Listening to the NRA’s chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, advocate arming civilians and placing them in every school in the country as a means of reducing violence, I was reminded of one of the more surreal scenes I’ve ever experienced, during which I was sure I would not survive.
It was in the spring of 1985, and I was part of a small delegation of American Jews, under the auspices of the ADL, visiting three West African countries – Liberia, Ivory Coast and Cameroon –Israel was trying to woo back into its diplomatic fold. They had broken relations as a result of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
We were meeting with President Samuel Doe of Liberia in his office in Monrovia, and we were warned that he was fearful of assassination so we should not make any sudden movements, etc.
Doe had good reason to be anxious. He was part of a particularly bloody military coup that took over the country a few years before, which included torturing and killing the president, William Tolbert, in the Executive Mansion, and executing a number of his cabinet ministers, by firing squad on the beach. And four years later, during a civil war, Doe met a similar fate, taken to the beach, tortured and executed by his rivals.
At the time of our encounter he was in his early 30s, with limited schooling, and he proudly displayed an honorary doctorate from the University of North Korea on his large wooden desk. It also held an impressive pile of Motown tapes, including the Temptations, Four Tops and Smokey Robinson.
For protection, Doe had several dozen uniformed, armed soldiers in the room where we met. What was particularly bizarre is that they appeared to be between 11 and 15 years old, and they were lined up at all four walls, facing each other. So presumably if they started shooting they would be firing at each other, as well as us, seated as we were in the middle of the room.
This concern became very real when one of our group, an ADL lay leader from Houston and avid amateur photographer, reached into his camera bag while asking in his slow Southern drawl, “Would it be ok to shoot the President now?”
As I heard the soldiers cock their rifles, I remember thinking, “Dear Lord, what a way to go.” But then my colleague pulled his camera out of the bag and after a moment of terror, everyone realized what he meant and broke into nervous, if not hysterical laughter.
Over the years it’s been an anecdote I tell sometimes for laughs in remembering past adventures. But it came back to me in recent days in a new and deeply disturbing light, one more reminder, should the NRA and its members be willing to listen, that more guns in more hands is not the answer to our troubles.