Taking on the School of the Americas

by Rev. Charles Booker-Hirsch

Since the tragedy of 9/11, we have learned some of the ways Osama bin Laden has schooled his al-Qaida organization into a formidable terrorist organization. No major media organization I know of, however, dares today to discuss how for more than five decades – the last two decades on our own soil – our own government systematically has been operating a more substantial terrorist school.

Established in Panama in 1946 as a hemispheric Cold War beachhead, the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), which operates solely for the training of Latin American military officers, was moved to Ft. Benning in Columbus, GA in 1984. Over 60,000 have graduated. They include Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega and Bolivian dictator Hugo Banzer; the assassins of an archbishop, a bishop, six Jesuit priests and four American churchwomen; and countless other military strongmen responsible for the deaths of literally hundreds of thousands.

From 1989-93, I worked with and heard the graphic persecution stories of untold numbers of Central American refugees fleeing de facto military dictatorships. It was no coincidence that the majority of SOA graduates in those years hailed from the Central American countries of Guatemala and El Salvador. Today, the majority of trainees are imported from Colombia, where we have pumped over $2 million of military aid daily the last two years into a "war on drugs" smokescreen for business interests that has only served to inflame the 40-year civil war there. Just two weeks ago, a narrow House majority freed this "drug eradication" money to openly engage in counterinsurgency operations. Vietnam, anyone?

In 1996 the Pentagon was forced to release training manuals used at the school that advocated the use of torture, extortion and execution, according to The School of the America’s Watch, a watchdog organization. Even after these were made public, Defense officials continued to point out that most of the school’s graduates had not committed the scores of human rights abuses against the millions of refugees fleeing the wrath that’s come. This may be true. At the same time, for the last 55 years most of the Latin American military officers who actually ordered these abuses learned their lessons well through our taxpayer-supported SOA.

After the House of Representatives decisively voted to shut down the school in 1999, a House-Senate conference committee voted 8-7 to keep it open, provided the school be renamed – get this – the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC). Even SOA proponents saw no difference in the much-touted renaming.

Georgia’s late Sen. Paul Coverdell assured his constituents the name switch was "a cosmetic change," and the Columbus, Ga. Ledger-Inquirer strongly concurred in a recent editorial. Different name – same shame. Orwellian Doublespeak, anyone?

Please join me and numerous communions such as the Presbyterian Church in urging leaders such as our distinguished Sen. Carl Levin, Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to close SOA/WHISC and discontinue "Plan Colombia." The irony again is that, in the midst of our current war on terrorism to parts East, we train and unleash scores of future terrorists yearly to parts South. Hypocrisy, anyone?

Rev. Charles Booker-Hirsch is pastor of Northside Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor. He was one of 43 indicted in April for trespassing onto Ft. Benning during what he describes as a solemn nonviolent civil disobedience action last November. The "SOA 43" trial date has been set for July 8 at the U.S. District Court in Columbus, GA.

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