'Kony 2012' Night Arrives at Last


Friday night is "cover the night" night. If all goes according to plan, when the sun rises on Saturday the landscape will have been plastered with "Kony 2012" signs by young activists determined to bring a horrible African warlord to justice.

But of course, with the Kony 2012 campaign, all isn't going according to plan. The video that inspired these activists got lots of blowback from, among other people, experts on Joseph Kony. Then, apparently as a result, the guy who made the video, and kind of starred in it, had a very public psychological breakdown. So it may be that most of us get through this weekend without seeing a single "Kony 2012" sign.

But before this campaign recedes into history, I want to say something on its behalf; there's a point in its favor that I discovered only this week.

The backlash against the video had several components, including the claims that: (1) Kony, though a hideous man who had left a swath of atrocity in his wake, was now doing damage on a smaller scale than the video suggested; and (2) the video's prescription--let's go capture him!--was simplistic, because the conditions that give rise to these kinds of atrocities are complex, and won't be magically changed by tracking down one man.

But this week I came across some reporting by Jeffrey Gettleman suggesting that, actually, there's something to be said for tracking down one man. After Gettleman, a New York Times correspondent, won the Pulitzer Prize on Monday, his oeuvre got fresh exposure, and I wound up reading a piece he wrote for Foreign Policy in 2010. This section, about Kony and comparable African warlords, caught my eye:

Even if you could coax these men out of their jungle lairs and get them to the negotiating table, there is very little to offer them. They don't want ministries or tracts of land to govern. Their armies are often traumatized children, with experience and skills (if you can call them that) totally unsuited for civilian life. All they want is cash, guns, and a license to rampage. And they've already got all three. How do you negotiate with that?

The short answer is you don't. The only way to stop today's rebels for real is to capture or kill their leaders. Many are uniquely devious characters whose organizations would likely disappear as soon as they do. [Emphasis added.]

And as for that other complaint about the Kony 2012 video--that Kony's atrocity machine has been downsized: True, but even if his run is just about over, there are others like him and others who aspire to be like him. So there's deterrent value in making an example of him.

I'm not suggesting that President Obama send the Navy Seals on a 'capture or kill' mission. Kony belongs no more on America's conscience than on the rest of the world's conscience.

And it may be that the world doesn't yet have the collective will or the collective power to act on its conscience; maybe the machinery of global governance doesn't yet permit something that should in theory be doable--tracking down a band of murderous thugs. But if that's the case we should at least reflect on this fact and decide that, in the long run, it's not acceptable.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Death of Film: After Hollywood Goes Digital, What Happens to Movies?

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe


A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.


I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."


Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion



More in Global

Just In