09/07/2011 03:18 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2011

Murder of Catholic Priest in Colombia Greeted With Collective Silence

Last night, I received an email from the Colombia Support Network about a Catholic priest who was assassinated in Colombia. His name was Father Jose Reinel Restrepo, and he was killed in the midst of his campaign against the threatened incursion of a Canadian mining operation, Medoro Resources, into an area which will require an entire town (that of Marmato) to move and which will destroy the livelihood of more than 2,000 independent small miners who mine gold for a living as their families have done since the time of the Spanish Conquest. As is many times the case, the identities of Father Restrepo's killers -- armed men traveling by motorcycle -- are not known and may never be known for sure. However, given Father Restrepo's activism against a multinational concern, and given the modus operandi of the assailants, there is a good chance that they were right-wing paramilitaries linked to the Colombian military -- the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the Western Hemisphere.

The news of Father Restrepo's death was particularly upsetting, though, for one involved in solidarity work with Colombia, it is the type of news one receives on an almost daily basis. And so, this year alone, I have received the news of the 22 union leaders (many of them teachers) killed so far; of the human rights and indigenous leaders killed; of the Colombian Air Force bombing entire villages; of union and human rights leaders arrested; of the three prisoners in Valludepar's high security prison killing themselves because of the deplorable conditions -- conditions which the last person who killed himself (on September 1) referred to as "a living death."

What is so infuriating about all this is the fact that this death and carnage goes virtually unreported by the mainstream U.S. press, and does not alter the status of Colombia as the closest U.S. ally in the hemisphere. Indeed, I think about the coverage of the press, including my local paper, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which ran front page stories about prison riots in Venezuela over poor conditions there. Yet, the murder of a Catholic priest in Colombia -- much less horrible prison conditions in Colombia which have elicited suicides as well as protests including prisoners sewing their own mouths shut -- apparently warrant no coverage at all.

Of course, allies of the U.S. have been murdering Catholic priests and religious in Latin America for decades, with hardly a mention or care by the U.S. press or government. And, I am certainly not the only person to point this out. Thus, in their landmark work, Manufacturing Consent, authors Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky, point out that the murder of 57 religious in Latin America, including of Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, by forces aligned with the U.S., elicited less newspaper stories than the murder of 1 priest in communist Poland (whose murderers were ultimately tried and sentenced unlike the murderers of almost all of the religious killed in Latin America).

As Herman & Chomsky point out, it is clear that the U.S. press and government view those murdered by allied forces as "unworthy victims" while those killed by our ostensible enemies and adversaries are "worthy victims." On this score, ponder for one moment the reaction of the U.S. press and indeed the U.S. military to the news that paramilitaries aligned with the Cuban or Venezuelan military had murdered a Catholic priest -- undoubtedly a "worthy victim" in such a case. After the U.S. military onslaught unleashed in response to such news, we might be talking about those countries in the past tense.

For his part, Jesuit Priest Javier Giraldo, who continues to live under threats of death in Colombia, described in detail in his 1996 work, The Politics of Genocide, the murder of Catholic priests and religious in Colombia; of how, in many cases, such murders were carried out in religious fashion, with the victims hung on crosses and their sides pierced. Again, outside this book, now out of print, one would strain to ever hear of such atrocities.

In his introduction to Father Giraldo's book, Noam Chomsky explains that the purpose of such killings is to impose silence upon those who would speak out against repression and injustice. As Chomsky explained in this introduction, itself entitled, "The Culture of Fear," "[s]uch macabre scenes, which rarely reached the mainstream in the United States, are designed for intimidation." Chomsky relates that:

To impose silence on the internal enemy is necessary in the "democratatorships" that U.S. policy has sought to impose on its domains ever since it "assumed, out of self-interest, responsibility for the welfare of the world capitalist system," . . . . It is particularly important to impose silence in the region with the highest inequality in the world, thanks in no small measure to policies of the superpower that largely controls it.

It is necessary to impose silence and spread fear in countries like Colombia, where the top three percent of the landed elite own over 70% of arable land while 57% of the poorest farmers subsist on under 3% -- a country where 40% of the population live in "absolute poverty," unable to satisfy basic subsistence needs . . . and 18% live in "absolute misery," unable to meet nutritional needs.

As the Obama Administration contemplates sending the Colombia Free Trade Agreement to Congress, and as the U.S. continues to supply Colombia with millions of dollars of military hardware, we see that the victims of the U.S./Colombia war are "unworthy" of even a mention by our news media which remains silent about the ongoing atrocities in Colombia.

It is this silence which allows the killings to continue, and upon which the U.S. and Colombia are counting to continue their brutal policies. And, it is this silence which those of us of conscience must challenge with our raised voices. In the words of the late Archbishop Romero, we must be the "voice of the voiceless."