As the annual converging organized by SOA (School of the Americas) Watch on Fort Benning, Georgia approaches (November 17-18), it is perhaps helpful to remember the Salvadoran army officers who murdered Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and young daughter in 1989 were pardoned in El Salvador. In outrageous contrast the thirteen U.S. citizens who reenacted the 1989 murders, as part of a demonstration against the School of the Americas (S.O.A. – School of Assassins) where the officers were trained, were sentenced to prison. This has happened every year since the murders and will continue, according to organizers, until the school is closed.
The pious, if sleepy, Judge Elliot, who found the defendants guilty April 29, 1998 also imposed on them a telling anecdote: if a man steals bread for his starving children he has good motives but criminal intent, has broken the law and therefore should go to prison. Apparently the learned judge has not read Les Miserable, or perhaps did read the sad tale and identified with the sociopathic prosecutor, cheering on his obsessive pursuit.
The defense took two basic strategies: to call for dismissal of the charges, engaging in banned political activity at Fort Benning where the school is located, on the grounds that only those opposing the S.O.A. were banned while those in favor were allowed to express their support; and that a higher moral law justifies the “illegal” action taken by the group. The analogy was drawn that citizens would have been breaking German law if they had stopped the death trains to Auschwitz but a higher moral law would have absolved them.
Reverend Bill Bichsel, in his eloquent pre-sentencing statement, said, “We are not afraid of your jails or your police. We will be back to demonstrate on each anniversary of the murders until that school is closed. I hope one day you (Judge Elliot) will join us.” Spontaneous and sustained applause erupted in the packed court room, sending the Sheriff in charge of security walking in circles frantically wondering what to do about it.
The S.O.A. claims that its instruction aims to instill “American” values in its students. Some folks from the area might point out that they too are “Americans,” if Central or South Americans. Critics claim that the school actually teaches torture techniques (verified by the leaking of a manual). The fact is that many of its graduates have engaged in undemocratic activities, coups and assassinations, such notorious figures as Manuel Noriega and El Salvador death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson. It is a dubious proposition that a rigid hierarchical military is the appropriate teacher of democratic values. The school’s unspoken mission, and one of the reasons it should be closed, is to establish relationship with Latin American military officers so as to have coup-influence in the event leaders down there get the idea that democracy is more important than U.S. corporate interests, as happened recently in Honduras. Our dear Senator Shameless responded to my letter asking him to push for democracy there by claiming that the over-thrown president, I paraphrase, had it coming. He was attempting to extend his term. My! Far worse a crime than violently taking over a country and banning the legitimate, elected president who may or may not have been planning to, through legal means, extend his term. His real crime of course was putting the needs of his fellow citizens before corporate and elite interests and – shudder – associating with (elected) Venezuelan President Chavez (routinely referred to as a dictator in mainstream “American” media). U.S. yearning for democracy and freedom seem to run consistently along these two lines: flamboyant and self-righteous rhetorical concern contrasted with apparent fear and loathing of the real thing. The annual SOA event is one opportunity for citizens to oppose this murderous hypocrisy.