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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Our imperial crimes

I carry in my memory two sets of names as a self-assigned duty. One is James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. The other is Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan.

The three young men — one black Southerner and two New York Jews doing voter registration work during Freedom Summer — were murdered in Neshoba County, Miss., on June 21, 1964. The 1988 film “Mississippi Burning” revived their public memory, and last year President Obama awarded them posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But I had never forgotten them, because their deaths, which occurred the summer before my last year in graduate school, helped convince me to get into civil rights work when I went back South.

The four women — two Maryknoll Sisters, an Ursuline Sister, and a lay missionary — were working with the poor of El Salvador when they were beaten, raped, and murdered by five members of La Guardia Nacional. This Wednesday will be the 35th anniversary of their deaths. The 1982 documentary “Roses in December” focused on Jean Donovan, and in 1993 the Maura Clarke-Ita Ford Center was founded in Brooklyn to serve immigrant women. But there will be no Presidential Medal of Freedom to revive the national memory of these martyrs to justice.

I met Ita Ford’s brother, Bill, in 1987 when I moved to Montclair, N.J., to run New Jersey SANE/Freeze. (This awkward name resulted from the merger of SANE and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. It’s now called New Jersey Peace Action. Peace House is associated with national Peace Action.) Bill was a lawyer living in Montclair.

After his sister’s murder, Bill kept pressing the State Department to investigate the crime. He told me that the State Department always treated it as a political, not a criminal, matter. And well they might, since the U.S. government was complicit in the ruthless behavior of the Salvadoran government during those years.

It’s important to acknowledge that Jimmy Carter, not Ronald Reagan, was president in 1980 when the religious women were murdered. Indeed, it was Carter whom Archbishop Oscar Romero, the best remembered victim of the terror, publicly begged to stop training, arming, and funding the Salvadoran military and police forces. Romero was assassinated in March of that year.

One reason I carry with me the names of the four women is to remind me that the dirty work of empire is bipartisan. Many Republicans defend Republican presidents no matter how egregious their conduct, and Democrats regard them as morally obtuse when they do. But many Democrats — and most of my readers, I suspect, are registered with that party — do the same, or at least minimize their presidents’ crimes. I get impatient with that behavior.

Jimmy Carter is a good man, and has served the cause of peace wonderfully well since leaving the White House. But as president he bought into the imperial project, and the blood of 200,000 East Timorese, among others, is on his hands. Just as the blood of more than one million Iraqi women and children, killed by the sanctions, is on the hands of Bill Clinton, a not-as-good man.

We will keep changing presidents, but they will all be big-time criminals until one of them renounces imperialism and begins dismantling its murderous machinery. If that time comes, then our nation will have honored Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan at last, as we at last honored James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.

Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.