Vice: Season 4, Episode 1 – “Boko Haram and Unnatural Selection”

Vice returns with equal parts terror and optimism in its fourth season premiere.

With the debut of the new season of Vice, Vice Media returns to the forefront of some of the world’s biggest, and less-covered, stories with its classically hard-hitting and risky coverage. The first half of this season’s first episode covers the world’s deadliest terrorist organization, which, surprisingly, isn’t ISIS. Instead, it’s the Nigerian Islamist terrorist group most famous for the kidnapping of nearly 300 young women in 2014: Boko Haram. As this first episode illustrates, this kind of act is hardly uncommon for the group. Through interviews with locals, politicians, and (shockingly) even Boko Haram members themselves, Vice correspondent Kaj Larsen paints a picture not only of the brutal violence committed by the group itself, but also by the military and police forces attempting to contain it.

Larsen updates the viewer on the state of the Nigerian military’s war with Boko Haram in the past year. Without the firepower to fight the military directly, Boko Haram has gone underground, instead resorted to the harrowing guerrilla tactic all too familiar to the western world: suicide bombings. With consistent attacks on the civilian populace, Boko Haram has fully embraced the “terrorist” moniker. And as explained by the Nigerian President himself, Muhammadu Buhari, Boko Haram’s intent is not only about spreading radicalized Islam, but fighting what they view as injustice. Even the name, Boko Haram, roughly translates as “Western Education is Sinful”.

He also explains that the group’s first leader, a man named Mohammed Yusef, was known as an open critic and opponent of government corruption. With his execution in 2009 by police, his place was taken by current leader, Abubaker Shekau, who used Yusef’s death as a further rallying cry against injustice. Shekau has since taken the group’s methods to new levels of violence and radicalism. Despite the horrific violence committed by the group, Vice’s coverage of the regional conflict manages to also cover the violent transgressions resulting from the national and local attempts to fight it. By 2015, the group has controlled thousands of square miles of Nigerian territory

Larsen manages to interview a group of locals in Borno, one of the hardest hit African states, who have taken a number of alleged Boko Haram members into custody. The vigilantes’ certainty, however, of the captured men’s terrorist status, seems questionable. He then interviews a local mechanic who was one of a multitude of innocent people taken into custody for suspicion of aligning with Boko Haram. Held in the infamous Giwa Barracks, the man was detained for 45 days, and tortured daily. He indicates a number of scars across his arms, telling Larsen they’re from burnings and strangulation by rope.

“Do you think this has created a kind of backlash against the military?” Larsen asks.

“Of course,” the man replies. “Innocent kids are dying there.”

In covering the escalating Boko Harem conflict, Vice manages to highlight the shocking atrocities committed by the group, but also creates a quintessential picture of violence begetting violence, even from the sides meant to be doing good. One of the most appalling moments in the coverage involves an incident surrounding the Giwa Barracks in 2014; this incident has since been investigated by Amnesty International as a war crime. In March of that year, Boko Haram member’s raided the prison, freeing those kept inside as terrorist suspects. As the prisoners attempted to return home, more than 600 people were caught and executed by the Nigerian military.

“None of those people have been brought to justice,” says Lucy Treeman, an investigator for Amnesty International. Ironically, violent acts by the military only fuel Boko Haram’s dedication to fighting “injustice”, thus escalating their already perverted philosophy of murdering civilians for the greater good.

Larsen also manages to interview two Boko Harem members about the Chinobi girl kidnappings, and highlights how such abductions are hardly a rarity. An interview with a teenaged girl named Zainab Isah who managed to escape from a Boko Harem camp illustrates just one of ways the group attempts to inspire local terror: by kidnapping, marrying, and impregnating local girls. Perhaps equally horrifying, however, is the violence faced by the girls when they return home.

“They say I am a carrying a pregnancy for Boko Haram,” she tells interviewers. “They told me if it I had a boy they would kill him.”

Not only are the girls made wives and slaves to the group: they’re also forced into the group’s violent campaigns, as a number of highly disturbing images show the exploded remains of women forced into suicide bombings.

“If you see a woman who’s wearing a suicide vest, it is not her choice,” explains Isah. “It is because of her husband.” She also shows a personal resilience in her dedication to raising her child, to give him a mother in a world where so many people, including her, have seen their families slaughtered.

During his interview with Boko Harem militants, Larsen takes the opportunity to ask the question on everyone’s minds: where are the Chinobi girls? One of the militants simply laughs:

“You want to know where they are? If we get what we want, we will get them. What we want is for the country to submit to the teaching of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad.”

The footage is a disturbing reminder of the tyrannical mentality behind such radicals. With Boko Haram’s loyalty to ISIS, the conflict only looks to turn uglier.

The episode’s second half, presented by correspondent Isobel Yeung, focuses on a topic straight out of science fiction: gene editing. Discussing the science behind influencing genes in embryos, the segment focuses on the theories behind correcting mistakes and selecting for traits in DNA, both in animals and in humans.

Using a method called “CRISPR”, biologists around the world have been using a particular protein called Crispr Cas-9 to cut out unwanted sections of DNA and reinserting more desired ones. This method creates the possibility of not only selecting for certain traits, but also in removing DNA segments known for causing disease and disability.

What proves refreshing about the Vice coverage of this topic is its optimistic approach: something lacking from mainstream American media coverage, which chooses to sensationalize the moral questions behind “designer babies”, such as the creation of a Gattaca-esque dystopia of human genetic priority and hierarchy. And while the concept of, say, a family wishing for a baby with blue eyes may raise some eyebrows, the Vice team puts a greater emphasis on the potential health benefits and disease prevention this kind of science could create.

“In this room could hold the key to curing aging, to curing diabetes, to curing cancer,” says Yeung, visiting a genetic facility in China where rats are being selected for particular traits, “there’s just so much possibility held in this room.”

The episode ends with a comment from, Jamie Metzel, a genomics expert and senior fellow of the Atlantic Council, who predicts the evolution of the human race centuries down the line:

“If you were to build a time machine, go to the future a thousand years from now, and take a kid from then and bring him back to the present day, that kid would be Superman.”

With this season debut, Vice‘s news coverage provides equal amounts of apprehension and optimism, demonstrating a horrifying conflict with worldwide implications, and a new science with the potential for a brighter future. As Vice seeks to move its reputation away from straight-up coverage of war and conflict, episodes like this are a clear reminder of why this one-of-a-kind coverage shouldn’t disappear.

RATING 8 / 10