back to school

It’s been about three years since I last updated this site, so: hello! I’m glad to be back.

First, an update: I’m returning to Georgetown in the fall as a PhD candidate with the school’s Government department. I’ve spent the last three and a half years working as a research assistant at the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, a policy think tank at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. At the Simon-Skjodt Center, I’ve worked on projects ranging from an assessment of indicators of potential mass atrocities in Zimbabwe to a research paper evaluating critical junctures and counterfactual policy actions in the US policy response to the crisis in Syria. I honed a variety of skills, including my writing, policy communication, and understanding of research methods. I also had the chance to work with a world-class community of scholars, activists, and policy officials who share my commitment to issues of global importance.

But I also found myself brushing up against the limits of my own research skills and methodological prowess. There are important questions that I want to answer, and work I’m interested in doing, that I decided I’m not able to accomplish without the intensive training that a PhD provides. I’m fortunate that my supportive family—my wife Lucy, and my siblings, parents, grandparents, and in-laws—has my back, and that my professional network will allow me to continue working on issues I care about. If I have any advice to aspiring PhD candidates, it’s to take both of those things seriously. My PhD experience will succeed because of that support, not in spite of it.

What will I study? Right now, my bio says, “My research focuses on three themes: (1) the dynamics of mass atrocities; (2) civilian mobilization during mass atrocities and other types of large-scale violence; and (3) international policy responses to mass atrocities and violent conflict. I’m also interested in how US social movements use international human rights norms as a strategy of contention.” However, the best indication of my interests—the things I’ve spent time reading about during the last three and a half years—is probably the list of research questions, odds, and ends that populate my running “Research projects” note on Google Keep:

  • Regime conflicts / “existential” civil wars and intervention outcomes
  • Do local patterns of violence in Weimar correspond to patterns of atrocities / violence in Nazi Germany?
  • Coalition building and counterterrorism?
  • Civilian responses to mass atrocities / large-scale repression
  • History of Leavenworth computer training programs during the 1970s (history paper)
  • What does “no-platforming” do for US social movements? Why do social movements use it as a tactic despite the obvious social costs? Group-year dataset of American social movements using no-platforming tactics. Test effects of the use of no-platforming on group cohesion, public support for their cause, political polarization.
  • Tony Judt biography
  • Paper based on We Charge Genocide case: how do radical movements contribute to lifecycle of international norms?
  • How have relationships between HBCUs and black mobilization changed since the civil rights era?
  • Unintended consequences of partial transparency regimes? Cf: global intelligence reform efforts.

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. So really, your guess on the eventual focus of my dissertation is as good as mine.

The fundamental work of scholarship is writing; good, quick writing is as much a method of social science as any form of quantitative analysis. And writing, like any skill, demands constant practice. I read a post a couple of months ago by Katie Heaney, a writer at The Cut blog at New York mag, that recommended writing 500 words a day, 5 days a week, as a practice strategy. During college, I used Securing Rights—the previous title of this site’s blog page—as my main forum for informal commentary on international relations, contemporary mass atrocities, and issues of popular protest, pop culture, and movement-building. A few years of blogging resulted in some writing that I’m proud of, and other pieces that, in retrospect, I’d rather not have written. I expect I’ll use this site in much the same way as I used Securing Rights: as a platform for ideas in their incubation stage, but also–and perhaps more importantly–as a place for practicing my craft.

I’ll also post updates on my published research and writing at other outfits. As I post on the site, I’m eager for your thoughts, comments, and questions. Never hesitate to get in touch at daniel.solomon18(at)gmail(dot)com. Happy reading!

refuge as protection

On March 3, 1991, more than 150 refugees from the southern Somali town of Kismayo were entombed in a 60-foot boat near Malindi, along Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast. When the Somali refugees drowned, the boat was at capacity; hours before, the boat carried more than 500 additional refugees, who had fled to a small sandbar offshore where their boat “ran aground.” A Malindi diving instructor who spoke to the New York Times soon after the refugees’ arrival described the mass bedlam that preceded their deaths: “[I]t was hell, completely. There were people clinging to dead people to survive.” After the dead were counted, Malindi townspeople exhumed the refugees’ bodies from their seaborne coffin, and placed them “into a mass grave carved out of the sand.”

That was 1991. A gaze at Times stories of the mass deaths of forcibly displaced persons at sea from the ensuing quarter-century offer up a boundless infinity mirror of global suffering. In 1993, the waters of the Congo River swept up 147 Congolese deportees rushing across a ferry gangway in Kinshasa, their onetime capital; in 1998, 200 Bissau-Guineans disappeared into the Atlantic while escaping their country’s civil war. The Congo River; the Atlantic Ocean–these waters, among many others, have become recurring gravesites for people in flight. Back at home, these refugees and their bodies face extreme jeopardy; they might encounter physical torture, as in Eritrea’s prisons, or the encompassing devastation of artillery fire, as in the cities under the Syrian government’s stubborn siege. A sea voyage offers few more protections to these people, sheltered as they are by a well-worn vessel and the slippery assurances of a clandestine courier.

These refugees’ suffering is–has become–a regular testament to moral failure: of the smugglers, who, seeking the slimmest of profit margins, place their desperate clients in conditions of unlivable density; of the violent politics from which these refugees flee, which ensure the suffering of the families and neighbors left behind; of those who benefit from those politics, and who feign ignorance as their fellow countrypeople perish; of the violent politics to which these people flee, seeking refuge, only to find a mass hysteria lying in wait; of the international community, especially its wealthiest members, which offer these refugees few paths to safety beyond the false promise of a half-buoyant dinghy. As is often the case during violent conflict and its other consequences, there is plenty of blame to share.

There is a global refugee crisis–today, it is on Europe’s shores; two months ago, it was on Malaysia’s; one year ago, it was on the southern border of the United States. This is a crisis of no specific moment: it is persistent, because the violence whence it came is persistent. The refugees that violence creates occupy a worldly purgatory. In camps, the ramshackle residence that becomes their home is impermanent by definition, and their new society is governed at once by the formal legal codes of domestic and international humanitarian governance, and an informal assortment of evolutionary bodies. Even when these refugees are resettled–given permanent visas, permanent homes–the societies that host them place them at their margins.

The public politics of human rights–which atrocities public media, officials, and figures choose to discuss, and which they choose to condemn–embraces an implicit ranking of rights, which determine the will and the effort devoted to their protection. Atop this moral pyramid sit life and its absence, death. As I have written here before, the intentional and expansive act of causing death–that is to say, mass killing–provokes particular global sympathy and, rarely, response. (Even more rarely, that response achieves its intended purpose.) The individual act of killing erodes a community’s protective virtue; at scale, that same act is a grave assault on our common humanity. This belief shapes the moral consensus to which we aspire, that notion that both humans and their politics bear responsibility for those whom mass violence threatens most.

The mass deaths of refugees challenge this moral ranking. If the resolution of violence is unlikely, to where must our responsibility turn? If mass death is probable–not by violence, but through flight–does refuge not offer the greatest promise of protection?

end times

The cover feature of the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic carries the headline “What ISIS Really Wants.” What ISIS, the group currently occupying a large swath of territory in Syria and Iraq, wants is the End of Days, according to Graeme Wood, the article’s author. That is, ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, is a millenarian movement whose aim is nothing less than a quicker apocalypse, rather than the profane act of continuous mass violence. Wood’s reporting offers ample evidence of the group’s apocalyptic vision. Much of the piece revolves around the ideas and activities of Robert “Musa” Cerantonio, an Australian man with a “bookish demeanor” whom both researchers and the Islamic State’s fellow travelers describe as one of the group’s leading ideologues. Cerantonio’s millenarian teachings are a selective mix of existing Sunni Islamic thought and novel speculation, according to Wood’s description:

“[His visions] include the belief that there will be only 12 legitimate caliphs, and [Islamic State leader Abu-Bakr al-]Baghdadi is the eighth; that the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest.”

This is heavy stuff, and heavy stuff worth taking seriously, according to Wood. For Wood, the U.S. officials now engaged in a belated, bumbling, and insufficient battle against the Islamic State are too quick to misinterpret the group’s theology and, therefore, its military and political strategy. The axiom that guides Wood’s argument, that understanding must precede (policy) action, is plainly correct. But understanding the millenarian ideas that underpin the Islamic State’s theology is not enough. That same axiom falls short if we do not also grapple with the historical reasons for millenarianism’s emergence, and the ways in which the apocalyptic idea does–and does not–shape politics, both of the Islamic State and of others.

The principal concern of the apocalyptic idea is time: the shortcomings of the present-day, and the urgency of the future. Millenarianism is a wholesale rejection of the modern, of the ways in which its contemporaneous politics organize and determine the activities of human society. By modern, I refer to a specific mode of thought that has, in recent history, governed the politics of that society. “To be modern,” Marshall Berman writes in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, his wide-ranging investigation of “the experience of modernity,”

“is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world–and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.”

That we associate this phenomenon with our contemporary era is a result of the gradual convergence of these paradoxical forces. The fault lines of economic inequality have sharpened even as the mechanization of industry has made realer the promise of universal prosperity; the quickening pollution of our natural spaces has both accompanied and disrupted the preservation of wilderness. In 1872, the interests of both private American railroad companies, compelled by the promise of tourism, and a nascent environmental movement aligned to midwife the first national U.S. wilderness reserve–Yellowstone National Park, along the northwestern border of Wyoming. The Janus-faced spirit of that first American wilderness persists in the character of the contemporary U.S. Department of the Interior, which, tasked with both America’s national parks and its natural resources, simultaneously oversees the preservation and exploitation of wilderness. That experience of modernity, the ever-presence of contradiction, is precisely the present-day the apocalyptic idea rejects.

The apocalyptic future is an era in which the contradictions of modernity have fully converged, and in which its imperfections do not exist. Because millenarianism embraces this future, it is tempting to place its followers at a total remove from the modern era. (Set aside, if you can, the peculiar historicism of this argument: by definition, an organization that exists in the year 2015 necessarily bears the stamp, however faint, of its times.) In his article, Wood quibbles with those who elevate the Islamic State’s politics to a modern plane, who portray its gruesome, violent insurgency as anything but “a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment.” Wood describes Musa Cerantonio’s millenarianism along these lines, as “a medieval fantasy novel, only with real blood.” For Wood, the medieval character of the Islamic State emerges from practices that are both essential to and inextricable from the group’s apocalyptic vision for modernity’s destruction: namely, its violence (“medieval-style punishments for moral crimes”) and the apparent oddity of its political culture (“codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned”).

However “medieval” these practices appear, the millenarianism of the Islamic State is also fully a part of its place in modernity. This is not simply a consequence of the networked technologies, like YouTube, the Islamic State uses to communicate its violence. The institutions the Islamic State disavows, like the bureaucracy and borders of its secular state, are precisely the same ones that grant its authority. If these institutions hasten the apocalypse, in their marginal way, they are, first and foremost, concerned with the control and influence of civilians under the Islamic State’s domain. As Colin Dickey argues in his essay on the politics of time, “the notion of the Apocalypse adds an end point to the calendar, a termination date that infuses the present with meaning.” The Islamic State’s secular vision for power, and not its millenarianism, is the primary origin of the group’s mass violence.

The secular function of the apocalyptic idea is common among groups who claim millenarianism’s mantle. Before his public split from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X used a prolific assortment of apocalyptic images to proselytize the Nation’s vision of black liberation. These images followed an existing lineage, dating to Reconstruction-era slave narratives, of prophetic themes used to advance the slow-moving cause of black freedom. Malcolm’s radical eschatology, however, failed to keep pace with the demands of marginalized black communities in cities across the United States. It was Malcolm’s secular vision for political and economic equality, and his ability to organize communities to that end, that secured the preacher’s authority in the years preceding his assassination in 1965.


On December 15, 2014, the one-year anniversary of South Sudan’s first national conflict since independence, a group of South Sudanese volunteers announced a tribute to the deaths of South Sudanese civilians during the country’s violence. The memorial, digitally displayed in a PDF document titled “Naming the Ones We Lost–South Sudan Conflict: 15 Dec 2013 to the present day,” is a modest object. Its organizers’ two-page introduction precedes a 15-page chart, five columns across, that lists the names lost to mass violence. The names in question, listed in alphabetical order, currently number 572; for each of the dead, where possible, the chart also provides an approximate date of birth, and a location and date of death. The document’s single medium, Calibri text, is the default font of a Microsoft Word document, from which the PDF was likely created; the memorial contains neither photographs nor video, nor archived testimonies of the victims’ experience. The memorial’s organizers acknowledge, with somber resignation, that its list of names “will inevitably grow” as the country’s stubborn violence continues into 2015 and beyond.

South Sudan’s civil society boasts a large following, a decades-old global diaspora of refugees, humanitarian workers, diplomats, and activists. Since mid-December, the country’s memorial document has circulated, mostly online, among this global community. In some posts, those sympathetic to the recent suffering of South Sudan’s civilians simply offer condolences; others, such as the Boston-based World Peace Foundation, present the volunteers’ memorial as a case study in the collective remembrance of mass violence. In her post about the memorial, the Foundation’s research director Bridget Conley-Zilkic approvingly describes the document’s basic ethos: “[Memorialization] offers its most profound contribution when it absolutely refuses generalization, when it issues an exhortation, across the vast terrain of mass atrocities, to return to the loss of one person, whose loss is infinite.” For Conley-Zilkic, the cautionary lessons of remembrance are clear. Only through our quiet witness to past lives can the mass tragedies of others occupy our common present. The names, former occupations, and locations of the dead are the sole objects that grant remembrance meaning. The so-called “living memorial,” like the moral exhibitions of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum or the Kigali Genocide Memorial, “forgets more than it remembers.”

For those that refuse generalization, the moral consequences of South Sudan’s mass violence are confined to the country’s local boundaries, even as the immediacy of the violence recedes, and knowledge of its destruction passes from one place to the next. Nowhere is this clearer than in the memorial’s basic design, a PDF file. Like the moral memory of its subjects, the document’s memorial is fixed to a specific time and stored in a specific place. The content of this PDF file cannot be edited by those who read it, and can only be tweaked by its creators. In its current form, the document recalls no more than the 572 deaths now listed. A single additional name, confirmed and collected by the project’s volunteers, requires a fully new document, a new memorial. The file will be different, as will the memories its names evoke.

The appeal of the local, artificially preserved, is undeniable. In tragedy, we cherish that which is closest to us. Faced with mass violence, even from afar, we desire no less intimacy for its survivors than we offer our own. Even the most universal memorials to human suffering display smaller, more local tokens of devastation. At the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a three-story tower of family photographs segments the museum’s core exhibition. The collection commemorates the death of the Jewish community of Eisiskes, which along with two other Lithuanian shtetls was fully destroyed by Nazi Einsatzgruppen in June 1941. The photographs recall the multitudes of the villagers’ daily lives: where their children learn, and their parents work; how the villagers feast, and how they fast; how they pray, and how they mourn. On the museum’s top floor, the photographs are followed by a somber glass footbridge. The footbridge walls list the villages that, like Eisiskes, vanished amid the myriad violence of the Holocaust. This is Conley-Zilkic’s “vast terrain” of mass violence, infinite in the singularity of its suffering. All, one village and hundreds alike, refuse generalization.

In late December, I accompanied my grandmother and younger brothers to the 9/11 Memorial Museum in downtown New York. I have always approached the events of September 11, 2001, at an uncomfortable distance. A New Yorker by birth and habit, I was on a class trip in rural Connecticut the morning the towers fell. By contrast, my grandmother was married in New York the following day; for her, as for so many New Yorkers, the memory of September 11 abounds with love, for an injured city, and loss. The Memorial Museum is a remembrance of this loss, of the emptiness and uncertainty that afflicted New Yorkers then, and has afflicted so many other Americans since. The museum sits in the underbelly of the fallen towers, down the street from the cavernous fountains that now take their place. Its core exhibition recalls a concrete catacomb. It is peppered with artifacts of a pre-9/11 era: free-standing New York guide maps, a disassembled fire truck, severed parts of the buildings themselves. In one section, the multi-story slabs that line the central ramp feature images of missing persons. Surrounding the photos are passports and state IDs–bits and scraps of these persons’ lives, easily forgotten.

On the museum’s basement level, a separate section hosts a collection of the dead, like the yahrzeit lists that line the walls of my synagogue further uptown. Some victims, presumably those with generous families, have mementos on display, tokens of the normalcy of their pre-9/11 lives. Others only have a name, accompanied by the grey silhouette of an anonymous human. As the visitor walks through the collection, an audio recording of each victim’s name resounds in the background. Each name is preceded by a singular noun: “my father,” “my son.” The speaker’s possession implies the victim’s singularity amid the 2,751 others. But it also reinforces the common experience behind each name: to each mother, a daughter.

where warning works (chibok, nigeria)

The kidnappings at Chibok, in northern Nigeria, are difficult to recount; it is a story of hiding, and not of telling. The initial subterfuge of Nigerian military officials, the unknown identities of the Chibok girls’ captors, the perpetual two-step of government diplomacy with Boko Haram, the girls’ captors–as weeks pass, with most of the Chibok girls no closer to home, these obfuscations appear more common than transparency. When–if–the girls return, they will bring many stories to narrate; likely, many fewer will be heard.

It is unexpected, then, that we might view the events at Chibok as a positive case of early warning. Not prevention, of course; the girls’ eventual abduction suggests as much. Still, the essence of effective warning–the continuous, accessible flow of accurate information to Chibok’s vulnerable civilians–was apparent in the hours prior to Boko Haram’s violent swarm. A rare wealth of reporting describes the kidnappings’ preceding events. At approximately 9:30 pm, on April 14, the chairman of the Chibok school’s Parent Teacher Association contacted the town’s designated military commander to warn of an impending attack, according to a Reuters investigation. An earlier report by Amnesty International places an even earlier time-stamp–7:00 pm–on the military’s knowledge of the town’s imminent danger. According to the Amnesty report, the first to learn of Boko Haram’s plans was a group of community militiamen in Gagilam, near Chibok, who communicated the warning via phone to Chibok officials. Local security officials paid the warnings little heed, likely because of widespread fear among appointed military units. Many fled to the nearby mountainside; the Chibok girls were taken.

We can speculate about possible reasons why Chibok’s warnings worked, prior to the abject failure of the Nigerian state’s local security forces. The first appears to be the now-robust growth of community militias in Borno state and its surrounding regions. These groups, sometimes referred to as “vigilantes” or the “civilian JTF” (Joint Task Force, the Nigerian military moniker for an ad-hoc domestic operation) are a form of “hybrid governance.” The militias fill gaps in the services of the Nigerian state–in this case, for better and worse, violence–but reject formal incorporation by state authorities. Their efforts to gather and distribute information about Boko Haram’s civilian violence have apparently become more sophisticated, especially in areas of greatest need. The militias are a human infrastructure; as their networks strengthen, their ability to warn vulnerable civilians multiplies.

The second feature may be unique to Chibok. The site from which the girls were abducted was a boarding school, which hosted students and, sometimes, parents from across northeastern Nigeria. Chibok is a node–there, the flow of information is a bidirectional event. Civilians who received warnings from Gagilam, the neighboring town, passed that information as far as Maiduguri, the capital city of Borno state. In warning, networks matter, and Chibok’s–rather, its civilians’–was expansive.

Where warning is concerned, the circumstances are rarely as favorable as Chibok’s were. That local communities are an event’s first responders is a well-worn adage of early warning; still, the internal and external strength of these communities’ networks often vary. Where existing networks lag, international assistance may be useful. Global NGOs–Invisible Children, in LRA-affected communities in Central Africa, the Free Burma Rangers, in Burma’s Karen state, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Peace Direct, in Burundi–have developed extensive programs to strengthen information networks to vulnerable civilians in conflict zones. These are long-term initiatives, with long-term dividends. A short-term gap remains: among civilians who weather the immediate consequences of mass violence, but who lack a warning infrastructure like Chibok’s, where can local and global actors contribute?