“I’m here”

Thursday, December 2nd, 2004

“They were reading the names from 10-ish to 1 p.m. Sometimes they’d just say ‘unidentified person.’ We all had white crosses and after each name we’d hold up our cross and say ‘presente.’ Everyone was participating. This went on for three hours. Then we stuck our crosses in the fence.”

Presente, presente. The word simply means, “I’m here.”

Sixteen thousand people took part in this morning-long roll call of the dead last month, shortly before Thanksgiving, in the shadow of Fort Benning, Ga. The scene was described to me by my 18-year-old daughter. There was also a drum circle, dancing in the streets (“that was my favorite part”), a march, a “die-in,” speeches, puppets, celebrities, civil disobedience — an arduous ordeal these days, requiring the scaling of three razor-wire-topped fences — and about 20 arrests.

But it was the roll call that truly stunned and sobered me, as I listened to Alison’s account a few days afterward. How many names can you read in three hours? It was a roll call of the ongoing human holocaust, Latin America chapter. The abducted, the tortured, the murdered. The protesters stood at the gates of the site that facilitated this holocaust, the 58-year-old counterinsurgency training center once called, and still known as, the School of the Americas, which is housed in Fort Benning.

People have been calling for its shutdown since 1990, ever since congressional hearings revealed the role of SOA grads in the brutal murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador the previous year. The mid-November protests commemorate the anniversary of those slayings.

But the school, renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation a few years ago, has had its hand in virtually every “dirty war” and death-squad operation South of the Border since its founding. That’s what it’s all about: a made-in-the-U.S.A. export of draconian population-control techniques Latin American strongmen have been availing themselves of since 1946. Some 60,000 military and police personnel have been trained at the school in all manner of dissent suppression over those years, much to the misery of the continent’s dispossessed.

Like the nuclear-weapons industry, SOA is a legacy of Cold War moral compromise that’s still with us, unaccountable to the public, continuing to thrive in secrecy, gnawing from within at the nation’s health and psyche. The scandal of Abu Ghraib makes this year’s SOA protest more relevant and crucial than ever. The disease is spreading. American soldiers are now the torturers. Domestic dissenters are the logical next targets.

This year, for whatever reason, the Army didn’t bother to hold its own news conference to deny accusations about the school, but in the past it has defended SOA with a naked cynicism: The school “is no more responsible for the actions of a few graduates than Harvard University is for one of its graduates, Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski,” Army officials have proclaimed, according to a recent Associated Press story.

Such nonsensical mockery belies what has been learned about the school since the declassification of more than 1,000 pages of SOA training manuals. According to an analysis by the Latin American Working Group (www.lawg.org), the manuals “advocate tactics such as executing guerrillas, blackmail, false imprisonment, physical abuse . . . and payment of bounties for enemy dead.”

What’s more, the manuals make no distinction between armed insurrection and peaceful union or political activity. Any critics of the country’s own or the U.S. government should be considered the enemy, the trainees are told — and thus fair game for kidnapping, secret detention, torture and “neutralization,” a.k.a., murder.

You think Abu Ghraib was an aberration? “These manuals recommend arresting suspects early in the morning by surprise, blindfolding them and stripping them naked,” LAWG reports. “Suspects should be held incommunicado and should be deprived of any kind of normal routine in eating and sleeping.”

The practical effect of such training is to render, by U.S. sanction, much of Latin America a human-rights-free zone. This has resulted, over the decades, in untold suppression of legitimate dissent and any number of high-profile atrocities against union organizers, dissident politicians, priests, nuns and, of course, long-suffering and always-expendable peasants.

These were the men and women summoned in last month’s roll call. There but for fortune go all of us who have ever committed the capital offense of disagreeing with our government.