Saturday, November 21, 2009

Equity without Retribution

I am a huge fan of good books! However, I don't often read books I enjoy so much that I spend my week reflecting and discussing after finishing them. Helene Cooper's The House at Sugar Beach is one of those rare books. Cooper's memoir is so well written and the story so fascinating that the reader loses sense of time. The New York Times White House correspondent writes about growing up as the child of elites in Liberia, prior to the country's descent into militarized decay - a decay that resulted from manipulating institutionalized class divisions.

For historical note, Liberia is a West African country that was settled by free African Americans in 1820. The "Congo" people, as the Liberian descendants of African Americans were called, made up the upper class in Liberia while the "native" Liberians struggled to make ends meet. Following a military coup (takeover) in 1980, the fate of the Congo people turned for the worse. They were persecuted (killed, raped, disposed) by the new military class. The coup leader, Samuel Doe, began his 10 year reign by executing the president and his top cabinet members. The cabinet's execution - death by firing squad - was publicly televised. Fastforwarding the story of Liberia, Doe was replaced by Charles Taylor, another despot who was eventually charged with war crimes (for his role in Sierra Leone, a neighboring West African nation).

As the child of "Congo" people, Cooper lived a privileged life in Liberia, until 1980 when the country began to take its downward turn. Her uncle was among the cabinet members publicly executed by Doe. What I found most intriguing about her book was the punishment of elites - class warfare to an extreme. Doe and his successor, Taylor presided over tyrannous regimes under the guise of paying the "Congo" people back for their oppression of native Liberians.

As a firm believer in social justice, I struggle with the notion of institutionalized class divisions. While it was in no way, her doing, as a child, Cooper benefited from a system in which her family had all they wanted (and more), while a majority of Liberians did not. However, what is most powerful about her book is that we see the consequences of retribution: taking away the resources of the elite under the pretense of creating equity and paying back the "oppressors." We also see that having one person presiding over justice is problematic. In fact it's how despots are made. If that's not enough, we see the economic vacuum that is created when the upper class (i.e tax base) flees the country for fear of retribution.

Cooper, while fortunate enough to end up in the United States, witnessed (from another room) her mother's rape. Her childhood, and that of many others were destroyed by Doe and his "justice seeking" soldiers. While reading this, I found myself asking how one creates a system of equity, where "Congo-Native" divides don't exist. At the same time, a system that does not punish children like as Cooper and many others.

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