"The United States makes no distinction between those who commit acts of terror and those who support and harbor them because they’re equally guilty of murder," said President Bush on Veteran’s day. However, the 15,000 activists who congregated on November 18-20 at the School of the Americas (SOA) weeks later in Columbus, GA reminded the US president, and the rest of the world, of the U.S. government’s role in training and harboring terrorists throughout Latin America.
The SOA was founded in Panama in 1946 and moved to Fort Benning, Georgia in 1984. During its 59 years of operations, the school has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in "counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics."
Scores of SOA graduates have gone on to carry out human rights violations throughout the region, linking them to countless massacres and acts of state-sponsored terrorism.
Large-scale protest against the SOA began after six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter were massacred in El Salvador in November of 1989. Nineteen Salvadoran military officers trained at the SOA were linked to this incident.
Each November since then, activists have met outside the SOA to mourn these deaths and the countless others directly linked to SOA graduates. In one of the largest single incidents, 10 SOA graduates were directly responsible for the 1981 massacre of 900 civilians in the Salvadoran town of El Mozote and the surrounding area.
Similar events mark SOA-trained counterinsurgency wars all across Latin America. On November 17, 2005 troops commanded by a SOA-graduate killed Colombian Peace Community-leader Arlen Salas David.
The culmination of each year’s protest is a funeral procession in which names of those massacred by SOA graduates are read aloud. After each name, protesters chant the word presente, meaning "present" in Spanish. The remembrance of victims reinforces the moral prerogative to close the "School of Assassins."
According to college activist Ede Osemwota, the religious moral arguments that SOA activists use are a contrast to the religious arguments of the right. "These days religion is always invoked in some ‘clash of cultures’ that supports the War on Terror. But here [at the SOA protest] it’s all about the nonviolence and anti-imperialism people find in religion."
While the protest attracts diverse groups such as Latin American refugees, student groups, veterans for peace, and migrant farm workers, religious groups form a majority. Practicing nonviolent civil disobedience, many enter into the military base. Called "crossing the line," this offense carries a three to six-month prison sentence.
40 protesters were arrested this year for "crossing the line."
Commenting on the role of civil disobedience, Osemwota said, "It focuses on the idea that, while criminals are imprisoned in a just society, in a society run by criminals, prison is a space for the righteous. And seeing how the government allows torture in secret military bases and trains terrorists here in Georgia, our society is far from just."
While Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib currently stand out as examples of US hypocrisy concerning human rights, the 15,000 individuals who demanded the closure of the SOA this weekend remind us that these are only the current chapters in a long history of shameful activities. The message was clear during Sunday’s funeral procession in front of the School of Assassins. Before the US government goes pointing its finger at state sponsors of terror the world over, it should make sure its own hands are clean.