A week of leaked and blocked knowledge raises the question: How much more do we really need to know to take action?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

One key facet of humanism is the importance of being informed. How can one pursue policy that improves human agency without a clear understanding of what limits us?

But in at least three ways this past week, we’ve been presented with the challenges of staying informed in as useful a manner as possible: through footage of Ukrainian soldiers beheaded in Bakhmut by Russian soldiers. Through the ongoing leak of documents pertaining to US espionage among allies. And most obviously, through direct attacks on US libraries.

In each case, the story is sensational and still developing.

But how much more do we really need to know to take action on all three accords?

War crimes

On April 8, a pro-Russian social media channel posted content depicting a live beheading of a Ukrainian soldier, along with a more recent video of Russian mercenaries showing two beheaded Ukrainian soldiers with their hands cut off.

Those involved appear to be part of the Wagner Group, a paramilitary of around 50,000 active fighters in Ukraine, most new recruits (often pulled from prisons) to an organization only 5,000 strong before Russia’s latest invasion. Many members were redeployed from Central African Republic, and Wagner’s network includes a neo-Nazi sub-unit. It was involved in Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Syrian operations in 2015, and cyber-attempts to influence US elections in 2016.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is wanted for war crimes, claimed no association between the Kremlin and this organization, helmed by his friend Yevgeny Prigozhin, up to the start of the Russian invasion. False flag events were nevertheless identified and traced to Wagner Group activities in February 2022, as events intended to create a justification for invasion. Now, Russia’s tune has changed, with Wagner forces expressly listed as key participants in the months-long battle for Bakhmut, where it is claimed that they seized three districts.

Russian state propaganda further claims that Ukrainian soldiers are dressing up in Wagner PMC uniforms to discredit its military. Ukraine has opened a war crimes investigation into the veracity of the videos posted on April 8. Russia has, too, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling reporters that “the authenticity of this horrible footage needs to be verified”. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksyy called the Russian fighters involved in the beheading “beasts” and made a public appeal for further direct engagement from Western countries: “Everyone must react, every leader. Do not expect that it will be forgotten, that time will pass.”

One key element not to be forgotten, though, is that this latest video is far from the first documented war crime in this conflict. As much as human behavior inclines us to be galvanized by individual stories, the Bucha massacre of March 2022, the rape and torture of other citizens this past year, the abuse of prisoners of war, and the kidnapping of Ukrainian children all call for serious state and international reply.

We have had all the information necessary to recognize this invasion as unjust for over a year.

What change are we expecting from a beheading video made public?

How much more do we really need to know to take action on these three accords?

Pentagon leaks

Another site of Wagner Group activity came to light with a series of leaked top secret US military documents, which have caused a stir this week for including details drawn from US espionage around its allies, and facts related to the war in Ukraine. Among the leaks was information suggesting that Wagner is looking to pitch Haiti on contracts to combat local street gangs, a brutal issue in a country struggling politically, culturally, and economically. If successfully contracted by the Haitian government, Wagner operatives would be closer than ever to the US.

The Washington Post quickly identified a strong suspect for the leak of these documents: a young man sharing classified materials on an invitation-only Discord, an online forum system popular among gamers. The article paints a compassionate image of some two dozen men and boys “united by their mutual love of guns, military gear and God”, and further romanticizes the forum as filled with “far-flung acquaintances searching for companionship amid the isolation of the pandemic”.

Leaked documents reveal US displeasure with UN negotiations amid the war, indicate possible risks of other countries arming Russia in the near future, and admit to low expectations of the much-anticipated spring offensive on the part of Ukrainian forces, which documents also suggest are burning through military supplies.

But not everything released threatens diplomacy and war strategy for the West. Among these documents was also intel confirming a recent, politically destabilizing showdown between Wagner and the Kremlin, in which Prigozhin accused the government of treason for under-arming its troops, and leveraged that accusation to secure more arms for his forces.

The Kremlin has also expressed caution in keeping with its own use of propaganda. As reassuring as much of this bleak intel around Ukraine might be for Russian forces, government officials are not yet ready to trust that all is genuine.

In other words, they fear false flags. So should we, but more in line with the dangers of self-fulfilling prophecy. Taking espionage forecasting too credulously can also lead us down overdetermined policy paths.

Library bans

Amid the brutality of military conflict (to say nothing of the world’s overarching fight to mitigate climate change), the US nevertheless continues to contrive bitter struggles on the home front. Among the latest is Missouri’s attempt to defund its libraries, as a retaliatory move in response to the ACLU filing a lawsuit on behalf of the Missouri Association of School Librarians and the Missouri Library Association. The argument among House Republicans is that the state should not subsidize lawsuits against it, even though the ACLU is running their lawsuit pro bono.

The ACLU’s lawsuit was a response to Senate Bill 775, which last year emboldened the removal of 300 books from school libraries: many with racialized themes and queer characters. The ACLU is fighting for the bill to be found unconstitutional. SB775 was originally meant to expand rights for victims of sexual assault, but Republican Senator Rick Brattin added an amendment to punish educators for “providing sexually explicit material”, with either a $2,000 fine or a year in prison.

The Missouri State Constitution expressly contains a state aid funding model for libraries. Nevertheless, the $4.5 million slated for libraries was slashed in a budget of $45.6 billion, along with funding for pre-kindergarten and childcare programs, and predictably state diversity initiatives.

Missouri is not alone in its rollback of public access to information. Along with the ongoing struggle for libraries in Florida, Llano County in Texas threw its hat into the ring this week, with a meeting to be held Thursday, April 13 to determine whether to continue running its local library at all, or to suspend operations “pending further guidance from the Federal Courts”. This retaliatory gesture emerges after twelve books pulled from the library, many again for queer and racialized subject matter, were ordered returned after a lawsuit filed against county officials in April 2022.

As the judge had ruled on the matter, “the First Amendment prohibits the removal of books from libraries based on either viewpoint or content discrimination”. But broader facets of the case are ongoing, and the battleground for access to information has been drawn in many vulnerable US districts.

The difficult question from a week of leaked and blocked knowledge is this:

In wars overseas and battles at home, what more do we need to know, to respond more effectively to the diminishment of human agency on so many worldly fronts?

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.