It was an unbearably hot morning in Mamba Point. The calm ocean breeze tried but failed in its attempt to alleviate the scorching 7 am heat along the Atlantic Coast. I had just walked outside my hotel to join colleagues in a van heading to the Ministry of Health for a day’s work. An unexpected commotion annihilated the morning peace. I couldn’t see from my vantage point, so I ventured to ask a young man standing at my hotel gate what the noise was about. “Dey man den wanted to jeek the woman bag, but God see them.” Just as he ended that sentence in one breath, he joined a chorus of voices, “Your take them to the beach and kill them!” Another young man in full strides like an Olympian sliced his way through onlookers with no regards for fellow pedestrians.
His first sentence stirred my interest, but it was his second sentence that really aroused my senses, “Dey will die this morning,” he said. I quietly inched my way toward the gathering crowd of mostly bear-chested, muscular young men. I confess these brothers challenged my masculinity with their well-toned bodies; no doubt I have access to better servings of nutrition than they, but somehow they are better sculpted than I could ever dream.
The scene that emerged before my eyes, however, betrayed my admiration for bodies that seemed hue from igneous rocks. Yells of “Your go kill man den!” filled the air with relaxed calm, as if killing suspected thieves was a routine event. Two young men, twenty-something is my best guess, were suspended in the air, held by two groups of four men – hands and feet stretched out – while others punched, kicked, slapped, stoned, spat on, and did whatever seemed appropriate to do to suspected thieves. Just like that, these two young men were being led to the beach to be killed.
Fortunately for them, the lone female officer on duty at the US ambassador’s residence heard the commotion and came running down the hill. Her intervention kept those thieves alive. She handcuffed them and assured the mob that she would take them to the nearest precinct.
In subsequent conversations after that incident, it became clear to me that mob justice was more common in my beloved Liberia than I could ever imagine. In fact, in the five weeks that I was in Liberia, the media reported at least one instance of mob justice per week. For example, there was the Ganta incident when businesses were destroyed after a motorcyclist went missing and his peers took the law into their hands to avenge his death. There was also the incident of two missing boys whose lifeless bodies were found in the backseat of a car belonging to a local Nigerian businessman. The man’s house and several used cars were burned by a mob consisting primarily of his neighbors. In addition, a suspected thief was found lying dead on the street outside LBS studios in Paynesville.
In each of case, the mob’s action indicates a lack of faith in law enforcement and, by extension, the entire legal system. These acts of barbarism reflect a dangerously weak legal architecture that exposes citizens to a myriad of vulnerabilities. In such a dismal context, citizens are compelled to take matters into their own hands. Subsequently, and the ensuing emotionally charged encounters can engender disastrous consequences.
We, as a democratic society, cannot afford persistent mob justice. It weakens the foundation of our society – moral, economic, social, and political, – compromising our strength and our unity. It renders all of us susceptible to this illogical and highly temperamental street justice. There is no established rule about how sanctions are determined and executed under a system of mob justice; as such, all citizens are at the mercy of a mob.
The remedy is formidable but not impossible. There are small steps we can take to mitigate mob violence, and we can begin today. First, the hour is ripe for a national dialogue about the dangers and illegality of mob violence. We need to talk among ourselves; we need to have an honest, open conversation about this plague that has besieged our nation. Led by our elected leaders as well as leaders from the civic and religious communities, we must engage in open, honest, and thoughtful national dialogue about mob justice.
Second, we must hold people accountable through a process of restorative justice.
In addition to sustained national dialogue, it is important to build an independent and resilient judiciary. This is far too important to be left to chance; it requires a deliberate plan with clear strategies and benchmarks.
All Liberians must recognize and affirm that mob justice is antithetical to our values and our interests.
Mob justice ain’t justice!
Free speech is an inalienable right assigned to mankind by their Creator. It is not a gift from our parents or our communities. It is most certainly not an endowment from the government, whose sacred duty it is to protect any God’s bequest of free speech to humanity. There is a need, however, to balance the palpable tension between the exercise of a citizen’s right to free speech and the public’s right to protection. I contend that society should always bend toward protection of free speech at all cost.
Yet, like everything in life, speech has its limits; in fact, those limits exist to protect all of us. We engage in great disservice to one another when we neglect those confines. As U.S Chief Justice John Roberts opined in a recent majority decision, speech can cause harm; it can and does hurt, wound, and damage, and our law should not pretend otherwise. Our constitutional commitment to free speech does not mean that speakers, thinkers, and writers have an absolute license.
Because of its inherent potential to cause harm, speech must exist within limits. Writing recently in the Boston Globe, Harvard professor Steven Pinker delineated the acceptable limits of speech, stating, “That is why we carve out exceptions for fraud, libel, extortion, divulging military secrets, and incitement to imminent lawless action. But these exceptions must be strictly delineated and individually justified; they cannot be an excuse to treat speech as one fungible good among many”.
It is our sacred duty as a democratic society to protect the most offensive, vile, vulgar, intimidating, repulsive, and unpalatable speech. It is the speech that angers us, the speech that hurts more than “ma cuss” – because ma cuss hurts more than “pa cuss” – it is that speech that stands in need of greater, vigilant protection. Speech that scares the living daylight out of us is the speech that stands in need of our best defense measures.
Speech is as divinely-bestowed as the air we breathe. Consequently, it demands our loyal allegiance and devoted stewardship.
Speech, free speech, is a fundamental right — one which, though not absolute, should be abrogated only in carefully circumscribed cases.
I can think of many reasons why speech is such a fundamental right in our democracy. For our purposes in this post, let’s consider three cardinal reasons. The first reason is that speech is indispensable for exchanging and evaluating ideas. And ideas are important building blocks for any successful society. Imagine for a moment what happens to the society that does not encourage the proliferation of ideas; such society has little prospect for prosperity and peace. I bet you would concede that Liberia has not been a society of ideas, at least not the kinds of ideas that move a civilized people forward. Speech, then, provides the ecology for ideas to be nourished and to flourish.
Second, speech is the best antidote to a so-say-one-so-say-all society. It is always best to encourage a plurality of voices because no one person has all the answers for society’s problems. Imagine a Liberia where oracles, soothsayers, prophets, pastors, medicine men, visionaries, imams, or gurus have been vouchsafed with the truth which only they possess and which the rest of us would be foolish, indeed criminal, to question. That is not the Liberia any of us would want to call home. In fact, the Liberian parable, “Two heads are better than one” explicitly argues for plurality of voices in public and private discourse.
A third reason that free speech is foundational to human flourishing is that it is essential to democracy and a bulwark against tyranny. How did the monstrous regimes of the 20th century gain and hold power? They squelched speech; they silenced their critics and adversaries. In fact, one of the proven weapons in the arsenals of totalitarians is the ability to not only silence but also criminalized any dissenting speech. There is a plethora of evidence in Liberian history for the suppression of speech. We cannot return to the dark days of anti-democratic practices that set the stage for the type of mayhem that commenced on December 24, 1989.
The national security argument is too often a decoy employed to suppress speech that is considered unpalatable or unfavorable to the powers that be. In fact, a society is secured to the extent that it values and protects free speech because the suppression of speech gives occasion for gossips, innuendos, misinformation, guesses, and as we say in Liberia, “They say.” An environment in which any of the aforementioned thrives is insecure and ripe for discontent.
Unfortunately, speech is too often viewed as an accelerant that ferments social unrest. It is rather the suppression of speech that agitates negative emotions. Speech is so integral to our national success and well-being that we have an obligation to safeguard, preserve, and defend it.
Imagine for a moment a Liberia in which speech did not exist, a place where no one spoke a single world. Imagine if we were all “gbo-gbos”, unable to communicate through the power of words and spoken language. How bizarre!
When we and our children cannot speak, we will not be able to think; when we cannot think, we will not innovate; when we fail to innovate, our economy incurs the consequences – it does not grow. We will be perpetually under-resourced and cannot meet the needs of our people. But as we exercise our right to free speech, be mindful that to whom much given, much is expected. Let’s speak freely with what the Creator has endowed us with, but not in a way that destroys the lives and country we either seek to change and preserve.