April 20, 2012 is supposed to be D-DAY for Joseph Kony, thanks to a 30-minute video by Jason Russell, co-founder of the US-based NGO Invisible Children. In less than five days, Russell’s video garnered over 55 million hits on YouTube. It provides a moving, graphic, and simplistic story about Kony, the evil war criminal and founder of the Lord’s Resistance Army who is allegedly responsible for the abduction, rape, and abuse of 60,000 children over the past two decades.
“Kony 2012” ends with a rousing call to action to young people to make Kony “famous.” The mobilized youth are to plaster cities across the United States with Kony’s image, so that US politicians and decision makers intervene—supplying Uganda and other Central African nations with US military advisors and resources to track down the war criminal and bring him to justice.
Those of us who have spent a lifetime seeking to achieve social change and justice are awed by the sheer potential of this video. As the Israeli paper Haaretz warned in a March 14 editorial, “Israel should take note of ‘Kony 2012.’ It would not be far-fetched to assume that a similar film will be made about the Palestinian conflict. And once the heartrending images of bleeding children are seared into the consciousness of tens of millions of people, it’s doubtful that even 46 pauses for applause in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to AIPAC will be able to erase the damage.”
It is a wonderful thing to live in times when media access is broad enough that people can view a video and then be mobilized to try to put away someone who has brought violence, abuse, and death to thousands of people in Uganda and across Central Africa. That same access made it possible for the followers of the video to learn that its maker—a passionate advocate for Kony’s capture and the father of two children—was arrested for bizarre and perhaps lewd behavior just a few nights ago. It made it possible for us to learn the dubious details about the financials of Invisible Children. It allowed us to learn that Invisible Children has financial support from right-wing Christian fundamentalist groups that are homophobic and may have supported the current law being debated in Uganda making homosexuality a crime punishable by death. It has also resulted in numerous statements issued by Ugandans and other Africans who demand an end to the presentation of African children and adults as needing to be saved by well meaning Americans.
Although it’s impossible to predict what will happen next month, I suspect we won’t see the kind of mass action that Russell hoped would propel the United States to send military advisors to Uganda and provide East African troops with weapons to capture Kony. I hope young Americans can be similarly motivated by filmmakers who may try to use this medium to achieve justice for Trayvon Martin—a black teenager who recently was shot by an armed neighborhood-watch volunteer in broad daylight in a gated community in Sanford, Fla.
Unlike the Ugandan children in Russell’s video and its main character Jacob Acaye, Trayvon was not kidnapped by a warlord. He did not live in the middle of a war zone in Africa. He was not abducted in the middle of the night. He was simply coming back from the grocery store with a bag of Skittles in his hands and a hoodie over his head. His crime was being a young black man in a southern state with a legacy of racism and new laws that go by the innocuous title “Stand your Ground”—laws that are a thinly veiled pretext for the use of concealed weapons to “defend” one self in the case of a “perceived threat.”
This use of force to resolve conflict—the choice to fight fire with fire, so to speak, is one of my grave concerns about the Kony video. From the opening sequences in which Russell’s four-year-old son imagines a video game to bomb and destroy “bad guys,” to the video’s recommendations for US military intervention, viewers of “KONY 2012” are encouraged to make Kony a household name in the United States, thereby pressuring lawmakers to use military force in central Africa. After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, after the death of more than 6,000 US troops and close to 1 million Iraqis and Afghans in wars ironically titled Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, it is chilling that a call to bring a war criminal to trial requires more soldiers, more military advisors, and more weapons.
That message of militarism in the Kony video is not the only thing that causes me unease. The video completely fails to acknowledge that we live in a world where power is unevenly distributed. It is a world where mass action by American teenagers can presumably "save" Africans and find the “bad guy" Kony, but also one in which it is not considered appropriate for Ugandans, Congolese, or Vietnamese activists to make videos exhorting their young people to pressure their governments to send military advisors to the United States to round up alleged war criminals there. More than four decades after the massacres of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians as a result of the napalm bombings authorized by Henry Kissinger, and over a decade after the illegal invasion of a country that did not attack the United States, there is no global call to go after men like Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, or George H. W. Bush. Indeed, the United States is not a party to the very international criminal court (ICC) that is so prominently spoken of in the video, because it would require that Americans be held to the same standards as war criminals from other nations. In the narrative exemplified by “Kony 2012,” it is Americans who write history and Africans who are victims in need of American help.
Yet, if I have learned one thing in my 15 years at the Global Fund for Women, it is that while food and clean drinking water may be lacking in many of the world’s poorest nations—courage, dignity, and resilience are to be found on every street corner and in the most humble barrios. Ordinary people—mothers, school teachers, doctors, and farmers—have been standing up to warlords like Joseph Kony and thousands like him from the smallest villages of Sierra Leone and Liberia to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Leymah Gbowee, who received a $5,000 grant in 2003 from the Global Fund for Women for her organizing work, was the 2011 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. She worked quietly and determinedly for many years without recognition along with thousands of other women in Liberia to challenge the violence of dictator Charles Taylor and the LURD rebels. Patricia Guerrero in Colombia, founder of La Liga Mujeres Desplazadas, will remind you that men with weapons—whether they are named Zimmerman and live in Florida or whether they belong to the Colombian army or the FARC rebels—are no friends to civilians.
Military intervention is often foreign policy folly. In the 20th century, American military advisors in Latin America helped oversee the brutal death squads of juntas in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, not to mention in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Women and their families are still paying the price for those travesties of justice. Just this past week, a single US soldier using a semiautomatic weapon killed 16 Afghans, although he cannot recall the incident.
Weapons, particularly the small arms that have flooded Central Africa and Latin America, give men the power to kill, maim, rape, and terrorize. Let’s not repeat history by calling for Congress to authorize more men with guns to go in search of the “bad guy.” Let us catalyze the power and inherent democratic promise of social media and hope that the next video calling for civil society to hold war criminals accountable—or for peace in Central Africa—will focus on long-term solutions beginning with an end to the sale and trade of weapons as Amnesty International has done. Let us hope there will soon be a D-DAY for weapons that kill and maim children whether they are Ugandans called Jacob or Americans called Trayvon.
Kavita Ramdas is executive director of Ripples to Waves: Program on Social Entrepreneurship at Stanford University, and served as president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women from 1996 to 2010.