Smiling, he continued: "I live well and have no regrets. I am a good Christian. I lived and studied in Boston. All these men sitting around you have advanced degrees, most of them from good universities in the United States. But a politician from America could not survive in Africa no more than I could survive in Alaska."
I politely interjected, "President Taylor, I am convinced that if you moved to Alaska, you would be governor within eight months." He laughed, and a number of the cabinet ministers grinned at the thought.
Looking around at that moment, I came to a powerful realization. These men, the most powerful and feared in all of Liberia, lived in constant fear. Fear of falling out of favor, fear of being betrayed, fear of being held accountable for what they had done. They were afraid of Taylor and afraid of each other. As the ostriches and armed thugs wandered across the lawn, I realized that no matter how terrifying Taylor might be, he was still just a man -- and a vulnerable one at that. The guns, smuggled diamonds, and expensive Thai mistresses were all just a house of cards, always near collapse.
Our meeting took the better part of two hours. Taylor concluded the discussion with a smile and a threat: "If your next report contains the same inaccuracies, we will think it was not done in good faith."
As we were being escorted off the lawn, I turned to the aide who was seeing us out. I had to ask. "What's the story with the ostriches?"
"The president likes animals," he replied. "There are three ostriches. There used to be four. One ostrich swallowed a cell phone, and when it rang, the bird went berserk. The bird was so badly injured that he died. The president was very upset." He told the story as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
This week, Charles Taylor was held accountable for his crimes, the first head of state to be convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. International justice may be slow and imperfect, but somewhere out there right now is another group of warlords sitting around a table, uneasily eying each other, realizing after Thursday's ruling that their abuses may land them in The Hague next. That's a victory for justice.