Vigil on Nov. 23 will protest controversial school in Georgia - Catholic Courier

Vigil on Nov. 23 will protest controversial school in Georgia

Local Catholics are planning a vigil at Sacred Heart Cathedral this weekend in solidarity with protesters trying to shut down the U.S. Army’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), a school that trains Latin American soldiers in combat. The school, located at Fort Benning, Ga., was known as the School of the Americas prior to 2001.

The vigil — sponsored by Pax Christi Rochester and Catholic Family Center’s Office of Social Policy — will take place from 2 to 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23, at the cathedral, 296 Flower City Park, Rochester. The event will commemorate the Nov. 16, 1989, massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at the University of Central America in San Salvador, El Salvador. According to information on the School of the Americas Watch Web site, many of the government soldiers involved in the massacre had been trained at School of the Americas.

School of the Americas Watch, a group that is trying to shut down WHINSEC, stages an annual vigil at Fort Benning. This year’s vigil is taking place Nov. 21-23.

Vivian Rightmyer, a Rochester Pax Christi member who is coordinating the local vigil, said volunteers have made dozens of white crosses with the names of martyrs on them to show the bloody legacy of the school.

"(The school’s graduates) are responsible for some of the worst human-rights abuses in America," Rightmyer remarked.

Activists say the 1989 massacre in San Salvador is just one instance of School of the Americas graduates using violence against peaceful people. Archbishop Oscar Romero was martyred in 1980 in an incident that has been linked to School of the Americas graduates, according to activists.

"(The school) has an atrocious record of graduates who have been involved in torture of innocent victims, and who have been involved in massacres and assassinations," said Nazareth College sociology professor Harry Murray, a parishioner of Rochester’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church and head of Nazareth’s peace-and-justice program. He has been attending the SOA Watch vigil in Georgia for about 10 years.

"I think the school is evidence that U.S. participation in torture didn’t begin with Abu Ghraib," Murray said, referring to the Iraqi prison where U.S. soldiers tortured Iraqi inmates.

School of the Americas was begun in Panama in 1946, and moved to Fort Benning in 1984, Murray said.

"In 1996, the Pentagon admitted it had used manuals that advocated torture, claiming that that was a clerical error," he said.

WHINSEC’s Web site contends that School of the Americas was closed in 2001, and that WHINSEC is a different school with a different curriculum. WHINSEC’s Web site also contends that such tactics as torture are not taught at the school.

However, Murray said WHINSEC’s 2001 curriculum changes were relatively cosmetic.

"You can paint a skunk a different color, but it still stinks," remarked John Honeck, a parishioner of Hamlin’s St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church who was arrested during annual SOA Watch vigils at Fort Benning in 1997 and 1999 and spent three months in jail.

Honeck traveled to Colombia in 2002 as part of SOA Watch and the human-rights group Witness for Peace and said he saw firsthand that the Colombian regime — which has been involved in a 40-year war — purchases equipment and weapons from U.S. military contractors.

"We visited one of their Army bases, and you could see a Blackhawk helicopter," Honeck said.

The group also visited a Red Cross building, and saw that it had been taken over by displaced people who had fled their homes, he said. Honeck said SOA and WHINSEC graduates have, under the guise of anti-terrorism efforts, targeted social-justice advocates, including union members, teachers, and men and women religious.

"Basically, their agenda is different from what a Christian’s agenda should be," Honeck said.

Murray said he also believes the school runs counter to Gospel values.

"It’s blatantly contrary to the Gospel of Jesus, who preached love your neighbors and do not return evil for evil," he said.

Murray noted that in some Latin American countries, the Bible has been seized as subversive literature by regimes that also have targeted Catholic men and women religious. He said many regimes of the wealthy elite have used militaries to target the poor.

"The message of the Gospel that God cares about the poor and that God gave us this planet and this land to sustain us all, and that extreme wealth in the face of extreme poverty is sinful, is a threat to the entrenched interests," Murray said.

Although WHINSEC is the most notorious military training school, there are many others that perform the same training functions, Murray noted.

"It’s (WHINSEC’s) the tip of the iceberg," he remarked. "There are dozens of schools where the U.S. trains foreign officers including some of the soldiers of very repressive regimes around the world."

Still, he said, closing down WHINSEC, which in the past has been supported by both Democrats and Republicans, would be a step in the right direction.

"It has been such a symbol for torture and repression in Latin America that closing the school would send a very positive message," he said.

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