Democracy's Real Enemy

Human Rights

Recent events in Iraq bear witness to chilling acts of evil. It now seems likely that Margaret Hassan, a British-born human relief worker who worked for more than two decades in Iraq, was executed. Even though Hassan opposed the U.S./U.K. invasion of the country, and could explain clearly in Arabic her political commitments, the insurgents turned her birthright into a death sentence.

U.S. troops also report this past week finding "houses of torture" in Fallujah during military operations there. Bloody rooms, human-size cages, and bayonets point to the possibility that civilian hostages such as Hassan were held in these homes, tortured for information, and eventually killed, often by decapitation. A third symbolic event took place in a mosque, when a U.S. soldier was shown on film murdering a wounded, unarmed insurgent. Subsequent investigations indicate that U.S. soldiers executed perhaps two additional wounded and unarmed insurgents.

All of the above scenarios must be treated as crimes against humanity, and not justified as "what happens in a war." U.S. military and government officials are quick to label enemy atrocities as "terrorism," yet consistently scapegoat a few "bad apples" as solely responsible for American atrocities.

Most American citizens were shocked when they learned of the torture and murder of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. Do they realize that this "house of torture" was conducted with the implicit, if not explicit, approval of high-ranking government and military officials? A few U.S. soldiers are being singled out to take the fall, but this was no aberration.

Over the past few years, the U.S. government has been rewriting the rules of war. It is troubling that the current nominee for attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales, wrote a memo in January 2002 telling President Bush that the nature of the war on terror "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."

We at Sojourners do not consider torture quaint, any more than we accept murder as a necessary response to terror. That is why we are actively involved in the campaign to close the School of the Americas.

Since 1946, the SOA has trained more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, psychological warfare, military intelligence, and interrogation tactics. Among its graduates are death squad leaders such as Roberto D'Aubuisson from El Salvador and military dictators such as Hugo Banzer of Bolivia and General Hector Gramajo of Guatemala. In 1996 the Pentagon was forced to release training manuals used at the school that advocated the use of torture, extortion, and execution. In response to public outcry over its poor human rights record, Congress in 2000 renamed the SOA as the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation" (WHISC).

Changing a leopard's name, however, does not remove its spots. The school continues to draw criticism and protest throughout Latin America. On February 26, 2004, Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel announced that all training of Venezuelan soldiers at the School of the Americas (WHISC) would be immediately ceased. In his address Rangel stated that the U.S., which considers itself a democracy, shouldn't have a school like this on its soil.

When I was working in the countryside of El Salvador in the middle 1990s, I witnessed firsthand the atrocities that SOA-trained soldiers wreaked upon the families of peasant farmers. They terrorized the population and assassinated grassroots leaders from the church, including Archbishop Romero and six Jesuits.

Since our action alert went out, I received several letters from readers who argued that the SOA cannot be held responsible for the acts of its graduates any more than a university could be complicit in the crimes of its alumni. We contacted Carlos Castresana, the prosecutor who brought charges of war crimes against General Pinochet, and asked him if he believed this was a legitimate defense. His reply:

"The question has two possible responses. Some lessons are a priori innocuous, and do not make the professor responsible, unless the professor knows beforehand the use that the student will make of the lesson.... To know beforehand, however, turns the professor into a necessary collaborator, and he or she would be punished as a material author of the crime."
The U.S., both through the SOA and 180 other similar training programs for foreign militaries, continues to support regimes with known records of abuse and torture – in effect, arming criminals. Even since purported reforms, known human rights abusers continue to receive training. In one case, the 1992 UN-mandated Commission on the Truth for El Salvador found Col. Francisco del Cid Diaz as one of those responsible for the massacre of 16 residents of the Los Hojas cooperative of the Asociacion Nacional de Indigenas. Despite record of this massacre in the State Department Human Rights Record Country Reports, Col. del Cid Diaz received SOA training in 2003.

Vice President Rangel of Venezuela got it right. No society that considers itself a democracy should tolerate a school like the SOA to exist, or permit its government to jettison the provisions of the Geneva Convention. Terrorism is indeed the enemy of democracy, even when it emerges from within our own ranks.

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