"But what does Sam Nunn think?" I was startled by the question that came from a clergy group in Columbus, Georgia. I had been invited to speak about the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning in Columbus and to explain why people of faith all around the country are demanding that the SOA be closed down.
During my 30-minute presentation, I described how over the last 50 years, the School of the Americas had trained almost 60,000 soldiers from Latin America and the Caribbean in counterinsurgency operations, military intelligence, combat skills, commando tactics, and psychological operations, all at U.S. taxpayer expense. In September 1996, I told the group, the Department of Defense finally admitted that the SOA also actively taught torture techniques using training manuals that advocated executions, extortion, physical abuse, and paying of bounties for enemy dead. One SOA graduate, I revealed, testified that when he was at the school while it was based in Panama, homeless people were used as guinea pigs for the torture training.
The Pentagon says the SOA has reformed, I told the clergy group, but we must not be fooled. The school's mission remains the sameit is a combat-training school that teaches soldiers how to kill. But who is the enemy? The same as always: clergy and other religious workers, labor organizers, health promoters, and educatorsthe poor and those who work with the poor.
For more than half an hour, I detailed the horrifying history of the school, ending with a plea for the clergy group to join with other religious leaders around the country to demand that the SOA be closed. Then came the query. "But what does Sam Nunn think?" The Georgia senator's support for the SOA ultimately defined the clergyman-questioner's decision to raise no opposition to this "School of Assassins."
Thankfully, other people of faith have chosen to speak out, including the SOA 13, whose civil disobedience action against the school sent them to prison in 1996, and others who are facing federal prison terms in 1997 for "crossing the line" at Fort Benning on November 16, 1996. Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois, director of the SOA Watch, an organization dedicated to closing the school, has served 20 months in jail for his protests.
"When we established the SOA Watch office outside the gates of Fort Benning in 1990, three people showed up for the first organizing meeting," remembers Bourgeois. "Sometimes it has been very lonely work."
Sister Mary Alice Lovett would agree. For more than 11 years, this 78-year-old Sister of Mercy has been working as a pastoral assistant in a large Catholic parish in Columbus. "When I heard Father Roy speak, I knew right away I should support his work," she told me one morning as we sat in the parish hall.
Though most in her community have not encouraged her in this effort, Lovett has persisted in calling for the closing of the school. "They are mowing people down out of greed. The greedy never get enough and the poor always suffer," she explained simply. "We should take courage from Romans 8, 'If God be for us, who can be against us?'" Lovett continues to write letters to the editor and to speak out publicly, and in quiet personal encounters always urges the involvement of others, including those who are hostile or at best wary of anyone who questions the military in a military town.
"But what does Sam Nunn think?" charges us to remember that faithful action must always begin with faithful questions. The protesters who served or are preparing to serve prison terms, and the thousands around the country working in other ways to stop the SOA madness, echo the prophet Micah: "What does God require?"
Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J., gunned down in 1989 by SOA graduates, answered this way: "Christians and all those who hate injustice are obligated to fight it with every ounce of their strength. They must work for a new world in which greed and selfishness will finally be overcome."
Carol Richardson, formerly a pastor for United Methodist churches in Ohio and Maryland, directed the SOA Watch Washington, D.C. office when this article appeared. In 2004, 15,000 protesters participated in the School of the Americas protest in Ft. Benning, Georgia.