Silence. There’s not much of it this summer at my office. The thunderous sounds of heavy machinery dominate, as a huge apartment building rises from an empty lot next door. In this formerly marginal neighborhood, the poor are being pushed farther away to make room for the powerful elite in new luxury apartments. So as the windows of our old office rattle, we long for moments of silence.
It is a fleeting wish. We quickly remember that for those who work on issues of peace and justice, silence in public discourse is both dangerous and unacceptable. Silence disenfranchises – to be silent is to abdicate one’s responsibility to be engaged in policy debates. Silence also represents the disenfranchised – those who have been silenced. In both cases, something profound has been lost.
Those who have lost their voices in public discourse have suffered terrible consequences. In Guatemala, silence masked a military government’s genocide. Funded by our tax dollars, the Guatemalan army perpetrated a massacre of unspeakable proportions. Even now, six years after the war, those who speak out are threatened … or worse.
In Mexico, Digna Ochoa – a woman who would not let the truth be silenced – was murdered for exposing human rights abusers in the army. She paid the ultimate price for speaking out against an army that has trained over 3,000 officers at the School of the Americas in the last three years alone, and continues to threaten and intimidate rural populations throughout Southern Mexico.
In Colombia, silence hangs like a shroud over the terrorized rural communities. Caught in the deadly crossfire, and under constant threat, fear perpetuates the silence, and makes it insidious. Nevertheless, many brave Colombians have defied the fear – and the armed actors – and have spoken out. Many have paid with their lives or their livelihood. Yet they persevere, despite the risks, to defy the silence.
For millions of our brothers and sisters throughout the global South, silence is a painful reality of the ongoing cycles of economic and military violence. But to U.S. citizens, privileged with the right to speak out without fear, silence does not need to be the reality. Traditionally, we have had the right – and the responsibility – to speak out on issues of justice.
Yet many in Washington have questioned our right to speak out. We have been warned by the Bush administration that any statements critical of U.S. foreign policy are at best unpatriotic, but more likely treasonous. High-level Bush administration officials from Ari Fleischer to John Ashcroft remind us to “watch what we say.”
Just recently, Vice President Cheney told us that it is “reprehensible” to question the administration’s motives on its Iraq policy. This administration – obsessed with secrecy and maintaining a wartime posture – has threatened us with silence.
But silence is not an option. At this critical moment – with the Bush administration and its congressional allies rejecting peace in favor of war, rejecting international law in favor of unilateralism, and rejecting positive development in favor of business expansion and so-called free trade – we must not be silent. Despite the threats, despite the warnings, we must be loud and resolute.
Steven Bennett is executive director of Witness for Peace. For more information, visit: www.witnessforpeace.org