Trial Statement of Steve Clemens. US Federal Court. January 31, 2006
On November 20, 2005 I joined more than 19,000 fellow citizens at the entrance of Fort Benning in Columbus, GA, adding my voice to the growing chorus calling for the closure of “The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation” (WHINSEC) aka “School of the Americas” (SOA). This peaceful/prayerful witness has been taking place in November for the past 15 years to coincide with the anniversary of the martyrdom of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in San Salvador in 1989. The U.N. Truth Commission set up after El Salvador’s long, bloody civil war concluded that responsibility for the assassinations of these people of faith (as well as countless others) was directed and carried out by military personnel who had been trained at the SOA before committing these murders of unarmed advocates for justice.
I had the opportunity to travel to El Salvador this past March to be present for the national recognition of the 25th anniversary of the martyrdom/assassination of the Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero. I had read several books that have been written about his life, collections of his sermons and pastoral letters, and had viewed the motion picture released about his life and death. The love of the common people for his life and witness in El Salvador gives evidence that he has become a patron saint for the church in that small Central American nation. His murder has also been determined to have been ordered by a graduate of the SOA.
The group I joined also made a pilgrimage to two other sites during our week in El Salvador besides the places where Romero and the Jesuits were killed. We traveled to the chapel in the countryside built on the site where the bodies of three nuns and a lay religious worker were hastily buried after their rape and murders in December 1989. Again, the murders and human rights abuses to Jean Donovan, Maura Clark, Ita Ford, and Dorothy Kazel were linked to graduates of this school. I prayed for forgiveness for our complicity as citizens of the nation that trained and paid for their killers. We also were blessed to spend time with the survivors of the massacre of Copapayo, a small village outside of Suchitoto. After visiting the site of the original village and the ravine/lake shoreline where more than 150 were gunned down by the Salvadoran military, we were invited to visit their new village up-lake from there to share a meal with some of the survivors. Again, these murders of the peasants was directed by, and carried out by, SOA graduates. I went to the annual vigil this year to honor their memories.
This year was the 12th year in a row that I was able to attend the annual vigil sponsored by the School of the Americas Watch. I was blessed to be able to travel and be present with members of my faith community, the Community of St. Martin, as well as my youngest son, Zach. He is morally and politically opposed to this present war and I wanted to show him that there are nonviolent ways to take a stand in the hope that he too will embrace nonviolence as a way to refuse to participate in the oppression of others. It is my hope that he is on his own journey to become a conscientious objector to the violence in our world.
As the annual litany of names of the thousands killed in Central and South America by SOA graduates was sung in the prayerful, solemn memorial remembrance, it was my intent to carry a small cross painted with the name of Monsignor Oscar Romero on to the military base and to walk toward the location of this school of torture and assassination. It was my intent to “give legs” to my prayers for peace and an end to the violent oppression that this school symbolizes. Although I was arrested by military police before I was able to reach the SOA buildings I attempted to walk as far as I was able, each step a prayer for both the victims and the perpetrators, for our governmental leaders and all of us taxpayers who are complicit in the on-going crimes committed by the product of this institution.
I came to pray for the victims of the SOA and an end to the policy that “winks” at the violations of human rights and seeks to parse the word “torture” in order to continue its use. I came to pray for forgiveness for my own complicity as a citizen of this nation which has chosen to use military force and intimidation to secure and use a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources in the face of poverty and repression of other peoples. I have committed myself to attempt to walk in the way of nonviolence as lived and taught by Jesus of Nazareth.
I do not view my act of conscience as a criminal act. Under the U.S. Constitution, Article 6, known as the “Supremacy Clause”, U.S. citizens are informed that any treaties entered into by our government become the supreme law of the land and all judges are bound by them. When the United States signed the treaty to become a member of the United Nations, the language of that treaty contained the language of the Principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal. The last of those seven principles states that “complicity with the commission of a war crime, a crime against peace, and a crime against humanity is a violation of International Law.” Respectfully, I remind the Court that German judges were prosecuted by the Nuremberg Tribunals.
The U.S. Government as a signatory to the Convention Against Torture and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has legally committed itself to forgo the activities I believe have been taught and encouraged by The School of the Americas and its successor, WHINSEC. As such, I feel I have a moral and legal obligation under the Nuremberg Principles not to be complicit by remaining silent in the face of the atrocities committed by graduates of this military school which has promoted torture, rape, assassination, and repression of progressive peoples in Latin America over the years. I urge our national leaders to live up to both the letter and the spirit of the treaties it has not only signed but helped write. Amnesty International USA has also called for an investigation of this school.
The SOA/WHINSEC is a symbol of our national foreign policy which has led to the tortures of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib and many other prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and many secret locations run by the CIA around the world under the misguided aim to quell “terrorism” by violence and intimidation in order that the “beneficiaries” of the American Empire can continue a standard of living at the expense of the world’s poor. The SOA continues to train military officers of Colombia who have been implicated in human rights abuses.
I went to Fort Benning and the SOA confessing my own failure to more fully follow the life and teaching of Jesus who calls us to a lifestyle of justice and compassion. My prayers and act of civil resistance to these powers of death are a small attempt to give a voice to the voiceless, to speak and act in solidarity with the victims of our national policies which are embodied in this institution which has produced so much evil over the years. I pray that this saying “NO” to the powers of death is swallowed up in the “YES” embodied in the life and teaching of Jesus and I will continue to work for a world of justice, compassion, and equal opportunity. I ask all of you to join me as you are able to work and pray to close this school and change our policy.
I wish to end on a personal note. On Monday I was seated in the rear of the courtroom in support of my friend Sam Foster. Prior to the beginning of the trials, the Court Officer/Bailiff told us, “Act like you’re in church”, informing us of the behavior he expected of those of us observing the trials. I’ve taken his instruction to heart.
Although the Court has framed this issue before us as a political one – the law does not permit “political demonstrations on a military facility”, for me, this is primarily a theological issue.
I know this is dangerous ground because much of the worst excesses in recent history have been the result of some people acting because “God (or Allah) told me to.”
For me, as one who has chosen to follow the way of a nonviolent Jesus, I resonate with the response in Christian scripture attributed to the disciples Peter and John when a conflict arose: “We must obey God rather than human authority.”
I gladly submit to whatever punishment the Court wishes to impose but wish to make it clear that my presence on the military base on November 20 was a theological statement that this precious earth entrusted to us by our Creator is not to be used to prepare for war and domination of others but rather to embrace all of life as God’s gift.
For my sentence I suggest a period of service with the Mennonite Disaster Service in the clean-up and rebuilding of areas destroyed by recent hurricanes in the southern states in lieu of sending me to prison; I will gladly make a monetary contribution to that organization in lieu of paying a fine. I am a Mennonite and a pacifist- any fine levied by the court is a tax upon my conscience and a violation of the promises given to my ancestors in 1705 when they were recruited by William Penn to help populate the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
[I entered a plea of Nolo Contendre (no contest) because the Judge previously ruled before trial we were not allowed to use International Law or Necessity as a defense. I was able to mention it above because this statement was given after I was pronounced guilty. I requested a sentence of service with Mennonite Disaster Service helping rebuild after the hurricanes. Instead, Judge G. Mallon Faircloth sentenced me to 3 months in Federal Prison and a $500. fine.]