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Issue Date:  December 8, 2006

From the Editor's Desk

Their story is not lost

The line that haunted me for a long time after my first trip to Guatemala in 1981 was “Please tell our story.” It was repeated in different ways by almost everyone I encountered during a 10-day trip that would begin to open my eyes to realities that, quite frankly, I at first suspected were unreal.

It is not that I didn’t believe the stories I heard as much as I didn’t want to believe them. The stories of slaughter that I heard about, slaughter that would eventually be deemed a genocide by a United Nations Truth Commission, set me on a collision course with beliefs I once held with comfort and assurance. I promised myself 25 years ago that I would do as much as I could to tell that story.

It is a difficult one for any American to tell because it requires upending deeply held convictions about this country -- that we are fair and just, that we never take advantage of the downtrodden, that we, of all the countries in the world, are generous to a fault and want only to spread democracy and freedom.

As I began to learn more about Guatemala and the U.S. history there -- from the CIA-engineered overthrow of a duly elected president in 1954 to the training of military personnel who were involved in some of the most hideous modern-era human rights abuses in this hemisphere -- I was forced to confront deeply disturbing elements of our history. The U.S. friendship with brutal dictators and our involvement in the kind of extreme violence that we would abhor elsewhere when done or sponsored by other countries went by almost without notice. What I realized is that our power and wealth lifted us above accountability. No one could force us into an international court. In fact, during the Reagan era, when a court decided against the United States, we simply dismissed the finding and essentially dared the rest of the world to do something about it. Who could?

Many of the Guatemalan generals involved in the 30 plus years of repression were graduates of the School of the Americas -- SOA.

Retired Gen. Efraín Rios Montt, who oversaw one of the bloodiest periods of the war, when tens of thousands of Mayans were slaughtered in the countryside, was a graduate.

In 1995 Gen. Hector Gramajo was convicted in a U.S. civil court of war crimes and fined $47 million in reparations. He had been invited to return to the School of the Americas, from which he had graduated, as an honored guest speaker at a graduation ceremony in 1993.

No findings by the United Nations, no requests under the Freedom of Information Act, no railing to the heavens by church leaders and church-sponsored truth commissions would make much difference. The prophets remained alone in their wilderness.

~ ~ ~

For years I have assigned reporters to cover the SOA protest each November. (Patrick O’Neill, has covered the event for the past five years.) Why go back year after year to the same event? Because something very correct is happening there. ( See story)

This year I unchained myself from my desk in Kansas City and went and saw for myself. For those who would take issue with details, I can say there is probably much to take issue with. The language of crowds and large protests is necessarily simplistic, the questions of legitimate defense and the place of the military necessarily more complex than any weekend rally could accommodate.

That said, nothing could be more correct, or, in my opinion, more essential at this moment in history than calling on the American conscience to see what has been done in all of our names. If the slogans can leave much to be desired, participants also get a hefty dose of good teaching from some formidable figures in the Catholic world and beyond. A religious instinct is at the core of this protest, an instinct wonderfully drawn out by the Jesuits, who have used the School of the Americas gathering as a deep teaching moment. A Saturday night liturgy attended by an overflow crowd of 3,000 put faith in alignment with the public square. No speech could contain the full lesson of that night: the disarming drama of death and the promise of resurrection that the Catholic community reenacts is the most profound counter to the state-sponsored, organized killing symbolized by the school, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, at Fort Benning, Ga.

The sacramental sense of that evening flowed into the next afternoon when some 22,000 people, a phalanx of towering Georgia pines standing against a stunning blue sky as witness, formed in procession. For hours there was silence except for the one word participants would sing over and over in response as the names of martyrs were sung in a chant from the stage. Names from Guatemala and El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, Colombia and Chile, Brazil and Argentina. “ Presente,” they would sing, as thousands of white crosses were raised and lowered. Presente, over and over, as crosses were raised and the people took another step toward the gate of the fort. When they got to the gate, they’d place the cross in one of the holes of the chainlink fence and move on.

I thought of the faces I’ve seen the few times I’ve been to those places where our nation has been complicit in terrorizing people, and the request I’ve heard, “Tell our story.” And I said silently, Presente, and thought, with some satisfaction, your story is not lost.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2006

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