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Issue Date:  February 18, 2005

More than an image problem

During the familiar annual processing ritual for School of the Americas protesters this year, new information surfaced about a comprehensive plan devised by the U.S. Army to deflect criticism of the school, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (see story).

The testimony, in the form of documents comprising the institute’s “Strategic Communications Campaign Plan,” was offered by defendant Aaron Shuman, who said he was acting as a journalist when he received the documents from Army public affairs officer Lee Rials. He said the interview took place two years ago at Fort Benning, where the institute is located and where the annual protests of School of the Americas Watch are held.

Shuman has clearly crossed the line to activism, and his use of the plan for his defense failed. He was convicted and sentenced to 120 days in prison and given a $500 fine.

Still, the information he unveiled in court is telling and valuable for several reasons.

For starters, it makes clear that from the military’s response, Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois and the School of the Americas Watch he created 15 years ago, has had a significant effect on the public’s perception of the school. The school, now the institute, is a combat training facility for Latin American soldiers, many of whom have been charged with human rights violations and murders in their native countries.

The plan acquired by Shuman shows an outlay of $246,000 to track news media coverage of the school worldwide, to create pre-fab letters to the editor to counter negative views and to track the comings and goings of Bourgeois, with the aim of getting an Army representative on the bill to counter the priest’s point of view whenever he speaks.

We also know that the school has developed a human rights curriculum, at least in part to neutralize protesters’ arguments about the school.

It is difficult from a distance to determine to what degree changes are mere window dressing or how much the curriculum has changed.

What is clear, however, is that the Army has more than a public relations problem. The problem is far deeper than image. It lies, instead, with a deep and long history of teaching methods of torture and means of fighting that we condemn when we see them practiced in other countries.

The problem is a manifestation of larger symptoms. What does it mean to declare a worldwide pursuit of liberty and freedom when we are detaining prisoners without charges or legal representation? When we send prisoners to other countries where we know torture is performed? When we permit torture in our detention centers, which we say are beyond the reach of the very laws that govern the rest of us? When we demand a cessation of nuclear programs in other countries at the same time we are embarking on the development of a new generation of weapons?

What may seem an annual ritual with a certain predictability about it is actually a profound confrontation with such questions. The thousands, young and old, who gather annually for the School of the Americas protest know how to connect the dots, as Maryknoll Sr. Lil Mattingly did in court, among such seemingly unrelated places as Bolivia and Nicaragua and Iraq. The federal judge in Columbus, Ga., may not buy the rationale and the defenses of those on trial. He probably sees these days in court as an annual ritual, his duty to clean it up in a hurry and dispatch the disgruntled to prison.

Over the long haul, though, the people who show up to protest will contribute far more than any military action to our understanding of ourselves as Americans and toward the critical understanding of what is being done in our name.

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2005

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