Torture 101

Less Protesters at the Gates of
School That Trained Dictators

In the 1960s and 1970s, no South or Central American military dictator worth his boots lacked a diploma from the School of the Americas, a U.S. Department of Defense center that, human rights activists say, provided training for military leaders who went on to become infamous tyrants, led regimes of terror and indiscriminately ordered abductions, torture and killings of political enemies to achieve their goals.
Among the school’s alumni, there were scores of uniformed officers who sat and learned their illegal craft on its benches and went on to help stage violent coups all over the continent, provide the muscle to subjugate and crush millions of frightened and impoverished populations of their own compatriots. Hundreds more of their associates primed their merciless interrogation chops at the institution.
That class of students may be gone for good, but the school, at Fort Benning, in Columbus, Georgia, is still standing. No one is certain who still graduates there and in what, but those walls are still up and heavily guarded 24/7. What doesn’t seem likely to last much longer is the group of aging protesters who, for the past 20 years, has shown up at its gates every November to reaffirm their disapproval to what the place represents. Their numbers dwindling, even the city, which used to count on their business, wonders what if they don’t show up at all next year?
Maybe the times did change, as the half-full glass crowd would be eager to point it out. After all, the majority of south-of-the-U.S.-border nations live now under budding democracies and coups are much less common these days. Lately, some of such nations have even elected leaders who rather identify themselves with the left side of the political spectrum, if such an expression is still in use. It’s been some time also that military institutions returned to their barracks to fulfill their proper constitutional role, as they should, and mostly wouldn’t think in engaging again in another bloody adventure of the dictator du jour.
As for them dictators, most are now old and sick and unlikely to face punishment for their crimes. Some already died, wealthy and beloved by family and friends, who shared both the authoritarian credo and the spoils of the usurpation. They died in impunity because those democracies and their court systems were still being rebuilt from scratch, and their society at large was not yet ready to revisit their barbarian past. Or so the half-full like to believe.
But to their victims and their own family and friends, those who either were summarily killed or “disappeared,” to use a term common in those times, by para-military death squads who ruled the era, such peace to rest and start anew has been much more elusive. That’s the measure of poignancy on those dwindling numbers of November protesters: their presence serves to make the voices of the former alumni’s victims to be heard one more time. If they stop coming, will we still hear their lament?
The annual protest began after six Jesuit priests were killed in El Salvador in November 1989 by a group that a U.S. Congressional task force connected to School of the Americas graduates. No one was ever convicted of that crime, but the international outcry over it represented a turning point in that country’s struggle for democracy. It became the rule of the land a few years after, although it still faces enormous challenges.
As for Fort Benning, people still show up at the protest. Many still get arrested. And they and the local enforcement all know too well why they’re all there. It’s certainly not for the barbecues or the seemingly parochial gathering of old lefties and their not-so interested kin. It’d be utterly distraught if they too would lose confidence on the relevance of what they’ve been doing, year after year.
It’d also be too easy for the half-empty cup crowd to proclaim that these days no one really cares about what’s really important. Because it wouldn’t be fair for those who really do, like those folks in Columbus, Georgia.

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