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Posted at 10:50 AM ET, 04/28/2012

John Lewis and Charles Taylor: a reflection on heroism and villainy

It’s awards season in Washington D.C., and I love to go to events characterized by speeches celebrating honorees, especially when the recipients are particularly worthy or the organization bestowing the encomium is especially good-hearted. Recently I went to a luncheon  where annual prizes were given to a handful of upright heroes for distinction in “truth-telling” and “courage.”

One of those honored was John Lewis who as a young man was a leader of the civil rights movement. Lewis organized sit-ins in the 1960s at segregated lunch counters and interstate transportation terminals across the South. More remarkably, he steadfastly practiced “nonviolence” at every demonstration he participated in, even while he was being beaten, fire-hosed or set upon by dogs. In one incident at a South Carolina Greyhound Bus station in 1961, Lewis and another man were pummeled by Ku Klux Klan members as they attempted to enter a ‘whites only’ waiting room. Though the freedom riders were left in a pool of blood, they never raised a hand against their assailants. (Since 1986, Lewis has been nonviolently deflecting blows and making history as a U.S. congressman from Georgia’s 6th District.)

A few years ago at an event sponsored by an organization that promotes finding “common ground” and “reconciliation,” I saw Lewis receive a different award. During that evening’s accolades, he shared the podium with Elwin Wilson, one of the men who had attacked him at the bus station 48 years earlier. Wilson apologized and asked Lewis to forgive him. When the congressman did so, the two men wept and embraced.

I thought about Lewis and Wilson and the healing qualities of courage, truth-telling, common ground and forgiveness as I read the news of the conviction in a U.N. special court Thursday of the former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for aiding atrocities in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002. 

Taylor had previously been a rebel leader in Liberia who massacred many of his compatriots before toppling the previous leader, and once he had control of his native West African country, he turned his resources to funding a rebel uprising in the neighboring state.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared Taylor’s trial a sign of a “new age of accountability” in which those who commit crimes against humanity will be held responsible. History has many stories of reconciliation, but it will be hard to forgive these atrocities.

The damage to these victims of war crimes is done and cannot be undone. As the Post’s Edward Cody has noted, for “for the teenage boys sent into battle high on dope,” “pubescent girls turned into rebel warriors’ sex slaves,” and “thousands of young men whose limbs were hacked off, the verdict will come way too late.” The best they can hope for is the kind of healing that comes from resolution.

Recognition that the international community will no longer tolerate crimes against humanity is a step in the right direction, but Taylor is a long way from accepting responsibility. His chief defense lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, immediately challenged the court’s decision at a news conference, claiming that the verdict rested on “tainted and corrupt” testimony (witnesses were paid to come to Netherlands from Sierra Leone, to appear before the three-judge panel). Taylor’s family has said it will appeal the verdict.

Meanwhile, the former president himself remains unapologetic and unashamed. I hate to say this, but Taylor could learn something about being sorry from that former Ku Klux Klan member. Not exactly a comparison worthy of an international leader. 

You can follow Bonnie Goldstein on Twitter @KickedByAnAngel

By  |  10:50 AM ET, 04/28/2012

Tags:  Congressman John Lewis, Liberia, Charles Taylor

 
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