Are the kidnapped Nigerian school girls really America’s problem?

Boko Haram is evil and we all want to see the victims rescued. But how is it our responsibility?

Many of us have watched in horror as the story of the kidnapped Nigerian school girls has unfolded. The idea of a terror group like Boko Haram selling these victims into “marriage” violates every atom of our shared morality.

But the other day I saw this headline from the Beeb:

Nigeria abducted schoolgirls: Was US slow to act?

I have to tell you, I was a little taken aback. Sure, we have resources we can put into play. Yes, we’re trying to help. Yes, hopefully we can be part of finding the victims and rescuing them.

But since when is the abduction of children in Nigeria a US problem? Read that headline – it assumes that Boko Haram kidnappings are America’s responsibility. The first B in BBC – that stands for British,” right? Why isn’t the headline “Was Britain slow to act?”

Natural disasters on the other side of the world? Call America. Unrest in Ukraine? Call America. Iranian nuclear program? Call America, and fast.

I know, I know. This is our own doing. We’ve spent so long pretending we’re the world’s policeman that now everybody has bought into the idea. You don’t devote decades to deploying a short-sighted, arrogant, counterproductive imperial foreign policy without eventually paying for it.

I don’t want to sound like an unfeeling asshole. I’m not. We find ourselves in a position to help, great.

But… What about all the kidnapped children in the United States? There are a lot more of them than there are in Nigeria. How many is hard to sort precisely – the famous 797,000 number is problematic, as Slate explains, but by any reckoning the tragedy here is, numerically speaking, far greater than it is with the Boko Haram case, especially when you consider that “one in seven endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in 2013 were likely sex trafficking victims.”

No, these stories don’t make for a handy parallel. The missing in the US are diffused – lots of small, individual cases that aren’t deemed newsworthy in and of themselves (except when one of the victims turns out to be a pretty middle-class white girl, of course). The numbers are spread out over time and geography, whereas in the Nigeria case everything is neatly focused in a way that cynical international media conglomerates can aggregate for maximum ratings.

Also, Boko Haram is an Islamic terrorist organization, and that’s always good for attracting eyeballs. The only thing that would make it a better story would be if they’d somehow nabbed a girls youth soccer team from a lilly-white burb of Atlanta.

Am I being cynical here? Fine. Explain to me how I’m wrong.

As I say, I’m mortified by the kidnappings in Nigeria and can barely think about what those little girls are facing. I hope to hell they can all be brought to safety, and I’m not going to lie, I’ll be just fine if each and every kidnapper dies in the rescue operation. If the US is part of the happy ending, great, although for all kinds of reasons I hope no US soldiers are the ones pulling the triggers. That just makes the recruiting process easier for our enemies.

In the end, though, I don’t find the plight of kidnapped Nigerian girls being sold into what amounts to sex slavery any worse than I do kidnapped American girls being forced into sex slavery.

If you want to fix the world, start at home.


  • Ideally, the UN’s problem. Though the British are sending in troops, the U.S., advisors.

  • I have mixed emotions. Yes, the fact that we have troops on the ground in seventy countries, are becoming a rabidly militaristic society, and history shows that nations that overspend on the military invariably fail worries the shit out of me. However, historically, we haven’t cared about any victims at all unless they were white. So you’re right that we shouldn’t be involved. That we are is at least as much because of the headline-grabbing nature of the problem (Schoolgirls! Mass kidnapping! Sex trafficking! Islamic terrorists!) as a concern to see wrongs righted.

    But still, after if we’re going to keep sending troops hither and yon (and we are), it’s fitting that after years of turning our back on the horrors in Africa (Sudan, Lord’s Army, etc) we send them there.

  • It is a tragic event. My heart breaks for the parents and the girls.

    That said, I feel famous American people like our First Lady holding up a sign is just another poor attempt to say “Look at ME. Look at ME.”

    Holding up a sign somewhere in America won’t help these poor girls. Only the Nigerian government can help them and a change in their own social structure. A sad story all around.

  • I disagree, the abduction of any child, any where, is a problem for all of mankind. What we should be asking ourselves and every other nation in the world is why we haven’t done enough.

    • Stop. Can you point to where somebody suggests that the abduction of children is not a problem?

      • I did not mean to imply that that you stated that the abduction of children is not a problem. But you do say it is not a U.S. problem. What I am saying is that the abduction of children everywhere is the problem of humanity and all nations. All nations should do as much as they can to bring these girls home. And you are absolutely right in saying that we need to do more at home for our own missing children. I understand that the politics involved are messy and that whatever we do to help will have a cost, but each of those children are worth the price. Should other nations step up to the plate to help rescue these children? Absolutely. Should Nigeria be able to handle it’s own problems? Absolutely. But nonetheless children have been abducted and we can help. If my point is that if we can help rescue these girls, we should because

      • We should help because we can. And the lives of these children and our missing children at home are, and should always be, our priority.

  • You pose fair questions. My response would be something like, This awful situation might not be our moral responsibility, but it is a moral imperative nonetheless. The desire so many feel to help does have meaning; it means we should help. Sometimes we should act on our best impulses even when there are a thousand rational reasons to not involve ourselves. But I too have ask myself similar questions when other situations have arisen. By the way, I completely agree with your assessment of the BBC headline. Thanks for picking up on that.

    • I don’t really question that it’s a moral imperative. But I do resent that it has to be OUR moral imperative. I’d say that it’s an imperative of the Nigerian government. And the UN. And the African Union. And Cameroon. And Niger.

      The world needs policing, but it needs a shared mandate and a shared responsibility. If there are Americans involved in an action against Boko Haram, they need to be wearing UN colors. It has to be clear that you’re not up against the US, you’re up against the world.

  • America has military presence in 70 countries. (with the people’s consent or not). They are happy to “help” solve any country’s problem with their superior military strength and technology.
    Isn’t there any problem in America? If there is.. that means they also need help. So what’s wrong if those who are with “appropriate technologies” Like Alqaida, thalaiban, LTTE, bako haram et al. come and try to help America…Are all American happy to accept that help?

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