Protesting the School of Americas
Letter to the Editor
If Notre Dame's graduates included notorious dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, Leopoldo Galtieri and Roberto Viola of Argentina, Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru, Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador, and Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia, wouldn't US citizens be more than a little concerned about the ideas and values being instilled at Notre Dame? If Notre Dame's graduates were responsible for the assassination of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the torture and murder of U.N. workers in Chile, the La Cantuta massacre in Peru, the Uraba massacre in Columbia, and the deaths of 900 civilians in the El Mozote massacre, wouldn't U.S. citizens be indignant and adamant that Notre Dame be shut down immediately? Fortunately, Notre Dame is not responsible for graduating such dictators, nor those accountable for such atrocities, but the U.S. Army's "School of the Americas" (SOA) is.
The School of the Americas — perhaps more aptly named the "School of Assassins" — is a U.S. Army training school at Fort Benning, Georgia. SOA trains Latin American soldiers in counter-insurgency and infantry tactics, military intelligence, and anti-narcotics and commando operations; the School has graduated almost 60,000 soldiers since its inception in 1946. However, beneath SOA's guise as a noble institution for fighting the drug trade and preserving democracy is evidence of the U.S. Army's accountability for training terrorists. According to a New York Times report, Spanish-language training manuals used at SOA until 1991 "recommend interrogation techniques such as torture, execution, blackmail, and arresting the relatives of those being questioned."
In response to the outcry after the Times' report, SOA "updated" its training manuals to include human rights courses (according to Colonel Glenn R. Weidner, the school's commandant). Col. Weidner claims that SOA has never trained anyone to commit crimes or take political power and that "no other U.S. service school provides as intensive a program of human rights instruction in its curriculum." In fact, SOA requires a scant eight hours of human rights training, and only one of 42 courses — "Democratic Sustainment" — in the 1996 course catalogue focuses on human rights and democracy issues. It should also be noted that in 1997, according to SOA's own records, only 13 students took this course, compared with the hundreds who took courses in commando operations.
Col. Weidner and others, like the former US ambassador to Panama, Ambler Moss, frequently defend SOA and accuse its "liberal" opponents of unduly harsh criticism just because the School has graduated a few bad apples. Moss considers criticizing SOA similar to "vilifying Harvard because of its alumnus Ted Kaczynski, alias `the Unabomber.'" This argument would hold if only a handful of SOA's graduates had violated the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, but consider the sheer number and percentage of SOA graduates cited for human rights abuses against non-combatant civilians; "two of three officers cited in the assassination of Archbishop Romero; three of five cited in the rape and murder of four US churchwomen; ten of twelve cited for the El Mozote massacre; and over 100 of 246 cited for atrocities in Columbia. Furthermore, the full scope of atrocities committed by SOA graduates will likely never be known because members of Latin American militaries are generally above the law. It is rare that crimes by members of these militaries are investigated and rarer still when the names of those suspected are released" — this according to the human rights group "SOA Watch" whose founder, Maryknoll priest Father Roy Bourgeois, spoke at Notre Dame earlier this year. Many other priests support Bourgeois — hundreds, including 135 U.S. Catholic bishops and Cardinal Francis George, have signed a declaration recommending the permanent closure of the School of the Americas.
This weekend marks the tenth anniversary of the assassination of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter in El Salvador; 19 of the 26 Salvadoran army officers cited by a U.N. Truth Commission for this act were trained at — where else? — the School of the Americas. Over 10,000 people, including Pax Christi-Notre Dame, are expected to be at a memorial service and protest on the grounds of Fort Benning this weekend. The service will culminate in a silent funeral procession led by mourners carrying eight coffins that bear the names of the two women and six Jesuits who were slain. Thousands of protesters carrying wooden crosses and grave markers will follow the coffins across the federal property line at the Fort Benning main gate to the vigil site on the base; there, mourners intend to deliver the coffins and crosses to SOA headquarters, about three miles inside Fort Benning.
Pax Christi-Notre Dame has chartered a bus that seats over 50 people, and we expect all the seats will be filled; however, there are still several seats remaining. If any students, faculty or staff are interested in accompanying us to Georgia this weekend — you will not miss any classes, and the cost of the trip is minimal — please come to an informational meeting on Tuesday night at 9 p.m. at the Center for Social Concerns. Your civil disobedience at this peaceful protest will help reinforce Pax Christi-Notre Dame's commitment to non-violent social change and give a voice to those who were silenced by assassins.
November 15, 1999
All Viewpoint Stories for Tuesday, November 16, 1999