My oral defense in court, exactly as I gave it
By David A. Sylvester
Your honor, this is an extraordinary proceeding. We’re here on a trespass charge and yet the previous defendants have spoken so eloquently and opened up their lives to explain their actions. I find it very moving, and I want to say it’s a privilege and honor for me to stand with Ken Crowley, Frank Woolever, Sarah Harper, Jamie Walters who went before me in this court this morning. They have spoken so well I’m not sure what to say.
I also hear what you’ve said from the bench, your honor, that you have a duty to uphold the law and the boundary of Fort Benning, and I have agreed to the basic facts of the trespassing in the stipulation. But I plead not guilty. It seems as though we are speaking different languages here. Your honor and the prosecution talk about the trespassing, and then when defendants like me stand up, we talk about the School of Americas/WHINSEC.
I know 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 and you’ve heard a great deal on the graduates of the school and their actions. I have little to add to all this, except to point out that the SOA graduates are continuing to commit atrocities. A year ago last February, there were eight civilians murdered at the peace community in San Jose de Apartado and then in November, another peace community leader was murdered, and SOA graduates were commanding troops in the area, and the community believes they were involved with the deaths. There’s also a pattern of similar abuse turning up in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and possibly secret prisons throughout Europe. So we’re not talking about history, about what happened in the 1980s in Central America. This is still happening. It is a very live issue.
I’ve written to Jimmy Carter after I spoke yesterday with staff at the Carter Center about their efforts to address the issue of torture, and I have a copy of the letter for your honor and the prosecution. 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. Jimmy Carter was the president that Archbishop Oscar Romero appealed to before he was killed by SOA graduates, so I believe he has a great deal of expertise about the subject. In the letter, I have asked Mr. Carter to set up a conference to focus on the school, to support closing the school and to support Rep. Jim McGovern’s HR 1217 bill that would suspend its operations and start a bipartisan investigation.
These are two of the trials going on here, 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 itself. Your honor, I was a kid in the 1950s. When I was born, the end of the war was about as far away as the presidency of Bill Clinton is now. The war left the country with such a strong sense of national solidarity. And I can’t begin to tell you what it was like to stand on Fort Benning Road last November and to look up and see that giant American flag towering at the top of its flagpole. It 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. In the 1950s, the one thing we had was moral security. What America did was right. It was in the movies, it was in the books, it was the assumption of the times.
As I stood there, right behind me, I could hear the names of the disappeared, the dead and the tortured sung out by speakers behind me. What would these people here (pointing to the large oil portraits of early American presidents such as George Washington and John Quincy Adams on the wall of the courtroom) think if they were standing with me, listening to those names?
Your honor, I will never forget when I read for the first time the report of the abuse at Abu Ghraib. I was sitting at my desk where I worked at a newspaper, and I read the first stories and saw the first photographs, and 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. Torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib violates my integrity as an American, my values, and this happened long before I came here. Your honor, 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 whether I am 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, will come before me, I will say Depart from me.” And why? Jesus will ask: “Did you feed the hungry, the thirsty, and visit the sick and in prison? What you did for them, 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 about what happened to Dianna Ortiz? I’m sure your honor is familiar enough with her story so that I don’t have to repeat it. 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, who 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 TAASC, Torture Abuse Survivors network.)
And she is just one of the people we know about. But there tens of thousands of nameless, faceless people who died in Central America during the violence. When I was arrested at the base, I was 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. 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..
And this isn’t just about the torturers. How about the “intellectual authors,” those who think these techniques up, who plan, teach, legitimize, excuse and then sell them to the public as “national security.” What does Jesus think of this, and the people like me who know about it 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 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 – and if I had my ideal outcome, 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 invite Southern Baptists and military personnel to dialogue with me on these issues. What do you think about what I have said? You can write me at my federal address, (or go to the SOAW website at www.soaw.org, or look for my blog (http://bydavidsylvester.blogspot.com) to discuss these issues.
I do want to thank you for allowing me the time to present my thoughts here and range widely over what I consider important issues.
God bless you, your honor.