Busted at Benning: when the criminals make the laws, it's time to go to jail!
An article printed in The Catholic Voice, Diocese of Oakland, California
By David A. Sylvester
Quien era Domingo Gomes?
This question - Who was Domingo Gomes - comes to me in Spanish because perhaps this is how the young people ask the question in his town of Aguilares, when they hear his name mentioned by family members, or when they wonder who lived in his family's home, or when they come acoss something that once belonged to him. Who was this man who lived so briefly and apparently vanished into the violence of the 1980s? He was like tens of thousands of other nameless, faceless Salvadorans who suffered the same fate, and his name would not even be mentioned now if it were not for a certain coincidence. A Richmond teacher asked a student who asked her mother if anyone knew of victims of the repression in El Salvador, and his name was put forward, then written onto a small, white cross, and handed to me.
In my hand I was holding a fragment of a memory of the hardworking, 17-year-old kid in Aguilares, one of the many who were in the fields when the Salvadoran Army soldiers arrived.
“Run!” shouted the women.
Domingo tried to escape, but the soldiers captured him. Being 17, he was pressed into the “fight against communism” by soldiers in an army trained and aided by the United States. That was how our “allies” filled their ranks to “defend freedom,” through kidnapping and coercion.
Months later, his family had a phone call: Domingo was dead. How did he die? In combat with guerillas? By disease in the jungle? Shot while trying to escape for Aguilares? No one would say.
With Domingo’s cross in one hand and a poster of personal heroes of mine, the Jesuit university professors murdered in San Salvador one night in 1989, I joined 20,000 others - nuns, priests, veterans, college students, or just people, like me – last November 20 to pray, grieve and protest at Fort Benning, home of the U.S. Army Infantry located at Columbus, Georgia, for its notorious School of Americas. For the past 16 years, Father Roy Bourgeois and his School of Americas Watch has organized these protests against the torture, extortion, blackmail and false imprisonment taught by the SOA to thousands of Central and Latin American military and police officers, including 19 of those who killed the Jesuits, their housekeeper and her 14-year-old daughter in 1989. Now operating under a new name, the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation, and claiming to use a reformed curriculum, the SOA continues to produce graduates involved or suspected in human rights atrocities, such as last year’s murder of eight members of the San Jose de Apartado peace community in Colombia.
So when people ask me now why I “crossed the line” with 40 other protesters at the November protest and trespassed onto Fort Benning’s property, I say: I didn’t cross the line, the line crossed me long ago. In El Salvador, in Guatemala, in Colombia. And now, in the most shocking way of all, in Iraq.
I may never forget the psychic impact of that first report of torture at Abu Ghurayb and seeing that photo of the anonymous prisoner with a black hood over his head, standing on a box, armed outstretched like Jesus on the cross and electrodes on his fingertips. It was immediately obvious that this was no game developed by a few rogue soldiers but a technique of torture developed during the dirty wars in Central America. Torture like this disgraces the proud traditions of the U.S. military and the sacrifice of the American soldiers who defeated Nazi Germany, liberated the concentration camps and brought a modern democracy to Japan. It disgraces our whole society, myself included, for ignoring, denying, or when pressed, excusing it with ideological slogans emptied of meaning. In seeing that photo, I had been stripped of my own dignity and integrity as an American citizen.
And for those of us who call ourselves witnesses to Christ, how does he view all this, the Jesus who told us to care for the naked, the imprisoned, and the hungry as for himself?
The question I ask myself is not about why I went in Georgia but why it took me so long. Once there, I prayed and prayed for God’s guidance and in the end, held Domingo’s cross and the poster of the Jesuits when I crawled underneath the fence of the fort. On a grassy knoll, I started to kneel to pray for myself, for my country, for the victims and their torturers when a Military Police officer seized my arm and ordered: “Stand up! Don’t move! You’re under arrest!”
Had God called me to do this? Was this an act of faith? Reflecting on it now, it’s more accurate to say that God has been at work, Mass by Mass, prayer by prayer, to remove my fearfulness. God has gently eased the bonds that constrain me from being who I really am. Then, one day, suddenly, I was free, free to act from my deepest self. My journey does not feel like one toward faith so much as one out of faithlessness. And I find this journey, God’s journey within me, is not shaping me to fit some theological “agenda” but for me to be me more than I dreamed possible.
As I sat on the red Georgia dirt, the MP filling out his form for Prisoner 01, my hands cuffed with plastic strips as I’ve seen so many Iraqis held, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. It was as if some shred of my dignity had been restored and some imbalance righted. Perhaps in a microscopic way, I had brought the thousands of suffering Iraqis, the Jesuit professors and the unknown victims like Domingo Gomes back to where it all started, to Fort Benning and the School of Americas.
Quien era Domingo Gomes?
Uno de los pobres de la tierra y los amados de Jesucristo. *
(*One of the poor of the earth beloved by Jesus Christ.)
(David A. Sylvester is a writer living in Oakland, California, and a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes, Oakland. The trial for his case and that of 36 other SOAW defendants is scheduled to begin for Jan. 30 in Columbus, Georgia, before a federal magistrate. The trespassing charge carries with it a sentence up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. )