Barbed patriotism

Thursday, February 12th, 2004

When 10,000 protesters gathered in November at the infamous school housed in Fort Benning, Ga., they encountered not merely armed guards and barbed wire fencing, but a pumped-up PA system drowning out their words with patriotic music.

The symbolism could hardly have been more stark or, to my mind, more obscene: Amid amber waves of grain, the barbed wire of the national security establishment is supposed to be invisible.

The protesters, 27 of whom were eventually arrested, had gathered — as people have been gathering for 14 years now — to demand the shutdown of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, better known by its former name, the School of the Americas.

Even if you have heard of the place, you may have a hard time believing that it really exists, or that it is what it is: a “school” for the torturers and assassins who keep order in Latin America on our behalf.

It’s a bloody business, keeping the rich rich, channeling the desperation of the poor into sweatshops and out of social movements and demands for land reform. If you’re a union leader in a country controlled by SOA graduates, your life is in danger. If you talk against free trade, your life is in danger.

We claim to have gone to war in Iraq to topple a bloody dictator from power, but on this side of the world, human rights abuses – mass graves, murdered priests – begin at a compound in Fort Benning.

Since 1946, the SOA (which was located in Panama until 20 years ago, when popular discontent forced it to move north of the border), some 50,000 soldiers from 18 countries throughout the hemisphere have received training in the brutal game of counterinsurgency. Name a massacre, atrocity or “dirty little war” of the last half century in Latin America and there’s a good chance SOA grads were involved.

The Guatemalan death squads? The disappeared of Argentina? Pinochet’s reign of terror in Chile? The 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador? The slaughter of 800 Salvadoran men, women and children in the village of El Mozote? All of these horrors and dozens more bear the stamp of SOA.

Father Roy Bourgeois, the Maryknoll priest who founded SOA Watch, came slowly to his role as passionate opponent of U.S. foreign policy. He has so far spent four years in prison, he told me recently, on charges stemming from his protests at Fort Benning, “and we’re not going away until the school is closed.”

It’s been a long journey for the self-described “Sunday Catholic” from the bayou country of Louisiana, who joined the Navy as a young man, served a tour of duty in Vietnam and thought of making the military his career. Vietnam woke him up. He saw too much. He met a missionary, for instance, who ran an orphanage for 380 children, whose parents had been killed by Americans. On his return to the states, he entered the seminary.

His first placement as a priest was a parish in the slums of La Paz, Bolivia. “When you live with the poor you begin to speak the language of the poor. They became my teachers,” he said.

From that perspective, he saw — lived through — American foreign policy in Latin America. In 1980, Archbishop Romero was assassinated in El Salvador; then two of Bourgeois’ friends, Ita Ford and Maura Clark, were among four nuns raped and murdered in that country a few months later, by soldiers of the government the U.S. was supporting with massive aid.

Most of the killers were SOA grads, but this only came to light in 1990, after U.S. Rep. Joseph Moakley investigated the brutal execution of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador in November 1989. Moakely’s report on the murders, implicating the SOA, first made Bourgeois aware of the school.

Ten people, including Congressional Medal of Honor winner Charlie Liteky, took part in the first SOA protest, on the anniversary of those eight deaths. All were arrested. Bourgeois’ sentence – for trespassing and splashing a vile of his own blood on photographs of the school’s “honor graduates” – was 14 months.

In prison, he said, “We learned we couldn’t be silenced.”

Indeed, in 14 years, the protesters’ numbers have increased a thousandfold. Neither arrests nor barbed wire has silenced them. “America the Beautiful” won’t either.