A Visit to WHINSEC

On our way to Atlanta for the Seventh-day Adventist General Conference session recently, we stopped by Fort Benning, Georgia, for a visit to WHINSEC–the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. As stated on the school’s webpage, WHINSEC “provides professional education and training for civilian, military and law enforcement students from nations throughout the Western Hemisphere.” It currently has 300 students from 19 countries in Latin America. It seeks to enhance cooperation between nations in the western hemisphere on issues such as security and drug interdiction. The curriculum has a strong focus on teaching principles of democracy, respect for human rights, and ethics (taught by the school’s chaplain–currently CH (MAJ) Pablo Perez-Maisonet, a Seventh-day Adventist).

I’ve been in contact with Lee Rials, the Public Affairs Officer, for a number of years, and he has repeated his invitation for me to come visit–we finally were able to take him up on his offer. He gave us a good tour, which included visits to the classrooms, and meeting some of the students and faculty (including CH Perez-Maisonet and the Commandant, COL Felix Santiago).

I first became acquainted with WHINSEC when I was Director of Young Adult and Campus Ministry for the Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. Through articles in the National Catholic Reporter, and conversations with colleagues, I became aware of protests held each year, organized by a group called SOA Watch, to which many campus ministers (especially at Jesuit schools) brought their students.

The argument of the protesters was that WHINSEC’s predecessor institution, the School of the Americas, had, among its graduates, Latin American military leaders implicated in human rights abuses in the 1970s and 1980s–including Manuel Noriega, and the murderers of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Jesuits of the University of Central America, and four American church women. This dates to the period when the School of the Americas had the Cold War mission of enhancing collaboration in the fight against Communist insurgencies. Never mind that these were a small percentage of SOA grads, or that they had brief courses (in the case of Noriega), or that they had more important influences back in their own countries–the protesters were convinced that the school was responsible for these crimes, and the only solution was to shut it down (regardless of its name, location, mission, or faculty).

I visited El Salvador and Guatemala in the mid-1990s, and heard the stories of those who witnessed the atrocities of governments the United States backed in those days. As a new Chaplain Candidate at Walter Reed in 1986 (taking a quarter of Clinical Pastoral Education) I heard the stories of soldiers who had been engaged in combat in Central America at a time when our government said we had only advisers.  I was inclined to be sympathetic with the concerns of the protesters. And yet, these things had happened two decades earlier. The world had changed. These were a minority of the school’s graduates. Even if some faculty in those days had a negative influence on some graduates, even if atrocious manuals were used in instruction, it seemed to me that there remained a need for the United States to both cooperate with our allies and seek to teach them democratic principles and respect for human rights.

And so, as a (then former) chaplain, I wrote to WHINSEC and asked for their side of the story, as well as for information about the school’s current mission, and their response to the protesters. I learned that WHINSEC goes out of its way to try to dialogue with those with questions–including hosting an Open House the weekend of the protests. While some protesters “cross the line” and get themselves arrested, others take advantage of the Open House, go freely onto Fort Benning, and learn first hand about the school.

The protests have been happening for 20 years now. The protest organizers call them acts of “civil disobedience,” invoking the spirit of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King. This has always struck me as a bit pretentious. “Civil disobedience,” as defined by these historic leaders, involved disobeying unjust laws, and accepting whatever punishment was given, without complaint, in order to draw attention to the injustice of the laws, and to get them changed. But the protesters are not engaging in civil disobedience of unjust laws–they arrested for trespassing, and at no time do they argue that laws against trespassing are unjust or should be overturned. They get arrested for trespassing when they are perfectly free to enter the base in an appropriate manner and have a civil conversation with those in charge. Instead of accepting their punishment, they complain about how unjust it is.

As a campus ministry leader, I raised these questions. I pointed peers and students to WHINSEC’s Open House, and encouraged them to go and to ask questions. I do the same thing now. And I think Gandhi and King would agree–to be invited to the table, to have the doors opened for dialogue, that’s the goal of any protest action. Accept the invitation to “Come and see.”