WASHINGTON — The voices demanding that Congress stop the brutality of African warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army belong to America's children.
Just ask their parents.
"All three of my kids, in different context and different times, said, 'So what are you doing about Joseph Kony and the LRA?'" Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said in a recent interview. Coons, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations African affairs subcommittee, is father to twins Michael and Jack, 12, and Maggie, 11.
"Mom, you have to watch this video," Mary Shannon, the 14-year-old daughter of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., insisted during a break from school. "It's about Joseph Kony."
Coons and Landrieu know all too well about Kony. The two senators have traveled to Africa and have heard firsthand about the killings and child abductions of tens of thousands in Central Africa, the young boys forced to fight as soldiers, the girls turned into sex slaves.
Today, the lawmakers' children, and millions of others in the United States and around the world, are almost as well-versed about Kony's 26-year reign of terror. A 30-minute video by the advocacy group Invisible Children to raise public awareness about the guerrilla group exploded on the Internet after its early March release. The Kony2012 video has been viewed by some 100 million on YouTube and shared on Facebook and Twitter.
"There's 100 million people who know the name of a war criminal now that didn't necessarily before, and that's a good thing," actor and activist George Clooney, who is part of a video on the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, said in a recent interview.
The confluence of a compelling film focused on the fate of children, the power of social media to spread information instantaneously and an unprecedented global connection has turned Kony into a household name. High school and middle school students — some as young as 10, the same age as some of the LRA's victims — are outraged that children are suffering.
One group of students experienced a unique civics lesson.
Last week, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., conducted a Skype interview with a 6th grade social studies class from Westside Middle School in Winder, Ga. The first question Isakson got from the 30 students was "Are you doing anything about Joseph Kony?"
"It's a tragedy," Isakson, the top Republican on the African affairs subcommittee, said of the atrocities. He told the students that President Barack Obama dispatched 100 U.S. troops — mostly Army Special Forces — to central Africa in October to advise regional forces in their hunt for Kony, a military move that received strong bipartisan support.
Dustin Davis, who teaches the Westside class, said his students heard about Kony from the Internet, raised questions in class and discussed it as part of the current events curriculum. Some students were near tears; some boys were ready to take up arms and fight.
"My students were very adamant that they want to do more about it," Davis said in an interview. "And part of what I do is teach them what is the role of a citizen in our country. You make contact with your representatives, and you do it daily if need be. That's the only way things are going to happen, is if you put pressure on your representatives."
In recent weeks, a bipartisan group of 40 senators led by Coons and Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., has backed a resolution condemning Kony. The measure also endorses the effort by Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan to stop him and the LRA. It signals support for the U.S. effort to help regional forces pursue commanders of the militia group.
Lawmakers also are crafting legislation that would offer a monetary reward for information leading to Kony's arrest, with a bill to be introduced this month. Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court for heinous attacks in multiple countries. Pushing to raise awareness, several lawmakers also will appear in a video.
Coons realized the extent of the response when he took his daughter, Maggie, to a Saturday rehearsal of the play "Flat Stanley" and saw the Kony2012 posters at the Wilmington (Del.) Friends school. On the sidelines of his son's lacrosse game, parents questioned him and tried to make sense of their children's interest in a brutal warlord. The senator posted a video along with facts and figures about Kony and a map of Africa on his website.
"The most positive thing is to have a moment when literally millions of Americans are asking for more engagement in Africa," he said. "That happens once a generation."
Rebecca Zug, the head of the upper school at Wilmington Friends, said the Kony2012 campaign resonated with students by focusing on the "clear injustice of kidnapping children" and then empowered young people with simple tasks — putting up posters and using social media.
"They really want the world to be a better place, and I think as adults we hesitate and go, 'Gosh, I didn't come up with that lesson plan,'" Zug said in an interview. "Where are the adults in charge, because this is really a youth movement."
Ben Keesey, CEO of Invisible Children, said Kony's brutality has a different impact on children.
"Young kids put themselves in the shoes of having to live in fear of being abducted, and that's just a paralyzing thought," he said.
At New Milford High School in New Jersey, principal Eric Sheninger said students who saw the video talked about Kony before school, during lunch periods and in the hallways. Teachers in classes on the Holocaust and genocide held lengthy discussions about the LRA.
"There was an incredible buzz in the school," Sheninger said, though the issue has quieted down since the video's release.
Landrieu's daughter and her friends are writing letters appealing to the relevant congressional committees to act. The senator introduced a resolution last week commending the African Union for committing up to 5,000 troops in the hunt for Kony.
"The children are getting us to respond," Landrieu said in an interview.Comment on this story
In the Invisible Children video, a global issue is presented through the eyes of a child, with a discussion between Jason Russell, the director and co-founder of the group, and his young son Gavin about stopping the bad guys. The Kony2012 campaign is pressing on despite several setbacks for Invisible Children, including Russell's recent hospitalization and diagnosis of brief psychosis.
A follow-up video may be released. Although the group has spoken at school assemblies, the response to Kony2012 exceeded expectations.
"It's a testament to the fact that when young people are given an opportunity to do good, they will respond," Keesey said.