This Spanish word took on new meaning after I attended last year’s School of the Americas protest in Fort Benning, Georgia. As I marched along with thousands of others in solidarity to the solemn role call of victim after victim followed by the crowd sung response “presente”, the feelings of bitterness, sadness and anger were tough to hold back.
I had arrived at the gates of the School of the Americas knowing that behind the firm barrier of fences, trees, and police officers lay the institution that had militarily trained some of my Latin American brothers and sisters that would later carry out some of the most horrific atrocities known to their respective countries. It was soldiers from this school, from which I found myself only a stone’s throw away, that had gone on to become brutal dictators in Bolivia, Argentina, El Salvador and Panama, among others.
The role call of the names of victims that had been subjected to torture, suffering and death under these dictators and their regimes continued for what seemed like hours. Their names blurred together in a cloud of pain and brokenness so incomprehensible that I found myself lost in a rush of overwhelming questions, thoughts and reflections.
Now a year later, in light of my rapidly approaching graduation day, I have been contemplating the value of my college education and the connection that it gives me to these historical and current atrocities. Experiences, such as the one that I had last year in Fort Benning, have been an integral part of my education and have helped form an inextricable link between my thoughts and actions and the suffering of others.
My education has taught me that rooted in the mess that has been caused by the School of the Americas lies the United States’ twisted foreign policy in Latin America. Regardless of what politicians claim, this policy is based around specific economic interests that benefit our nation at the expense of others. Perhaps more importantly, it has also taught me that I contribute to the mess through the tax money that I add to the estimated 20-30 million dollar budget that the school maintains. I don’t pull the trigger, but I buy the guns.
This conscious awareness of the how the world operates and how you fit into the system is a binding contract in which refusal to accept the responsibility that this knowledge carries with it is choosing to turn your back on the marginalized and giving a nod of approval to the system that gives you abundance while others suffer.
Let us not be mistaken that each one of us finds ourselves in a position of relative elitism based on our level of education. Along with the gift of education comes the responsibility to act in service of those who don’t enjoy such privileges.
This weekend, thousands will gather once again as the names of the victims of the School of the America’s graduates will be read at the gates of the school in Fort Benning, Georgia. Here on campus we will show our solidarity with those who have suffered, and recognize our role in the healing process with a vigil at 9:30 pm on Monday night in Schrock Plaza. I encourage everyone to attend and put your education into action.