Since only 16 percent of Americans have a passport, what most of us know about how the rest of the world sees us is indirect: filtered information derived second- or third-hand from print media or television.
Relatively few U.S. adults have ever traveled abroad, so few have had frank conversations with people from other countries about what they honestly think about us.
Even those of us who frequently travel abroad usually do so in tour groups or with guides, whose job descriptions partly include screening out unpleasant information.
I mention these points because I still see many Albuquerqueans flinch, wince or shake their heads in denial when they hear that our government continues to operate a school for assassins. Most people from other countries are not shocked to hear that. Disgusted, maybe; appalled, perhaps; but not surprised.
We may have chosen to blind ourselves to the darker realities of American policy toward other countries, but people in Guatemala, Chile, Ghana, Malaysia or Somalia base their views of Americans on something other than Fox News. They’ve seen firsthand the lengths we are willing to go to make the globe safe for Coca Cola, KFC and General Motors. Assassinations, unfortunately, aren’t even the worst of our deeds.
For over 40 years the School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning, Ga., has brought in junior military officers from armed forces throughout Latin America for intensive training in “counterterrorism” and “counterinsurgency” techniques. Upon graduation from this highly specialized curriculum, those trainees have returned to their homelands … and become assassins, death squad organizers, overthrowers of democratically elected regimes and members of military juntas.
The seamy record chalked up by SOA’s graduates during the past decades is truly one of shame and dishonor. At best they serve to prop up repressive oligarchs. At worst they have become terrorists themselves. What is particularly distressing is to see SOA-inspired techniques captured on film at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison—and to hear our news media’s denials of that reality.
How could we possibly be surprised that American troops in Iraq torture, abuse and demean their prisoners when those are the precise tactics we have been teaching at Fort Benning to militia from Latin America for four decades?
But Americans are so practiced at self-deception and calculated blindness that we are genuinely shocked to hear that the downtrodden masses of other nations are angry at us.
“Us? What did we do, for crying out loud? Why are you so ticked off at us?”
Father Roy Bourgeois knows why. He’s spent 20 years trying to shut down SOA. During that time he’s led demonstrations; crisscrossed the country tirelessly lecturing, praying and pleading for Congress to shut the assassin factory down; and gone to prison for acts of civil disobedience designed to arouse America’s conscience.
Despite all the resistance he’s faced, the blither, propaganda and outright lies from Defense Department spin doctors, the close-minded stubbornness of most Americans, he’s never given up. As a man of faith, this former missionary in Central America who saw firsthand the havoc created by SOA graduates in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras has never wavered in his determination to put a stop to the assassin school through nonviolent means.
Now he sees new signs of hope throughout Latin America. As, one-by-one, the countries of the region turn their backs on military dictators and select new leaders eager to bring a halt to the economic colonization of their nations, Bourgeois is finding that a much more promising strategy for closing down SOA may be to dry up its supply of trainees at the source.
If more and more of Latin America’s democratic governments choose not to send their officers to Georgia for training, it may not matter that Congress resists pulling the plug on the operation.
Bourgeois will be in Santa Fe and Albuquerque during the first week of June for appearances and information sharing. His visit is sponsored by Pax Christi, the Catholic Peace Movement, by Veterans for Peace and by the Albuquerque chapter of School of the Americas Watch (the organization Bourgeois inspired).
It will be a good opportunity to find out about the School of the Americas. And for those who are already working to close its doors, it will be a chance to discuss creative and nonviolent strategies that are being developed and implemented.
America’s deepest shame is this secret warfare. But America’s brightest hope is the light Bourgeois and others are shining on it so it can be dismantled.
Father Roy Bourgeois will talk at the Albuquerque Mennonite church, 1300 Girard NE (two blocks north of Constitution), on Wednesday, June 7, at 7 p.m. Free. For more information, call Judy at 315-1366.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.