cost. Violence against civilians also emerges in places where poorly institutionalized governments discriminate against minorities, socioeconomic conditions are poor, or local powerbrokers operate with impunity, as in Kyrgyzstan in 2010. In addition, terrorists and insurgents may exploit similar conditions to conduct attacks against civilians, as in Boko Haram’s recent attacks on churches in Nigeria.”

The past four years of mass atrocity-related assessments are similar. Each approaches “mass atrocity prevention” as a game of policymaking Whac-a-Mole; the “global landscape” that Clapper describes in the 2012 report is in fact the sum of six conflicts, in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Syria, Kyrgyzstan, and Nigeria. In this line of thinking, whether an event is a “mass atrocity” depends on the U.S. government’s classification of it as such, and nothing else.

In the 2014 edition, a “mass atrocity” is a global phenomenon, one which interacts with trends in regime transition, political repression, and disorder. This shift isn’t merely an intellectual exercise; it has real consequences for how we engage the task of mass atrocity prevention. The more we view mass atrocities as a global event, the easier it is to understand the potential preventive role of political actors, old and new, beyond the United States: regional mediation bodies, the United Nations, and civil society groups, among others. We’re still a long way from that event, but if the 2014 threat assessment is any indication, we’re getting there.

coffee-table memories

Tragic memories bear as many meanings as the events they recall. For most, these layers merit a magisterial display, in the harsh granite of a commemorative museum or a florid and somber ceremony. The act of memory also makes its day-to-day appearance between these pompous intervals: a carefully mounted photograph of the dead, pre-death, a passed-down recipe or prayer or nightly recollection. Or, a coffee-table centerpiece:

“The book, more art than literature, consists of the single word “Jew,” in tiny type, printed six million times to signify the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust. It is meant as a kind of coffee-table monument of memory, a conversation starter and thought provoker.”

In her New York Timesreport, Judi Rudoren traces a familiar debate: as a literary memorial, does the book, titled, “And Every Single One Was Someone,” honor the dead and grant meaning to the living? The discussion is as conclusive as a monologue by Tevye, Sholom Aleichem’s bumbling Yiddish milkman. On the one hand, the repetitive text of Phil Chernofsky, who compiled the memorial, conveys the scale of suffering during the Holocaust; on the other, the text anonymizes as it identifies the dead. Nowadays, official Holocaust memorials invest in both. The main tour of the Washington, DC-based U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum distributes individual biographies of the Nazis’ Jewish victims as visitors enter, and concludes with an impersonal pile of the victims’ stolen shoes. On its third floor, visitors descend from an expansive corridor of lost Eastern European villages to a “tower of faces,” a personal portrait of the Holocaust’s human destruction. Like the atrocity itself, memory is a wearying exchange between identity and anonymity, expression and belonging.

This conversation is as vibrant among the society of an atrocity’s perpetrators as among its victims and survivors. At The Atlantic, Emma Green captures this dilemma in response to a new book by Yascha Mounk, a German Jew:

“In one way or another, Germans define their ethnic identity in the context of the Holocaust. Ironically, the common response seems to rely on a nationalistic impulse to deal with Germany’s crimes of nationalism: By treating Mounk extra-carefully, his peers set him apart from other Germans; in setting him apart from other Germans, they reinforce the us/them mentality that undergirded the Holocaust in the first place.”

Mounk’s social crisis would have been familiar to Jews before the rise of Nazism, as it is to those in contemporary Germany. In her review, Green ultimately settles on the public importance of careful pluralism. Far from uniform, Germany’s public sphere comprises many private spheres–German and Jewish and provincial and cosmopolitanism–that work, though not always together, to create the nation’s fragile society. As Green frames it, Mounk’s story underscores the “other hand” of Chernofsky’s memorial project. Though Europe’s six million died as Jews, they also died as Jews, ish: Poles and Germans and Byelorussians whose identities were complex and personal, rather than simply common.

navigating the data swamp

Last week, I joined a session of Charles Martin-Shields’ course on technology and conflict response. The course is offered by TechChange, a Washington, DC-based start-up that develops education resources for peacebuilding practitioners, technologists, and policymakers. The company’s competitive edge is its distance-learning platform, and the course boasted participants–on-the-ground, at an organization’s headquarters, and somewhere in between–from several countries. The discussion was based on my recent back-and-forth with Charles and Christopher Neu, a TechChange operations guru, on navigating data about violent conflict and mass atrocities.

The participants’ questions provoked a constructive discussion about the mass atrocity data “swamp,” its information and security risks, and how practitioners can navigate both. Participants agreed that the best information exists between big, computed data and small, user-generated data. This agreement, however, opens new dilemmas: how peacebuilding organizations balance the moral act of “bearing witness,” with the no-less-moral act of protecting their local officers and sources; and, how analysts assess conflict amid small amounts of low-quality information. Below, I summarize my initial thoughts on these two dilemmas, based on the TechChange discussion and relevant reading since.

Proprietary data aren’t private, and open data aren’t public: Better data, big or small, can only emerge from stronger computer and human information networks. For big data practitioners, this means expanding systems like the recently-suspended Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT), which I discussed in my last post as an example of useful machine-coded datasets. Before the platform’s suspension, GDELT’s data scientists viewed–and may still view–its future in these terms: the platform’s value grows as it acquires more reliable and diverse news sources.

For small data practitioners, a “network” refers to the human relationships, bolstered by communication technologies, that transfer information from local sources to global headquarters. This information, about where a conflict occurs, which populations are vulnerable, and what their needs are, often informs the distribution of peacebuilding resources. Additionally, organizations carry the amorphous public responsibility of “bearing witness” to ongoing abuses. These dual hats create internal contradictions between an organization’s public face and its private needs.

Many practitioners, however, view this dilemma as an unresolvable dichotomy, rather than, more accurately, a give-and-take. Peacebuilding data are effective when an organization shares them–within its organization, but also with others. Small data are the property of an organization and its sources, and not the private confidence of a tiny group of people. Peacebuilding organizations should weigh the burden of risky information, but also grant their local sources the agency to shape, if not determine how the data are used.

The best analysis is transparent, not definitive: Analysis is never an independent affair. An analyst’s client may be a practitioner, a policymaker, another, more senior analyst, or the general public, but the relationship is consistent: the client clarifies expectations that an analyst uses to determine priorities, hone datasets, and frame conclusions. In our discussion, several practitioners lamented their clients’ demand for certain assessments amid uncertain data. I cited a scene from Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s dramatic rendering of the manhunt for Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden, that resounds with my own, brief exposure to the U.S. intelligence community. In the scene, then-CIA director Leon Panetta asks a cohort of senior analysts whether Osama bin Laden is located in a compound on Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Navy SEAL Team 6 later killed him. The CIA’s deputy director, presumably for intelligence, suggests that bin Laden is more than likely located at the compound; Panetta, visibly disgruntled, presses his junior colleague for a more confident response. The deputy director sighs, “We don’t deal in certainty, we deal in probability. I’d say there’s a sixty percent probability he’s there.”

As in the information security problem, peacebuilding experiences mirror their national security counterparts. If an analyst says, “according to qualitative and quantitative tools, a conflict in a local village in northern Kenya will probably emerge over the next six months,” the client–a UN agency or a private foundation or a humanitarian aid group–may request a more definitive response. In these circumstances, given poor-quality data, the analyst’s best option is transparency–about the quantity, quality, and limited reach of the data and its conclusions. Better peacebuilding emerges from an acceptance of uncertainty, rather than the creation of certainty where it cannot exist.

freedom, control, and the act of (mass) killing

On December 15, South Sudan’s presidential guard began shooting. South Sudanese officials loyal to President Salva Kiir exited a late-afternoon meeting of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the country’s ruling party; hours later, elite soldiers entered communities nearby. Survivor testimonies, compiled by Human Rights Watch, describe the melee. “I stopped to pick [up] my son but he was heavy and dead,” said one Juba bricklayer.

Throughout the history of mass violence, uncounted fathers have stopped to pick up their sons, only to find them heavy. Picking up the dead, especially the familiar dead, is the most immediate, intimate act of remembrance. Memories of violence pass through osmosis; the physical gap between past life and present death, just previously the sole territory of the dead, closes. After the dead are retrieved, mass death is public, known. The act of killing–who is responsible, and why they killed–however, remains little more than an imagined truth.

The mystery of mass violence is, of course, the central question of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, the play-within-a-play-qua-documentary about the ringleaders of an Indonesian militia under the murderous, repressive Suharto regime. That question reappears, perhaps more subtly, in 12 Years a Slave, the cinematic retelling of Solomon Northup’s liberation from antebellum slavery. In tandem, the two reveal the layered relationship between memory and the politics of control, separately and together, and responsibility for mass violence.

Joshua Oppenheimer, who directed The Act of Killing, is not its central storyteller. Anwar Congo, the head gangster of a former Indonesian death squad, claims that role, alongside several others: documentarian, performer, memorialist, memorialized. The film introduces Anwar and his cohort during their first local casting call for a dramatic commemoration of Indonesia’s mass violence, which killed hundreds of thousands of Anwar’s fellow countrymen between 1965 and 1966. Of course, they were never countrymen of Anwar’s, nor of the sprawling paramilitary organization to which Anwar still belongs. They were killed, by Anwar’s militia and similar ones, as communists and dissidents and civilians and terrorists and opposition leaders and insurgents, even if they died as humans.

Whether the militia’s fictive victims are also humans, as opposed to communists, is unclear. The humanity of their mass murderers exits repeatedly, like the comic relief in a poorly-scripted Beckett play. In one scene, Anwar’s cohort acknowledges their collective crimes. “The key,” one starts, “is to find a way not to feel guilty, find the right excuse.” In contemporary Indonesia, as in its past, guiltlessness is a simple task. Many beneficiaries of Suharto’s regime herald the survival of Indonesia’s gangster culture, of which Anwar is an archetype. Officially, an Indonesian gangster is a “free man”–a human, living among communists.

At first, a gangster’s freedom is an impression, an act of cultural mimicry: aggressive pastels, based loosely on Fredo Corleone’s wardrobe; across town, fascistic rallies where slouching (but patriotic) militiamen chew on dwindling cigarette butts. The scale and consequence of Anwar’s freedom, however, comes quickly into view. As young gangsters, Anwar and his militia stood outside the local movie theater most nights, scalping tickets and harassing passerby; one recalls Malcolm X’s description, in his autobiography, of Harlem’s gangsters, or the youthful rabble of an S.E. Hinton novel. But Anwar’s freedom was no such casual nuisance. After their quick fun, his crew exited the street, and ascended a ramshackle citadel of rudimentary terror. There, they interrogated and often killed Indonesia’s most wanted. These actions occurred at the state’s behest, but far beyond its control.

Solomon Northup’s story is about a different freedom, and a very different violence. Unusually, Solomon was born a free man, and became a literate member of the Saratoga Springs, NY, educated class. One weekend, while his wife and children are out of town, two hucksters invite Solomon, a proficient violinist, to Washington, DC, a frequent cross-roads for the domestic U.S. slave trade. After a night of drinking, Solomon awakes in a dungeon cell, visibly enslaved. He remains in chains, physically and figuratively, for the ensuing majority of the movie, until a court order grants his freedom.

If Solomon sketches his own slow, terrible crawl from slavery, his story also describes the disparate freedom of those around him. Freedom is an imperfect privilege–in the antebellum United States, as elsewhere, the freest humans are always bound to someone by fealty or debt or, among the less free, weaker chains. Early in the movie, Solomon’s well-spoken companion Clemens Ray is released in the New Orleans port, from which Solomon will travel inland. Despite his release, Clemens is in debt: “Ironically,” John Ridley’s scripted stage directions read, “his master now represents ‘freedom.'”

Solomon’s drivers are also free, often at the expense of their slaves. Solomon’s first encounter with the slave plantation’s regular cruelty, Tibeats, is an aggressive overseer with unusual control over the disciplinary affairs of Ford’s plantation. Tibeats is a feeble character, physically meek and psychologically unstable. After Solomon reciprocates Tibeats’ violent provocations, the overseer corrals a lynch mob–he cannot punish Solomon single-handedly. Ford, the plantation master, repays Solomon’s previous obedience with generous mercy, though barely enough to protect his slave.

The episode is an ugly waltz of violent control, between Ford’s repression and Tibeats’ quick, brutal rage. Their dance, a brief sliver of Solomon’s suffering, is a synecdoche of slavery’s slow, massive violence. When the system worked, its slaves suffered, though always at their master’s hand; when it withered, its masters beat and murdered and starved and tortured their victims at overwhelming scale. Though we remember slavery as an institution of totalitarian control, its worst abuses occurred under Tibeats, not Ford–that is, where control was weakest. Solomon’s later masters mimic Tibeats’ cowardly violence amid the anarchic authority in which that violence thrives: the cotton farmer, Edwin Epps, whips Patsey’s crumbling body, a rightly spiteful target of his sexual desire; or, Mary, Epps’ wife, who subjects Patsey to a jealous, tyrannical cruelty. Of course, the untold epilogue of Solomon’s story–the American Civil War–is also the indirect consequence of slavery’s weakening hold.

The dilemma of control sharpens the two films’ divergent understanding of who is responsible for mass violence, and how that responsibility shapes our memory of its event. Just as Solomon’s violence is a small lens into slavery’s greater toils, so too are Anwar’s gangsters a microcosm of Indonesia’s rapid mass atrocity. In the movie’s opening credits, Oppenheimer quotes the quantitative range of violence–one million dead. One understands that this one million, like the Holocaust’s six, is an unfathomable number, and that Anwar’s story grants subtle texture to its massive scale. The movie, however, is as much about avoiding responsibility as 12 Years a Slave is about claiming it. Anwar’s true victims are anonymous ghosts of a suppressed past; his actors, meanwhile, exist out of space and time–except for the viewer’s foreknowledge, the fictive victims might as well be civilians in Cambodia, under the insurgents of the Khmer Rouge, or at My Lai, under U.S. Army Company C. In Indonesia, many were killed; Anwar’s victims, however, are countless and unknown.

As the act of killing concludes, Anwar retches. He retches into the trough, and against the bullet-pocked concrete column, and onto the dusty floor, stained by deep-crimson memories of Indonesia’s retold death. In between heaves, he picks up a ragged canvas sack. This was the sack, he sighs, with which his gangster squad discarded “the human beings we killed.” He returns to his retching spot, where they died.