"Our greatest enemy in the U.S. is ignorance," says Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of the School of the Americas Watch. "When people hear about a school like this being run in our name, the vast majority of the people oppose that. They have heart, they have compassion."
Bourgeois is due in town on Thu., Nov. 10, to receive the 2005 Merton Center Award from the Garfield-based social-justice organization, The Thomas Merton Center. His own organization is dedicated to closing the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly the School of the Americas, a U.S.-run training institute for counter-insurgency and counter-narcotic paramilitary agents in Latin America. Graduates of the institute were found by a 1993 United Nations Truth Commission on El Salvador report to be responsible for torture, rape and "disappearing" those who spoke out against the military or for human rights in that country.
"The school was well-known in Latin America as a school of assassins. Here, we knew little about it. It was hiding behind this veil of secrecy," Bourgeois says.
The school first came to the attention of peace and justice activists in 1989, when six Jesuit priests and two women were killed in El Salvador. A Congressional task force investigation revealed that 19 of the 28 killers were SOA graduates. In 1996, the Pentagon released training materials from the school that advocated torture techniques.
Since 1990, SOA Watch has held an annual vigil in Fort Benning, Ga., outside the Army base where WHINSEC is located.
"The first year, we had 10 people," says Bourgeois. "Last year, 16,000 came."
Bourgeois came to the priesthood and peace activism after four years as a Navy officer, spending a year in Vietnam.
"I left the military with my hope in shambles. The joy in my life was gone. I wanted to recapture that," he says.
An Army chaplain in Vietnam told him about the Maryknoll Missionary Order. After ordination, he worked in Bolivia, "where I got educated by the poor people of Latin America," he says.
Bourgeois spent a little over four years in Latin American prisons during several stints, mostly for speaking out against human-rights abuses. Friends sent him some of the writings of Thomas Merton, and during two months in solitary, living "the life of a monk," he recalls, Merton's ideas found fresh resonance with him. After prison, he stayed about five months with Trappist monks, the order where Merton spent 30 years.
"I of course discovered that my place was in the world, working for peace" Bourgeois says.
This year's WHINSEC vigil is Nov. 18-21. Activists come from all over the country to attend, including a busload from Pittsburgh, says Edith Wilson of the Merton Center.
"We spend time lobbying, and that's as important as the vigil," she says. "The main object is to get [Congress] to pass legislation to shut it down."
A bill currently before the House, HR 1217, aims to do just that. With 122 sponsors, Bourgeois says he's hopeful it will pass.
"He's obviously a good role model," says Jim Kleissler, executive director of the Merton Center, of this year's award recipient. "He really practices what he preaches."
2005 Merton Center Award ceremony: St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and Community Center, Oakland, 6 p.m. Thu., Nov. 10. 412- 361-3022.