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  • That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity
  • Makau Mutua (bio)
James Dawes. That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007. 304 pp. ISBN 978-0-6740-2623-0, $19.95.

In That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity, James Dawes has written one of the most insightful and penetrating works on a class of social actors who devote their lives to doing good. I have never read any book quite like this one. Even for a person who writes about human rights crusaders, humanitarian workers, and those who document and report the most abominable atrocities, I was moved to tears by the loneliness and tragic paradoxes that are emblematic of the young idealists trapped in the desire to save mankind. At once, theirs are lives of nobility, voyeurism, despair, and redemption—all rolled up in a childlike belief that life can be better. The genius of Dawes is the emotional intelligence with which he breaks down the pathologies of disaster and catastrophe.

Dawes attempts what is arguably an impossible task—standing on the outside to understand exactly what goes on in the humanitarian world. This provides some intellectual purity to his analysis, but it also ironically puts him in the category of those who engage in reportage over atrocities. It is in that sense that he is not really an outsider, but an active participant in the dilemmas that confront do-gooders. However, one must concede to Dawes a most valiant effort of isolating narrator and analyst from the fog of action. At the end of the book, I felt that it should be required reading for budding idealists [End Page 748] and jaded former activists. I do not know how many fallen or retired “angels” have looked back so introspectively on their earlier careers.

Dawes creates several categories—a kind of prismatic rendering of the universe of humanitarianism—through which he explores the complexities of this existence. The two poles of his analysis are actor on the one hand, and participant on the other. This distinction is not water-tight because as I have pointed out, the observer and reporter is also an actor. Nevertheless, one can see the distinction as separating actors from voyeurs. But in either case, there are moral injunctions. The so-called storytellers of the Rwanda genocide, for example, are not free from conscience. How will they report the events— whose version, and from which perspective? Is there a purpose to the reporting? Is that purpose morally defensible? Does it violate the victim, or is it through the mouths of the victims? What gives the storytellers the right to broadcast the privations of the victim?

On the other end of the pole is the actor who claims a moral imperative to act. But again, by what moral compass is the actor proceeding? Does the actor know for sure what is good for the victim? If so, how? In other words, is the actor driven by a culturally-bound sense of right and wrong, or is there a universal moral code that is beyond question, and on which the actions taken are deemed unassailable? If such a code did exist—and was embedded in the consciousness of the victim—then its execution might be uncontroversial. But we all know that universality is a loaded die. This is what complicates the attempt to rescue victims from their condition. Is the rescue an imperial project designed to enhance certain hegemonies, or is it a truly shared universal wisdom? Dawes grapples with these questions but he does not really answer them. Perhaps there are no good answers. But he succeeds in taking us to the inner torment of the project of charity.

In human rights and humanitarian law, the work of charity or global volunteerism is a Western project. In fact, international law itself—the body of jurisprudence on which these works are based—has as its original purpose the civilization of the pre-modern. Conceived as the preserve of “civilized nations,” international law was Europe’s justification for empire and the conquest of the black, brown, and yellow peoples of the world—in short, the subordination of...