Much as Americans deplore the catastrophe of social breakdown in Somalia, something similar is happening closer to home in Liberia, where American associations are greater. In a civil war with no winners, the whole Liberian people are losers. Some 20,000 have been killed since 1990 and twice as many starved to death.
The American nuns, Sisters Barbara Ann Mutra, Mary Joel Kolmer, Shirley Kolmer, Kathleen McGuire and Agnes Mueller, all in their 50s and 60s, nurses and teachers, spent years in Liberia, helping its development and sharing the lot of its people. To this they gave the last full measure of devotion, when thugs in the so-called army of the rebel leader Charles Taylor murdered them in their convent outside Monrovia. Church authorities were unable even to retrieve the bodies. Their deaths make Americans acknowledge the 20,000 Liberians slain before them.
Charles Taylor, a one-time Liberian civil servant, invaded the country in late 1989 and controls most of the land. He has laid siege to the capital, Monrovia, and actively attacked it on Oct. 15. Yet the army dispatched by neighboring West African states to bring peace has opposed his takeover but continued the war.
Probably he cannot dislodge the 12,000 troops who protect Monrovia, so he rocket-attacks the civilian population. This has grown to 400,000, which Monrovia cannot support, as fighting and occupation drive more from farms and villages. Only relief agencies keep people alive in Monrovia. Meanwhile, the West Africans have bombed Mr. Taylor's headquarters in Gbarnga -- Baltimore's sister city -- with a death toll his radio puts in the hundreds and U.N. personnel list as five.
The past American investment in Liberia is too great to allow this sickness to fester unattended and the tragedy to grow $l unnoticed. Liberia is no longer our ally in the Cold War, nor important geopolitically. It is just a country of fewer than 2.5 million souls, founded by refugees from American slavery, its shattered institutions based on American models.
There is a positive role for the next U.S. administration to play, simply by giving Liberia greater priority in its counsels. Residual American influence might be brought to bear to compel the parties to wage peace, to allow food to be distributed, to create conditions to lure frightened people back to their land. Between invasion and indifference is a broad spectrum of possible levels of intervention. Washington has yet to find the right one, and seems not to have begun to try.