But to Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor, it was a menace that had to be neutralized if MOVE members were to be removed from the fortified compound.
It was this fear that sealed the tragedy on May 13, 1985, in West Philadelphia. Sambor sent a helicopter aloft to bomb the bunker, but the explosive device started only a small rooftop fire, a fire that Sambor and Fire Commissioner William C. Richmond let burn in hopes that it would do what the bomb had not.
It did. But it also gutted the MOVE house at 6221 Osage Ave. and 60 other houses on Osage and Pine Streets, leaving 250 people homeless. Eleven bodies, including those of five children, were found in the MOVE rubble.
The decision by Sambor and Richmond to let the fire burn has landed them in court. For the last five weeks, they have been defendants in a trial to resolve lawsuits filed by Ramona Africa, the only adult MOVE member to survive the fire, and by relatives of two of those killed. The city also is a defendant, subject to legal scrutiny for both the bombing and the fire.
* Although the testimony has been emotionally difficult for some, the trial has been a surprisingly bloodless affair. Even Sambor, a contentious and polarizing figure a decade ago, appears mellower and almost frail at age 68.
For her part, Africa has left the advocacy role to her lawyer, Andre L. Dennis, seemingly content to take careful notes on legal pads.
The lawyers generally have followed the well-worn tracks of past MOVE investigations, unearthing little that is new. The trial hasn't captured much public attention, drawing only a small audience of MOVE sympathizers, journalists, and a few relatives of the litigants.
The plaintiffs presented testimony from 21 witnesses in their 4 1/2-week attempt to persuade the eight-member jury in U.S. District Court that the city used unlawfully excessive force in the confrontation. They want money to compensate for emotional pain and the lost earnings of two men killed in the blaze, as well as to punish any wrongdoing.
The witnesses have included virtually every major figure in the disaster, from former Mayor W. Wilson Goode to Africa herself in her first public testimony about the confrontation.
The defendants, who put their first witness on the stand Wednesday, expect to finish presenting their case in about two weeks.
In pretrial legal papers, lawyers for the city listed no fewer than seven neighborhood residents whom they may call to testify that MOVE's presence had a hellish effect on their lives.
The city's lawyers also are expected to call witnesses, including a handwriting expert, to suggest that Ramona Africa lied during her time on the stand a week ago.
Africa told the jury that she did not know much about what happened on May 13, 1985 because she was in a basement-level garage with the children of MOVE members for the entire day.
She said she did not write a menacing letter to the mayor that carried her name, never made threats over the MOVE loudspeaker, never heard the police demand a surrender and never saw a MOVE member with a gun, though several were found in the rubble. Moreover, she testified, she fainted after emerging from the MOVE house.
Echoing testimony from the only other survivor of the house - Michael Ward, who was a teenager when he escaped at her side - Africa also insisted that police gunfire kept MOVE members in the flaming home.
``MOVE people are not suicidal,'' she declared.
The defense denies that police fired at fleeing MOVE members and is likely to present testimony that any gunfire probably came from MOVE itself.
While self-righteous and argumentative during her four days on the stand, Africa at times was poignant. She broke into tears twice and fought for control a third time when she recalled visiting imprisoned MOVE members who were the parents of the children who had died. When she spoke with those parents, she told the jury, she thought of the dead children.
``When I visit my family members,'' she said, ``I see their faces.''
* The plaintiffs have a lot to work with. After all, the city's handling of the confrontation evoked savage criticism from both the MOVE commission and a city grand jury, though no city official has been charged with criminal wrongdoing.
But they have encountered some obstacles.
For one thing, they must persuade the jury to award compensatory damages for economic loss on behalf of two dead MOVE members - John and Frank James Africa - who did not have paying jobs.
Experts hired by the plaintiffs told the jury that the two could have earned a combined $1 million had they lived, an assessment derided by a rival analyst hired by the city.
The other major hurdle for the plaintiffs is the insistence of the defense that it was MOVE's own raucous protest on Osage Avenue, followed by its decision to exchange gunshots with police, that set in motion the events that led to the actions that are the subject of the suit.
* Those suing began their case strongly, leading off with Goode, who himself was dismissed as a defendant months before the trial.
He lambasted the men he had appointed for their handling of the crisis, going as far as to suggest that Sambor deceived him in briefing him about police tactics.
Another key witness for the plaintiffs, ironically, was Police Lt. Frank Powell, who dropped the bomb.
Powell told the jury he thought the bombing was unnecessary. ``We had the situation well controlled if we had just stayed and waited in our posts,'' Powell said. ``I believe we had time on our side.''
Perhaps the plaintiffs' most effective witness was Temple University criminologist James Fyfe, a former New York City police officer who in confident testimony said flatly that Sambor's operation had been excessively violent.
The use of fire to attack the bunker, Fyfe said, ``did constitute too much force because it was likely to cause death and serious injury and there was no imminent threat'' from MOVE.
Which brings us to the bunker.
In his testimony to the jury, Sambor - called as a witness by the plaintiffs, as federal civil court rules permit - testified that he had heard reports all during the day-long siege that MOVE snipers were firing from atop the MOVE rowhouse.
Sambor said he feared that the bunker's vantage point would permit MOVE members to shoot civilians on nearby streets, not that MOVE had actually done that.
Sambor said he could not recall when a MOVE sniper had last fired from the bunker. The plaintiffs have presented evidence that the scene was essentially quiet for many hours that day, the firing from a furious early-morning gun battle having stopped.
Africa told jurors that the bunker had no interior hatch and that to get to it, MOVE members had to climb out a hole in the middle of the roof, some distance from the bunker. The implication was that no MOVE snipers were in the structure because they could not reach it without exposing themselves to police gunfire.
Dennis said police should have deduced the lack of an interior hatch. ``Isn't surveillance supposed to provide that sort of information?'' he asked outside court.
``It wasn't the kind of threat that police would have you believe,'' Dennis said of the bunker.
Sambor's lawyer, John W. Morris, said only an X-ray machine could have given police assurances that the bunker was indeed harmless. And they had no such device on May 13, 1985.