'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.

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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