“No One Stayed to Count the Bodies”

If you want to understand and appreciate why, even in the age of the Internet and satellites and near-ubiquitous mobile telephony, it remains impossible to measure even the coarsest manifestations of political violence with any precision, read this blog post by Phil Hazlewood, AFP’s bureau chief in Lagos. (Warning: graphic. H/t to Ryan Cummings on Twitter.)

Hazlewood’s post focuses on killings perpetrated by Boko Haram, but the same issues arise in measuring violence committed by states. Violence sometimes eliminates some people who might describe the acts involved, and it intentionally scares many others. If you hear or see details of what happened, that’s often because the killers or their rivals for power wanted you to hear or see those details. We cannot sharply distinguish between the communication of those facts and the political intentions expressed in the violence or the reactions to it. The conversation is the message, and the violence is part of the conversation.

When you see or hear things in spite of those efforts to conceal them, you have to wonder how selection effects limit or distort the information that gets through. North Korea’s gulag system apparently contains thousands and kills some untold numbers each year. Defectors are the outside world’s main source of information about that system, but those defectors are not a random sample of victims, nor are they mechanical recording devices. Instead, they are human beings who have somehow escaped that country and who are now seeking to draw attention to and destroy that system. I do not doubt the basic truth of the gulags’ existence and the horrible things done there, but as a social scientist, I have to consider how those selection processes and motivations shape what we think we know. In the United States, we lack reliable data on fatal encounters with police. That’s partly because different jurisdictions have different capabilities for recording and reporting these incidents, but it’s also partly because some people in that system do not want us to see what they do.

For a previous post of mine on this topic, see “The Fog of War Is Patchy“.


A Notable Year of the Wrong Kind

The year that’s about to end has distinguished itself in at least one way we’d prefer never to see again. By my reckoning, 2013 saw more new mass killings than any year since the early 1990s.

When I say “mass killing,” I mean any episode in which the deliberate actions of state agents or other organizations kill at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians from a discrete group. Mass killings are often but certainly not always perpetrated by states, and the groups they target may be identified in various ways, from their politics to their ethnicity, language, or religion. Thanks to my colleague Ben Valentino, we have a fairly reliable tally of episodes of state-led mass killing around the world since the mid-1940s. Unfortunately, there is no comparable reckoning of mass killings carried out by non-state actors—nearly always rebel groups of some kind—so we can’t make statements about counts and trends as confidently as I would like. Still, we do the best we can with the information we have.

With those definitions and caveats in mind, I would say that in 2013 mass killings began:

Of course, even as these new cases have developed, episodes of mass killings have continued in a number of other places:

In a follow-up post I hope to write soon, I’ll offer some ideas on why 2013 was such a bad year for deliberate mass violence against civilians. In the meantime, if you think I’ve misrepresented any of these cases here or overlooked any others, please use the Comments to set me straight.

Mass Killing in Egypt

Let’s define a state-led mass killing as an episode in which state security forces or groups acting at their behest deliberately kill at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians from a discrete group in a relatively short period of time—weeks, months, or maybe even several years. This is a paraphrased version of the definition my colleague Ben Valentino developed for a U.S. government-funded research project, so using it allows us to identify and compare many episodes over time, as I did in another recent post.

Since World War II, nearly all of the state-led mass killings that have occurred around the world have followed one of three basic scenarios, all of them involving apparent threats to rulers’ power.

First and most common, state security forces fighting an insurgency or locked in a civil war kill large numbers of civilians whom they accuse of supporting their rivals, or sometimes just kill indiscriminately. The genocide in Guatemala is an archetypal example of this scenario. In some cases, like Rwanda, the state also enlists militias or even civilians to assist in that killing.

Second, rulers confronting budding threats to their power—usually a nonviolent popular uprising or coup plot—violently repress and attack their challengers in an attempt to quash the apparent threat. The anti-communist massacres in Indonesia in 1965-1966 fit this pattern. In rare cases, like North Korea today, just the possibility of such a threat suffices to draw the state into killing large numbers of civilians. More often, state repression of nonviolent uprisings succeeds in quashing the challenge with fewer than 1,000 civilian deaths, as happened in China in 1989, Uzbekistan in 2005, and Burma in 2007.

Third, rulers who have recently seized power by coup or revolution sometimes kill large numbers of civilian supporters of the faction they have just replaced as part of their efforts to consolidate their power. The mass killings carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970s are probably the most extreme example of this scenario, but Argentina’s “dirty war” and the long-running political purges that began in several East European countries after World War II also fit the pattern.

What happened in Egypt yesterday looks like a slide into the third scenario. Weeks after a military coup toppled Mohamed Morsi, state security forces violently assaulted crowds using nonviolent action to protest the coup and demand Morsi’s restoration to the presidency. The death toll from yesterday’s ruthless repression has already surpassed 500 and seems likely to rise further as more of the wounded die and security forces continue to repress further attempts at resistance and defiance. What’s more, the atrocities of the past 24 hours come on top of the killings of scores if not hundreds of Brotherhood supporters around the country over the past several weeks (see this spreadsheet maintained by The Guardian for details).

One of the many rationalizations offered for the July 3 coup was the argument that the Muslim Brotherhood had used violence to suppress its political rivals during and after mass protests against Morsi last December. People were right to challenge the Muslim Brotherhood over that thuggery, which was arguably a nascent version of the second scenario described above. In calling on the military to deliver them from that threat, however, some of those challengers seem to have struck a Faustian bargain that is now producing killings on a much grander scale.

Prospects for Political Liberalization in North Korea

Foreign Policy‘s Democracy Lab has just posted an essay of mine on why the odds that North Korea might undergo a “thaw” of sorts in the next few years aren’t so bad. The top-line judgment:

Improbable does not mean impossible. Maybe this time really will be different. The U.S.S.R. wasn’t supposed to loosen the screws, and then it did. The Burmese junta was supposed to have battened down the hatches when it crushed the Saffron Uprising in 2007, and look where we are now, just a few years later. Although the safe money’s still on continuity in North Korea, there are sound reasons to believe the chances for political liberalization in the near future are improving.

Those “sound reasons” have to do with trade-offs inherent in the political economy of authoritarian rule, a topic I also discussed on this blog last fall in a post about Burma. Dictators want to preempt or squash domestic political threats, but they don’t like having to pay so much for security, and all that monitoring and repression trips up their economies, too. Those dilemmas mean that dictators might sometimes decide to relax repression when their opposition is weak and their economies are languishing, as is the case in North Korea today.

If you’re interested, please take a look at the piece in FP and let me know what you think. For more academic treatments of this topic, check out the 2007 conference paper on which I based my essay and this article by Georgy Egorov, Sergei Guriev, and Konstantin Sonin from the November 2009 issue of the American Political Science Review.

For Political Forecasting, Deep Knowledge of Specific Cases Is Overrated

I ride my bike a lot. A couple of months ago, I had an unusual pain in my left knee. When it didn’t go away for a couple of weeks, I decided to see an orthopedist. I had never met this man before in my life, but I went anyway because I trusted that his training and experience in pathologies of the human body would enable him to see things that I or someone else in my family would probably overlook or misunderstand.

I thought about this decision process again today when I read a tweet from someone complaining about how North Korea experts seemed to be coming out of the woodwork after Kim Jong Il’s death. That tweet stung a bit because I’d publicly offered my own quick thoughts on prospects for democratic transition in that country in 2012, based on a global statistical analysis I’d done over the weekend. In my 140-character take, I said explicitly that I was no Korea expert, but I still felt confident that my statistical analysis–and the many years of experience watching and thinking about processes of democratization and state collapse that informed it– gave me something useful to add to the conversation on what happens next in that specific country.

The tweet got me thinking again about whether or not that confidence is warranted. I believe it is. When my knee was hurting, I could have asked my wife or my brother or someone else who knows me really, really well to tell me what was wrong and what to do about it.  I didn’t, though, because as deeply as they know me, they don’t know a lot about knee injuries. My wife can accurately predict what time I’ll wake up in the morning, what I’ll eat for breakfast, and which of the movies at the multiplex I’d most like to see, but she doesn’t have the expertise in orthopedics to know what was causing my knee to hurt or how to make it better.

Similarly, I’ve encountered many people in my professional life who know a lot about the history, culture, and social and political dynamics of specific places, but I remain unconvinced that the deep “local” knowledge they possess automatically positions them to give more reliable diagnoses of, and forecasts about, every situation that arises there.  Sometimes–maybe even usually–a little distance and a lot of comparative perspective can be a good thing.

I can’t tell you the names of anyone in the inner circle of North Korean politics, and Almaty is the closest I’ve ever come to Pyongyang. What I do know, however, is that only one of the nearly 100 transitions to democracy in the past forty years happened in a country that had no previous democratic experience and, according to Freedom House, was as repressive in the preceding year as North Korea is now (Mongolia in 1990). I know that states very rarely collapse, and that when they do, those implosions usually occur in countries where the central government has never established real control over much of its territory (think Chad, not China).

Even very unlikely events can still happen, and North Korea could turn out to be an exception to these striking patterns. If I were betting my house on the outcome, though, I’d be greatly relieved to have that comparative perspective at my fingertips. When it comes to diagnosing and forecasting the outcome of rare political crises, I think deep knowledge of specific cases is overrated. Specialists in what Charles Tilly called recurrent “mechanisms” and “processes” can bring something valuable and important to the party, too.

PS. On Twitter and Google+, I’ve heard from a few people who read this post and thought I was arguing that local knowledge is not helpful. I probably should have made clearer that there are lots of analytical questions for which “local” knowledge is indispensable (e.g., who is likely to succeed a dead leader, or how a population is likely to react to a policy pronouncement). Here, I’m talking narrowly about anticipating the occurrence of rare events (e.g., state collapse) or the dynamics of specific recurrent process (e.g., transitions from authoritarian rule). These are phenomena that are rare or even unique in a single case but recurrent across many. On those, I think comparative perspective is generally more valuable. But that’s me.

PPS. I also wrote a follow-up post on how we’re programmed to give statistical forecasts short shrift.

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