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Story Publication logo October 1, 2008

Obama Eyes White House, Taylor The Big House

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During the 14-year civil war that tore apart Liberia, children were taken from their homes and sent...

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Each was born to an African father and an American mother--Barack Hussein Obama Jr. in Hawaii and Charles "Chuckie" Taylor Jr. in Boston. But the lives of Chuckie, son of the infamous Liberian warlord president Charles Taylor, and Obama, son of a foreign student who would move back to his native Kenya, took very different turns.

Obama stands a good chance of winning the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 4. On Oct. 30, meanwhile, a federal jury in Miami convicted 31-year-old Chuckie Taylor of committing torture and atrocities overseas as the leader of the rebel unit "Demon Forces." It was the first time an American citizen was prosecuted for torture abroad. He now faces life in prison after witnesses testified that he used electric shocks, cigarettes, hot plastic and irons, among other things, to silence his enemies. Chuckie's father is on trial simultaneously at The Hague, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the murder, rape and mutilation of civilians during Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war. This doesn't even include the untold thousands of lives lost and ruined by the 14-year civil war in Liberia.

As Obama finishes off the final leg of his presidential run, it's time to reflect on America, the land of opportunity, where the lives of children born of similar circumstances can take such drastically different paths: One to the White House and the other to a life behind bars. Obama said in his now-famous speech: "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America." That may be true. But another truth, as Obama Jr. and Taylor Jr. demonstrate, is that no matter your race, you can fall just as far as you can rise as an immigrant's son in America.

America may open doors for those in search of a better life, but it doesn't hold anyone's hand. It is a testament to Obama's strength as an individual and as a presidential candidate that despite the hardships he had to endure--his family being on food stamps when he was a child, an absent father--he not only survived, but thrived. The reality is that there's a fine line between success and failure in America, between those who make it and those who don't.

Hearing the brutal testimony at Chuckie's trial, it's easy to think of warlords and rebels as African problems. But Chuckie Taylor's life is not an African anomaly, it is an American reality. He grew up in Orlando, Fla., not far from Disney World, in the midst of strip-mall and suburbia heaven. Yet Chuckie had a criminal record before he ever made it to Africa to head his father's military. In Africa he was lured by his warlord-father's power and money: He got a tattoo of a cobra and scorpion, the symbol of his father's rebel group, on his chest and drove a Land Cruiser around the capital.

That may sound exotic. But many young Americans are equally enamored with the power and money of gang leaders and drug dealers in their communities. If Chuckie, who grew up middle-class in America, can fall through the cracks, then who can't?

His story should be a lesson that America does not do enough to take care of its young people; the repercussions are enormous. The Obamas of this country are not the norm, but the exception. If educators and community leaders don't get to the troubled youth of America first, immigrant or otherwise, then gang leaders and drug dealers will. With 2.3 million Americans already incarcerated--a phenomenon that carries a $50-billion-a-year price tag at the state level, not to mention the $5 billion spent by the federal government--the costs to society are astronomical.

Obama promises to invest in America's future by pouring dollars into education. He believes in universal pre-school, assistance with college tuition, funding to halt the dropout crisis, the expansion of after-school programs and assistance for English-language learners. Obama, who represents America at its best, wants to lend a helping hand to those trying to climb their way up.

The fact that Taylor Jr. is behind bars and Obama Jr. is waiting in the wings to be president tells us that America is still more divided than Obama would like to think. Perhaps, as president, he can begin to bridge the gap.

See the story as it ran on Forbes.com

Go to Scars and Stripes: Liberian Youth after the War project page

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