LIVING IN THE PARALLEL POLIS... By David A Sylvester, Prisoner # 91441-020

If the basic job of 'dissident movements' is to serve the truth, that is, to serve the aims of a free and spontaneous life, then we must develop an unofficial 'parallel polis' in education, publishing, art, even foreign policy and economy. All these will flourish naturally underneath the crust of lies of the official polis as it seeks to preserve its power based on a world of appearances. -- Adapted from Vaclav Havel, Soviet-era Czech dissident, 1978.

Name:
Location: lompocdavid@yahoo.com, California

From April 11 until early July, I'll be a federal prison inmate for civil disobedience against the School of Assassins at Fort Benning. My address: David A. Sylvester, Inmate Register # 91441-020; FEDERAL PRISON CAMP; 3705 WEST FARM RD.; LOMPOC, CA 93436. CONTACT ME THROUGH: lompocdavid@yahoo.com (These emails will be read, printed and mailed to me by snail mail.) If you're interested in my reflections and experiences in prison, please join my email list at the above email address.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

My full defense: "I didn't cross the line; the line crossed me."

(This is an expanded and edited version of my remarks to Federal Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth on Jan. 31, 2006 on the charge of trespassing. It includes one section that I intended to say and omitted and have since mailed to the judge.)

By David A. Sylvester

Your honor, this is an extraordinary proceeding. We’re here charged with a minor offense – trespassing -- and yet my brother and sister defendants have opened up their lives so much and spoken from the depths of their souls so deeply that it would move rocks to tears.

As I listened to them, I realized what a privilege and honor it is for me to stand alongside Ken Crowley, Frank Woolever, Sarah Harper, Jamie Walters, all of whom went before me in this court this morning. They have spoken so eloquently that I’m not sure what to say.

I also heard what you said from the bench, your honor, that you have a duty to uphold the law and the boundary of Fort Benning, and you’ve wondered why we don’t focus our efforts on more practical means of change, lobbying Congress or working on legislation. You have already ruled that I’m guilty of the charge, since I have agreed to the basic facts of the trespassing in the stipulation with the prosecution, and now you are about to decide on my sentence for this offense.

While you, your honor, and the prosecution talk of trespassing, I and other defendants have pleaded not guilty and talk about the School of the Americas, under its new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Why? We seem to speak different languages here. In my opinion, that's because we are in the midst of four different trials at once, like concentric circles with the same common center, trepassing. The smallest circle is the narrow charge of trespassing, the second circle is the nature of the SOA itself.

I understand you’ve read a great deal about the School, and once a year for the past six years, this courtroom has been turned into a seminar on U.S. foreign policy, so I’m sure you are familiar with the history of the school’s graduates. I have little to add to all this, except to point out that SOA graduates are continuing to commit atrocities. A year ago in February, there were eight civilians murdered at the peace community in San Jose de Apartado in Colombia and then in November, another leader in this peace community was murdered. Two SOA graduates who are Colombian generals were commanding troops in the area, and the community believes they were involved with the deaths.

Even more disturbing, there is a persistence of the pattern of abuse and torture that the SOA supposedly disavowed after it was forced to admit in 1996 it had used training manuals for torture, extortion and kidnapping in the 1980s. SOA-like abuse seems to have become systemic to the U.S. military, turning up in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and possibly secret prisons throughout Europe. They may have changed the SOA's name, but its policies and practices seem very much current.

I spoke yesterday with staff at the Carter Center in Atlanta about whether they might focus efforts on the SOA. As you know, the Carter Center has invested much energy in the issue of torture. It has developed its Human Rights Defenders Initiative, awarded human rights prizes and worked for weapons control through its Council of Presidents and Prime Ministers. Jimmy Carter was the president that Archbishop Oscar Romero appealed to before he was assassinated by SOA graduates, so I believe he has a great deal of expertise about the subject.

I’ve written to Jimmy Carter - I have a copy of the letter for your honor and the prosecution – and I have asked Mr. Carter to set up a conference to focus on the school’s role in torture, to support closing it and to support Rep. Jim McGovern’s HR 1217 bill that would suspend its operations and start a bipartisan investigation.

So far, I’ve mentioned two of the trials going on - the trespassing trial and the trial of the School and its operations. But there is a third trial going on here, a trial of America. Your honor, I was a kid in the 1950s. When I was born, the end of World War II was about close in time as the presidency of Bill Clinton is to us today. The legacy of that war, the sense of rightness in defeating Nazi Germany, liberating the concentration camps, democritizing Japan left us with such a strong sense of national solidarity. In the 1950s, we may have had material security, but more important than that, we had moral security. We believed that what America did was right.

Looking back now, this feeling might have glossed over all kinds of inequities and brutalities, but at the time, moral confidence was our strength as a nation. This belief was in the movies, in the books, in the classrooms. It was the assumption of the times.

Your honor, I can’t begin to tell you how I felt when I stood at the end of Fort Benning Road last November 20 and looked up and saw that giant American flag towering at the top of the flagpole at the base. The flag was so large and I was so small that it was like I was back in elementary school, and all the memories and values of what that flag stood for rushed through me, a feeling of pride and love and loyalty. For a moment, I was astonished at the enormity of what I was considering, to break a law in defiance of everything that flag stood for. I might speak or demonstrate or lobby against an American policy, but to break a law deliberately?

But as I stood there, right behind me, I could hear the names of the disappeared, the dead and the tortured chanted by the singers in the funeral procession. Unknown names, names of women, names of children, names of unidentified babies. On the wall here beside me are these large oil portraits of George Washington, John Quincy Adams and other founding presidents of our country. What do you think they would think and feel if they were standing with me, listening to those names?

Your honor, I’ve had to live with the knowledge of the atrocities in Central America now for 25 years – the assassination of Romero, the murder of the 6 Jesuit professors, their housekeeper and her 14-yaer-old daughter, the murder of the four American churchwomen – and yet I now have more I am forced to live with. Your honor, I will never forget what I felt when I first learned of Abu Ghraib. I was sitting at my desk where I worked at a newspaper, and the first story came over the wire, and the first photographs were put in front of me, and I had to read every last detail because that was my job.

And the shock was so deep that I knew I would never feel the same about being an American. There’s been a lot of talk about my crossing the line here in Georgia, but at that moment the line crossed me. The torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib violated my integrity as an American and ripped something away from me, something I valued greatly. When I finally arrived here in November, the ball was already in motion, the line-crossing had already happend. As it turned out, when I was sitting on the other side of that fence in the red dirt, with my hands cuffed behind me, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief, as though some balance had been righted even if in an infinitesimal way. Your honor, I believe America itself is on trial. This country is in the midst of a moral crisis, and I believe we need to fight for this nation’s integrity.

Now there is a fourth trial going on here, your honor, and that is the trial of being faithful to Jesus Christ. I know when I start to talk like this, I will lose 80 percent of the people listening, but honesty requires me to ask myself in what I do: Am I being faithful to the life that Jesus is calling me to lead? You are probably familiar with the passage in Matthew 7: 21-27 and also in Matthew 25:31-46 when he says, “Many of you will call me Lord, Lord, in other words, many of you who call yourselves Christian and claim to have done great deeds and miracles and healings in my name will come before me at the end of their lives, and I will say Depart from me.” And why? What is the test? Jesus will ask each one: “Did you feed the hungry and thirsty, visit the sick and imprisoned? What you did for the least of these, you do for me.”

If this is what Jesus would say about feeding the hungry or visiting those in prison, what is he going to say to those who tortured Sr. Dianna Ortiz? I’m sure your honor is familiar enough with her story so that I don’t have to repeat it here. It makes me sick to my stomach to talk about it. (NOTE: Sr. Dianna Ortiz was an American nun working with poor children in Guatemala, was kidnapped by Guatemalan security forces, raped repeatedly, burnt 111 on her back with cigarettes during questioning and thrown into a pit of dead and dying people. She was released by an American supervisor who intervened during her ordeal and is now working with TASSC, the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition. When she attempted to track down her torturers, she appealed to the American Embassy, which evaded her questions and lied.)

And she is just one of the people we know about. There were tens of thousands of nameless, faceless people who died in Central America during the so-called “war on Communism” that the Reagan Administration and others since have played to the American public like a bad late-night movie rerun. When I was arrested at the base, I was carrying a poster of the Jesuits but I was also carrying the cross of Domingo Gomes. No one has ever heard of Domingo Gomes. He was just a Salvadoran kid captured by the Army and was forced to join and ended up vanishing in some anonymous death. His family was never told what happened. It was a pure coincidence that I had his name. Someone who knew him happened to tell someone else who put his name on a cross and handed it to me. Otherwise, no one would ever hear his name now except a few family and friends.

What will Jesus say about the torturers? And what will he say about the “intellectual authors” of these acts, those who think these techniques up, who plan, teach, legitimize, excuse and then sell them to the public as “national security?” And what does Jesus think of people like me who know about this and haven’t tried to stop it? What is Jesus going to say when we appear before him and we try to talk about geopolitics or anti-Communist ideology or free markets for coffee and cheap labor for computer parts and clothing? Can anyone find anywhere a Scripture passage where Jesus talks about any of this?

There is no need to go to Scripture, however, your honor. We can go to the International Herald Tribune. I was reading an editorial last Saturday about the Human Rights Watch report on U.S. torture and it says in the second sentence that “every American should feel a sense of shame.” In the last sentence, the writer says that “the report is also an indictment of the rest of the United States for failing to stop the destruction of its most cherished values.”
I am here for these reasons – to close of the SOA, to defend American values, to be faithful to Jesus Christ.

Now let’s say for argument’s sake that I and the other defendants have swayed you and you secretly believe the SOA needs to be closed as a step toward redeeming American values and being faithful to the call of Christ. But, as you said to another defendant, isn’t it better to lobby Congress, to work for political change, to join an advocacy group? That’s what the system is there for, isn’t it? Why trespass? Isn’t this rather misdirected and impractical? I agree.

Practical effort - lobbying congress, working for political change, joining advocacy - is important and has its place, but I think this misunderstands the nature of the problem. The real problem is one of values. Lobbying and advocacy might correct one abuse at a time, but it won't get to the root cause of those abuses and that is the mistaken values of the vast network of people who invent, defend, and perpetrate torture as policy. The fact remains that laws don’t create values; values create laws.

Breaking the law by trespassing and going to prison for it is not a practical action; it is a faith action. It is not aimed at changing laws; it is aimed at changing hearts and values. Perhaps my willingness to go to prison may touch the consciences of those who hear about it. Perhaps not. That is up to God. I’m content to be a pebble thrown into the water, and I trust God will take care of the ripples. In this way, it is possible a seemingly impractical action may be the most practical of all.

Naturally, if I had my ideal outcome, you would be so convinced by my arguments here that you would postpone my sentence and call for an investigation of the School. However, I’m aware this is not likely. So if you decide to give me prison, I would like to hear from others on what I’ve said. I would like letters from from military personnel on America’s crisis. Do they think it possible that they are being ordered to fight for our values in a way that destroys them? And I invite Southern Baptists who believe in the literal word of Scripture to explain how they read those passages in Matthew in the light of Abu Ghraib and Sr. Ortiz. You can write me at my federal address, posted here and at the SOA-Watch website at http://www.soaw.org/, or post a comment on my blog: http://bydavidsylvester.blogspot.com/.

I do want to thank you for allowing me the time to present my thoughts here and range widely over these important issues..

God bless you, your honor.



NOTES:
Citations from New Testament:
1. Matthew 7:15-27
15 "Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 "You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? 17 "So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 "A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 "So then, you will know them by their fruits. 21 "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 22 "Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' 23 "And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.'
24 "Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 "And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. 26 "Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 "The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall."

2. Matthew 25: 31-46
The Judgment
31 "But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. 32 "All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. 34 "Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 'For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.' 37 "Then the righteous will answer Him, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 'And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 'When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' 40 "The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.' 41 "Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.' 44 "Then they themselves also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?' 45 "Then He will answer them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.' 46 "These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

3. International Herald Tribune, editorial on Jan. 28-29, 2006:

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