Rescuing Ourselves

"It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable."

—Molière, actor and playwright (1622-1673)

Imagine the euphoria that must have swept through the national football arena in Monrovia, Liberia, on June 13. Thousands of refugees had been crammed into the stadium for days, cowering under a driving rain, seeking sanctuary—again—from 14 years of civil war. On three sides of the city, rebel forces had been killing civilians indiscriminately. Inside, the two things most in evidence were rotting corpses and armed thugs.

The Pentagon announced that day that the U.S.S. Kearsarge—carrying attack helicopters and 3,000 bristling Marines—was diverted to Liberian waters from its journey home from Iraq. U.S. forces were on their way to a land with which America had deep historical bonds. Liberia was founded by freed slaves in 1822; its capital is named after U.S. President James Monroe.

The most recent effort to topple Liberian president Charles Taylor has come with wearying tales of brutal crimes. As is often the case when lawlessness reigns, both government and insurgent forces have engaged in mayhem and murder. "At night we don't sleep," said refugee Ciaffa Fahnbulleh. "Fighters go around raping, breaking into people's homes and looting." Enslaved child soldiers, doped up to make them fearless and fierce, have perpetrated many of the most macabre atrocities. The Los Angeles Times ran a photo of one such young warrior; he wore a teddy bear pack on his back.

Imagine, then, how quickly elation in that arena turned to bitter disappointment when the full meaning of the Pentagon's announcement became clear. Was the American military coming to bang a few heads together, protect vulnerable refugees, and bring an end to bloodshed and butchery? No. American soldiers were deployed for one reason—to rescue Americans.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2003
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