The War Next Time: Fighting Fire With Fire

By Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 26, 2002

Over the past two years or so, it has been politically fashionable (correct) to denounce violence as a means of bringing about much needed political and social change in Liberia. Almost everyone has been calling on the armed militant group, LURD, to lay down its arms and peacefully negotiate a political settlement with the Charles Taylor regime. Yet, it is clear to everyone concerned that the government has no intentions of negotiating - and the government has made its position unequivocally clear.

Any blind person can see that the defenseless citizens of Liberia need to be rescued from the living dungeon created by Charles Taylor. It is quite clear that some well-respected segment of the Liberian society needs to rise up and highlight the transgressions the people suffer at the hands of this monstrous group calling itself a legitimate government. Some segment of society with a moral legitimacy and obligation needs to challenge this so-called government and take it to task for its dismal and abusive human rights records and failed policies. The segment I have in mind is the Christian Church.

Instead of being vocal about the issues affecting the people of Liberia, to which it has a moral obligation and responsibility, the Church remains supinely silent. My question is: Has the Church lost its conscience? If not, why don't we hear outrage expressed in the various pulpits and the media by these church leaders? Every now and then, the name of Archbishop Michael Francis pops up in the news as being a thorn in the side of the government. That's good! What I consistently wonder is: What's about the rest of the Church? Aren't there enough Catholic priests, Episcopal clergy, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran and other church leaders who are appalled enough to challenge the government's immoral stance on the issues of the day? Don't they consider this their responsibility? A quotation that readily comes to mind is one by James Baldwin who said: "...a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless." Have our church leaders become spineless?

Do church leaders stay silent about these highly volatile issues because of the relative immunity they enjoy while the masses are submerged in utter misery? There is absolutely no justification, in my view, for silence at such times while posing as moral leaders. This is what former President Jimmy Carter said in 1982 about a similar matter: "If the misery of others leaves you indifferent and with no feeling of sorrow, then you cannot be called a human being." And you most certainly do not deserve to call yourself a moral leader.

Even worse than remaining silent, the Christian Church tacitly supports the government's attempts to elevate it to the dubious distinction of "preferred state brand". There is something definitely wrong with that picture. After all, doesn't the Good Book warn us about cutting deals with Satan?

The people of Liberia need to be given some reassurance- some hope- that all is not yet lost. The silence of the Church, (and in some cases), its seemingly unholy alliance with the evil regime has created a void. It is this void that LURD has attempted to fill, halfheartedly. We all know all the fuss that has been made about the evils of fighting fire with fire. Many have advanced the argument that since Taylor was "elected" by the Liberian people, any attempt to dislodge him from power by violent means is unconscionable. From one side of the coin, that argument makes sense, but as we usually do, we fail to look at the other side.

Not many Liberians would disagree that Taylor has done more harm than good and would prefer to see him leave the scene. Yet, we are reminded that we have an obligation to allow him to serve the remainder of his term and maybe he will ride peacefully into the sunset. The danger (and reality) is that the tyrant has made it clear that he is going nowhere anytime soon, at least not willingly. Yet we urge nonviolence as the only approach to dealing with him. Why? The great American president, John F. Kennedy once speaking to Latin American diplomats at the White House said: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

I have often wondered, when is violence an acceptable form and honorable response to a crisis? Again, I quote my favorite American writer, James Baldwin, who paraphrased the great Malcolm X in his classic book, The Fire Next Time: "...the cry of violence was not raised, for example, when the Israelis fought to regain Israel, and, indeed, is raised only when black men indicate that they will fight for their rights. The conquests of England, every single one of them bloody, are part of what Americans have in mind when they speak of England's glory. In the United States, violence and heroism have been made synonymous except when it comes to blacks..."

As if to lend credibility to this proposition, an earlier American giant, Ulysses S. Grant was quoted in his Personal Memoirs written almost a hundred years before Malcolm X made that assertion. This is what he said: "The right of revolution is an inherent one. When people are oppressed by their government, it is a natural right they enjoy to relieve themselves of the oppression, if they are strong enough, either by withdrawal from it, or by overthrowing it and substituting a government more acceptable."

The early American legislator, Henry Clay, put it more directly: "An oppressed people are authorized to rise and break their fetters (shackles)."

The case is abundantly clear that violent uprising against a repressive system is sometimes the only way to stop the repression. The people owe it to themselves to exercise that option, if need be. Again, we all have tons of evidence to support the notion that Taylor does not intend to honestly negotiate with his political opposition, and they do not trust him when he makes any attempts to lure them to the table. (Just read the recently published editorial in The Perspective titled: "Exiled Liberians Shun Government's Reconciliation Conference.") Would any sane person reading the responses of the opposition leaders come to the conclusion that they believe peaceful negotiations with Charles Taylor is a credible option? No. Yet everyone seems willing to sign on this carte blanche approach to nonviolence as the only way to intervene to halt this malfeasance and mass destruction perpetuated against our people. Logical?

Not very long ago, Charles Taylor was on the other side of the tracks. He concluded that the Doe administration, (another "elected" government), was not meeting his standards of good governance. He vowed to fight to the very last man to liberate the country. Seven years and two hundred fifty thousand (250,000) dead citizens later, he was "elected" president. The fact that Doe was "elected" did not matter to many - he was perceived to be bad for the country - he had to go, by whatever means necessary. He was taken out violently. Not only that, but his captors seemed to enjoy the depravity. The videos are still around to prove it.

My fellow countrymen and women, what is different now? Charles Taylor has done much worse than Doe did, far worse, I dare say. Yet all voices remind us that since he was "elected", blah, blah, blah, this is beginning to sound like a broken record. Why the double standard?

In the last several years we have been urged by the United States government and their powerful allies as well as other African governments to apply democratic means to deal with our misfortune in our homeland. Violence, as a means of affecting change, is not acceptable, we are told. Yet when it comes to dealing with Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime, the opposite is true. They parade Iraqi opposition personalities across our television screens and discuss strategies for violent overthrow. The United States is going out of its way to force its allies to support a violent ouster of Mr. Hussein, even if it means spending billions of dollars. Double standards? One wonders.

Recent news coming out of Liberia indicates that the government may have finally crushed the LURD resistance. Well, that may be so, but as long as the government does not improve its record and move toward instituting real democratic changes, violence will still be an option. Maybe the next resistance group will do a better job of forcing the government to listen. Right now, it seems, violence is the only language Taylor and his cronies understand.

Various other respectable sectors of Liberia have registered their dissent to the government's attempt to dehumanize the population. We hear about civic groups that take the risk of challenging the government and we know the price they pay. We hear about the news media and university students as well as a few political opposition forces that will not be silenced.

But our society has always placed the religious community in very high regards. That community needs to live up to that reputation. It is their responsibility to use their sacred offices to preach about the need for positive and immediate change. Failing to do so, as they have done up to now, will push the people to listen to alternative sources. I hope there is still enough time to avoid the war next time. If the Church does not step up to the responsibility of providing much needed assurance and hope and urging the government to avert a complete collapse, the people will have no choice but to fight fire with fire.

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