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Preaching love to the School of the Americas

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, November 11, 2003

It was during my sophomore year in high school that Joe Flood, my friend and track teammate at the time, and current stud columnist for the Harvard student newspaper, posed the most important question of my life as we drove home in his green 1989 Toyota Corolla. At least, that is what I think it was. It could have been a Mercury Sable.

The question was this: Did I know that the U.S. government ran a military school in Georgia to train soldiers of Latin American countries that had turned out a horrifyingly high number of perpetrators of human rights abuses? I had no clue.

All right, perhaps this question was not the most important of my life, but it was very important nonetheless. It was important because it opened my eyes to the imperfection of the United States. It impelled me to acknowledge that while our country has done much good for the world, it has also made many mistakes that have cost millions their lives.

A particular mistake for which we need to demand justice is the School of the Americas, which was recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation. For the past 56 years, this military school has trained thousands of Latin American soldiers who have killed millions and committed countless human rights violations.

On the surface, the School of the Americas does not seem very alarming. Founded in 1946, the stated purpose of the former School of the Americas is to provide military education and training to the nations of Latin America to promote democratic values and respect for human rights. That seems like a positive mission statement. The problem, though, is one that only further research can explain.

Can military forces bring about democracy and human rights? That seems a great contradiction. History seems to show that such a democracy, brought about by the military, is far from true democracy and a lot closer to bloody dictatorship. Just ask the Chileans about the Pinochet regime during the 1970s. We need to examine the alumni records of the School of the Americas to highlight this point.

The alumni track record of the School of the Americas is appalling. There are countless human rights violations, massacres, bloody coups and assassinations in countries all over Latin America by graduates of the school. Two examples are particularly relevant to our University’s Catholic identity.

On March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated by a graduate of the School of the Americas as he was celebrating Mass. Days before he died, Romero sent a letter to President Carter that said, “If you are really Christian, please stop sending aid to the military here, because they use it only to kill my people.”

A second example was the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter on Nov. 16, 1989 in El Salvador, which was also by graduates. Ignatio Ellacuria, S.J., the murdered superior of the Jesuit community, also had fitting words before dying: “The struggle against injustice and the pursuit of truth cannot be separated, nor can one work for one independent of the other.”

These words and examples are profound, as is the long list of violence perpetrated by graduates, yet many people continue to rationalize the School of the Americas. There are two common arguments.

First, some say that these human rights violations were only committed by a small segment of the many graduates of the military school. As far as I am concerned, such an argument is ridiculous. If 10 percent of those who graduated from Notre Dame were rapists, murderers and dictators, you’d better believe that most of us would be outside Main Building protesting.

Second, some argue that the military school has cleaned up its past mistakes and is now committed to human rights, democracy and peace. This is a stronger argument, but the facts show that graduates from the school have perpetrated numerous human rights violations in the 21st century in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Guatemala. I encourage you to do your own research by juxtaposing the school website (www.benning.army.mil/whinsec/) and the SOA Watch website (www.soaw.org).

So what can we do? We can close the School of the Americas. In 2001, a bipartisan amendment on Capitol Hill to close the school was defeated by only 10 votes. There is hope. On Nov. 21-23, a large group of us from Notre Dame will be traveling to the School of the Americas in Georgia to participate in the annual vigil, where we stand in solidarity with the victims and speak out against violence and terror. Please consider joining us and sign up at the Center for Social Concerns.

In closing, let us heed the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero: “Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world. Though we see that waves of violence succeed in drowning out the fire of Christian love, love must win out; it is the only thing that can.” May we preach that love amidst the violent world we live in.

Peter Quaranto is a sophomore political science and international peace studies major. He is involved with the Notre Dame Peace Coalition and is greatly anticipating the release of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in one month. Contact him at pquarant@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.