“The people! United! Will never be divided! The people! United! Will never be defeated!”
When I was in high school, I loved a good protest. You got to get out into the community, chant inspiring things, and feel like you were making a difference. Of course, sometimes the protest was very small and the cause was not as good as I thought it was. I had not learned to analyze the causes I fought for yet. I had righteous indignation without the experience to apply nuanced critical thinking. The activist community sometimes fails at nuanced critical thinking in victory as well as in defeat.
What does victory look like? In the case of the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, it looked like getting attention to the matter, and it looked like help from and for the Nigerian government. The U.S. and many European countries, including the UK, have sent surveillance equipment and soldiers, sent money, and generally given support. Thousands of people have tweeted, facebooked, hashtagged the World Cup games, and talked to their friends about the situation. So do we declare victory? Can we declare victory when the girls are most likely in Cameroon, and will likely never be returned to their parents? Boko Haram has kidnapped 60 more girls and is terrorizing people who are watching the World Cup. Is that victory? After all, the campaign has achieved many of its goals.
What is the lesson here? The people, united, can be defeated – even when backed by the great economic and military powers.
Meriam Ibrahim, meanwhile, was imprisoned, promised release, kept in prison, released, re-arrested, and the US is working to have her released again. I will breathe easy when she is out of Sudan, and not before. As in Nigeria, this case was championed and led by local people (yes, many of them Muslims) who were outraged by the Trousers Woman case and have been agitating for better treatment of women and religious minorities in Sudan. Unfortunately, they are led by a power-hungry genocidal war criminal who asserts himself at every turn. If she gets out of Sudan, as I confidently believe she will within 48 hours, it will be because of international pressure, but even more because of internal pressure.
Finally, we come to the case of the three Israeli boys kidnapped two weeks ago. International concern is high, and it is fair to say it has not been equally high for Palestinian children caught up in the ongoing mess there in the United States. Israeli forces, including Bedouin Israelis, are searching for them. What, then, is the aim of the campaign to find these boys and bring them home to their families? In part, it must be to highlight the insecurity that Israelis and Palestinians live in every single day. It is always, always a problem when children (yes, teenagers are children) are targeted in a war – yet it is not infrequent. This case is not special, but it is not less important for that. In this case, it’s clear that attention will not be enough to bring these kids back, nor will it solve this ongoing imbalanced conflict that directly involves four and a half countries.
With all these international campaigns, it is easy to get lost and wonder what international attention is worth. But to me, part of the point is attention, and paying attention. The risk is that we pay attention without applying nuanced critical thinking, or that we pay attention until our attention is taken by something else – the latest game, whatever the Kardashians are doing, a scandal involving a clown, a blowtorch, and a Bible, or just our everyday lives. Attention is in short supply.
It’s also very easy to get burned out if you think that your country’s involvement will magically solve the problem. The problematic Kony 2012 campaign led to ever-increasing US involvement in trying to arrest Joseph Kony, but he is still at large. The Obama Administration has spent resources in an attempt to find the kidnapped Nigerian girls, in vain. Don’t get me wrong: we have to try. There is no going back in time; we are involved in world affairs, whatever country we live in, and every country must take responsibility for its place in the world. That means giving aid when required, accepting help, and bringing criminal governments and individuals to justice. But sometimes the countries, united, are as vulnerable to defeat as the people, united. Sometimes the outcome is not what we wish it to be. That’s not a reason to give up. It’s a reason to learn some lessons and keep working at it.