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Saints & Sinners

December 16, 2016

The Vatican has declared the late Rev. Stanley Rother a martyr, the first step toward sainthood. He played a big role in my life, though neither of us knew it, and we never met.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

Robert Kahn

The Vatican has declared the late Rev. Stanley Rother a martyr, the first step toward sainthood. He played a big role in my life, though neither of us knew it, and we never met.

Stanley Rother helped Maya peasants in Santo Atitlán, Guatemala for 13 years, without being murdered. That was a miracle in itself. Then the Guatemalan Army killed him. So did we all.

I rolled into Santiago Atitlán on my motorcycle in July 1981, a schoolteacher on summer vacation. A monkey scampered across the road as I approached town. I parked my bike on the town square and stretched out, feet on the handlebars.

I wore khaki pants with many pockets, a black leather jacket and a leather thing on my belt that looked like a holster, to hold my wallet and passport. A pony tail fell halfway down my back.

The Maya smiled at me. I was already in love with the place.

At that moment, the Guatemalan Army rolled into town: one khaki-colored troop carrier after another. Jeeps with machine guns. They circled the town square, parked all around it and the soldiers descended.

Now the Maya looked at me with hate. They scattered and disappeared. Doors and shutters on shop windows closed. Now the only people on the town square were the Guatemalan Army and me.

A lieutenant eyed my khaki pants, leather jacket, holster, beard and long hair.

It was obvious: The Maya thought I was CIA and the colonel thought I was a guerrilla.

I stood on my kick starter and got the hell out of Guatemala, heading north.

Then the Guatemalan Army murdered Father Stan and 20 or 30 Maya, though the dead Maya didn’t make the news in our country. Many of them were tortured first. All the army did to Father Stan was shoot him in the head.

I quit my job teaching English on an Indian reservation — a job I loved — and went to work in U.S. immigration prisons as a paralegal, representing refugees for $25 a week. Not just because of what I’d seen in Atitlán, but because the Reagan administration denied that these mass murders were happening, and that we had anything to do with it.

That made me furious. I’d seen it. Then I saw the scars of torture on people in our immigration prisons. Deported. Deported. Deported.

In a wastebasket somewhere I found a CIA cable that showed we were deporting torture victims to their death — 120 of them already, in 1984 — and telling the torturers the flight numbers. The Baltimore Sun published my article about that — and nothing changed. President Reagan and his minions said it wasn’t happening.

I vowed then that I would never vote for a Republican, for anything. And I have not, and will not, ever.

“Hate is a swordfish,” Pablo Neruda wrote. “It swims in deep waters.”

It does indeed. While I did human rights work in the 1980s, I did not do it for love or pity for our innocent victims of torture. I did it because I hated what my government was doing. Which is not the same thing as hating my country.

All I’d done was listen to torture victims and record their stories and try to help them.

I’d never been tortured. I never tortured anyone.

Now Donald Trump says he wants to torture people. The Associated Press reported that nearly half the people in the United States want to torture people too.

No, you don’t, America.

Trust me on this.

It’s bad enough we have thousands of torture victims living in the United States. Do we want torturers living among us? Do we want to promote torturers-by-remote-control into high government positions?

No, we don’t. I’m a sinner, not a saint, but even sinners should know that.

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