After 35 years of opposing United States foreign policy in Latin America, Roy Bourgeios, M.M., knows a few things for sure. Chief among them is that those who foster oppression or commit violence are opposing God’s will.
“We are not made for war,” Father Bourgeios said on March 4 at Duane Library. “God does not bless war, not in Vietnam and not in Iraq. God does not bless killing; God does not bless violence.”
Father Bourgeios was one of four speakers at a panel discussion about the School of the Americas (SOA). Now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, it is a Department of Defense-funded combat training academy at Fort Benning, Ga. for soldiers from Latin America.
The school operated in Panama from 1946 to 1984, when the U.S. government moved it to Fort Benning as part of the Panama Canal Treaty. Since its inception, it has trained more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers in the tactics of physical and psychological warfare, including torture, critics say.
Proponents say the school is vital to promoting democracy in Latin America and the developing world. Detractors point out that the school has educated many dictators who have used their SOA educations to mete out torture and other human rights abuses against people who oppose their military-enforced leadership.
The Fordham event, “Beyond the SOA: Further Reflections on Power and Morality,” was designed to reinvigorate members of the Fordham community who traveled to Georgia last fall to protest the SOA. It also aimed to teach the audience about the nature of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.
Father Bourgeios became involved in the fight against the school after SOA-trained soldiers murdered six Jesuit priests and two women in 1989 at the University of Central America in San Salvador.
“What we discovered in our back yard was a school for assassins, a school for dictators, a school with a curriculum that teaches torture,” he explained. “In Vietnam, it was common knowledge that the U.S. was about torture. This is not an aberration.”
He now runs SOA Watch, a group focused on cutting off the school’s funding at the federal government level and informing the general public, Congress and the media about the implications of this training on the people of Latin America.
Also at the event, which was sponsored by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, Office of Mission and Ministry and Office of Campus Ministry, was Michael E. Lee, Ph.D., professor of theology at Fordham. He explained the concept of liberation theology, which emphasizes bringing justice to the poor and oppressed.
“Liberation theology makes the claim that salvation is not exclusively otherworldly. Human liberation is part of the Christian notion of salvation,” Lee said. “God doesn’t look at injustice and say it’s OK; God prompts us to work against it.”
The panelists offered some advice to the roughly 70 people who attended the discussion on how to motivate themselves and others to create nonviolent change in the world. The key, they said, is to start with altering individual behavior and then work up to mass actions.
“Change can be an overwhelming thing if you start with the big picture,” Lee said. “Even the most simple act can have a transformative effect. There’s no cookie-cutter way to transform our world; it’s up to each of us to use our talents. The large changes ripple out from these small actions.”
Added Anna J. Brown, Ph.D., professor of political science at St. Peter’s College in New Jersey: “Start with yourself. If you can’t get yourself to do something simple, like stop buying clothes made in a sweatshop, then how can you expect others to change?”