In his three and a half years in Nicaragua, this is exactly what he did. Graduating in 1983 with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington, he left his home in Oregon to live and work in Nicaragua, developing and building small hydroelectric plants in the town of El Cuá and San José de Bocay, bringing electricity to villages in northern Nicaragua for the first time.
The challenges were enormous -- battles with agency bureaucracies, uncertain water supplies through the dry and wet seasons, logistical challenges that required great ingenuity, the struggles of trying to fit into isolated communities where he was decidedly the stranger -- and always around him, the dangers of war, the fears of imminent attack by contras bent on destroying any efforts to make a success of the Nicaraguan revolution.
He didn't have to make this choice. He did not have to work in one of the most dangerous parts of the country. His doing so was a witness, a countersign to the policies of his own government in the United States.
In July 1979, the US-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza was overthrown by a popular insurrection led by the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN). Not long after, the administration of President Jimmy Carter authorized the first financial and logistical assistance for the remnants of Somoza's brutal, US-trained National Guard. The original intent was to harass the new revolutionary government and try to influence the direction of its policies.
With the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, the intent changed. Soon the secret policy goal of the US was to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. This goal was not officially acknowledged, since it is against the law. US CIA and military intelligence personnel began training the contras, built base camps for them along the border in Honduras, provided sophisticated weapons and equipment, carried out surveillance, provided logistical support, ordered the mining of Nicaraguan harbors, and provided an infamous counterinsurgency training manual that encouraged executions, torture, and other forms of terror.
The policy mushroomed into a full-fledged war, the infamous contra war, the main strategy of which was to undermine or destroy the Nicaraguan revolutionary experiment. By the war's end in 1990, over 30,000 Nicaraguans had been killed.
The US Central Intelligence Agency helped direct the war, sometimes selecting contra targets. Destruction of the country's electrical system was an essential part of the strategy.
This support continued even after Congress prohibited military aid to the contras, leading to the infamous Contragate scandal in which it was revealed that numerous US officials were involved in an illegal contra supply network.
Ben Linder's dream was cut down when he was only 27 years old. Linder and two Nicaraguans -- Sergio Hernández and Pablo Rosales -- were murdered in a contra ambush on April 28, 1987, as they had begun a day's work at the construction site for a new dam near San José de Bocay. The autopsy showed that Ben was first wounded by a grenade, then shot at point-blank range in the head. The two Nicaraguans were also murdered at close range, Rosales by a stab wound to the heart.
Linder's electrification project was indeed typical of contra targets, as were other sites in the area. Near El Cuá, the agricultural cooperative of El Cedro had been attacked three times resulting in several deaths. On March 19, 1987, four coop members tried to stave off a contra attack, providing cover for residents as they fled the assault. Two of them were killed, one a close friend of Linder's. The health clinic at the coop, its food supply center and a house were burned to the ground.
Many people involved in civilian projects supported by the government armed themselves in self-defense militias because of these attacks, and workers, including Linder, began to carry rifles. While this was later used as an excuse to justify Linder's murder by both contra and US officials, at the time of the ambush, Linder's rifle was lying on the ground and he was writing in a notebook.
In addition to sudden attacks and ambushes, land mines were a constant threat. The contras placed them on roadways used by civilian transport. Because of the poverty and isolation of the area, the main mode of transportation for most people was walking, horseback-riding, or grabbing a ride on a truck. By April 1987 scores of people had been killed or maimed in mine explosions. Even the simplest trip became a test of nerve. On May 24, 1986, a contra mine killed nine health workers on the road between El Cuá and San José de Bocay. Two months later, 35 people, including 12 children, were killed when a public transport truck ran over a mine.
Just one month before Linder's death, some 100 contras attacked the power plant in El Cuá. A mortar shell destroyed the home of the plant operators who barely escaped with their lives. In another incident, contras kidnapped a relative of one of the plant operators and threatened to kill everyone working on the project. The contras who killed Linder later admitted that they knew Linder and his work crew were building the hydroelectric plant.
The ambush was deliberate, part of a strategy to undermine support for the Sandinistas by destroying any benefits the revolution brought to the poorest of Nicaraguans, and demonstrating the cost to the people if they continued to support their government.
"My brother's death was not an accident. His death was policy," said John Linder after Ben's death.
Edgar Chamorro, a former contra leader who left the movement because of its brutality, claimed, "The CIA is very much in control of the contras. The CIA is sending a message to those in the international community who provide political support for Nicaragua that they are no longer safe there. The CIA and the contras are killing the best, the people who want the best for Nicaragua" (Witness, Vol. 70, No. 6, June 1987).
The Center for Constitutional Rights which took up the case on behalf of the family issued a report in April 1988 in which lawyers conclude: "The ambush was planned in advance and under the direct supervision of high-ranking contra leaders. The contras knew they were attacking a civilian development project and that there was at least one foreigner among its workers.
"The assassination of Benjamin Linder was part of a deliberate contra policy to murder civilians working in education, health and development programs. In 1986 the contras extended this policy of targeting development workers to include foreign as well as Nicaraguan civilians. Their goal was to dissuade foreigners from working in Nicaragua and to cut off support for development programs.
"The murder of Benjamin Linder also typifies the contra practice of executing prisoners.
"The government of the United States has armed and supplied the contras. It has trained and supervised them, and encouraged them to commit abuses through, for example, the CIA manual [Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare, 1985]. As the contras developed the policies of targeting civilians and foreigners and carrying out summary executions, the US government served as an apologist for contra behavior. By its consistent and uncritical support of the contras, the US government shares responsibility for the assassination policy which resulted in Linder's murder."
Ben's death created a sensation in the US. The personal tragedy of one family became the subject of fierce ideologically divided political debate. US embassy officials in Nicaragua admitted that they not only did not investigate the incident, but had no interest in doing so.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater blamed the victim, saying US citizens working in Nicaragua "put themselves in harm's way" (NYT, April 30, 1987). Of course, this was exactly the fear that Linder's murder was designed to instill in others. Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, one of the contras' foremost champions and key player in the illegal network, said Linder simply should have known better than to be in a combat zone.
In May 1987, a Congressional hearing turned into a sordid display as contra apologists on the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee made personal attacks on Linder's family and other witnesses who came to testify in support of Linder and his work. The Village Voice reported one exchange between Ben's mother Elizabeth, who had just given moving testimony to her son's work and motivations, and rightist Republican Rep. Connie Mack of Florida.
Said Mack: "I guess what really has me upset is that I just cannot understand how you can use grief that I know you feel, use it to politicize this situation. Or to allow yourself to be used to politicize this situation... I guess the reason I find this so difficult is that I don't want to be tough on you, but I really feel you have asked for it."
Over the visible gasps and hissing from the audience, Linder responded, "That was about the most cruel thing you could have said" (Village Voice, May 26, 1987).
The murder of Ben Linder and the growing distaste in the US for the dirty war in Nicaragua finally led to the prohibition of US military aid to the contras. But the contra policy, combined with a tight economic embargo on the impoverished country, had its effect. The country has never recovered.
In Nicaragua in the last days of April 1987, people around the world were deeply moved by the dignity and grief of the Linder family as they arrived in the country to bury their son. They walked at the head of a procession that stretched for seven blocks along the streets of Matagalpa.
Included among the grief-stricken throng was a group of children dressed as clowns. Besides being an engineer, Linder was an accomplished amateur juggler and clown. He had brought his unicycle with him to Nicaragua and delighted children and adults alike in many communities by riding through the streets, participating for a time in one of the country's circuses. He used his clowning to help children overcome their fears in vaccination campaigns, or to educate them on the dangers of diseases.
Just three weeks before his death, he participated in a vaccination campaign in Bocay by dressing up as the "Measles Monster," then went house to house on his unicycle to remind families to come to the clinic to be vaccinated.
The clowns in the funeral procession had been trained by Ben, and their presence in costume was their way of paying tribute to him.
The love of the people was a mirror reflecting who Ben Linder was in Nicaragua, a human being in a place of terrible violence inflicted on the hopes of the people. He was an expression of that hope, of the belief that with determination and persistence, dreams can come true -- lights can go on even in an impoverished isolated community such as El Cuá.
Said Elizabeth Linder: "My son was brutally murdered for bringing electricity to a few poor people in northern Nicaragua. He was murdered because he had a dream and because he had the courage to make that dream come true. Not many of us can say that. What was the dream? to make it possible for the peasants of a few villages to have a light bulb in their homes so their day doesn't have to end at six o'clock when it gets dark, to get drinking water to them so that their children don't have to die of diarrhea in the first years of their lives, to raise them out of poverty so they can raise their children with hope for the future... We understand why Ben came to Nicaragua, and we now understand even better why he stayed... Ben told me the first year that he was here, and this is a quote, 'It's a wonderful feeling to work in a country where the government's first concern is for its people, for all of its people.' I am grateful that he had his three and a half years in Nicaragua."
For the Nicaraguan people, Ben's witness showed the best, instead of the worst, of North Americans. A banner held at his funeral read: El pueblo norteamericano no es el pueblo de Reagan, es el pueblo de Benjamin Linder!!! -- "The people of the United States are not the people of Ronald Reagan, they are the people of Benjamin Linder!!" The importance of this witness to a people under siege for their very hopes of light and life is incalculable -- as it is to this day -- the meaning of solidarity.
Said brother John at the funeral, "He came here because Nicaragua represents hope... He knew that the suffering of a person knew no boundaries, and that, for him, to give all he had in a country where he was not born was just the same as giving it to his people... This hope is too deep to die with one person... This hope lies within all of us. Today all of us take a part of my brother, take a part of his hope, take a part of your hope, to do what we have to until Nicaragua can live in peace."
In a journal entry dated October 5, 1984, Ben wrote into his journal the words of Rabbi David Einhorn, a pioneering reform rabbi of the 1800s: "When justice burns within us like a flaming fire, when love evokes willing sacrifice from us, when, to the last full measure of selfless devotion, we demonstrate our belief in the ultimate triumph of truth and righteousness, then your goodness enters into our lives; then you live within our hearts, and we through righteousness behold your presence.
"The bush is burning, but the Voice has not yet spoken aloud; we can only feel, guess, hope; we cannot yet hear. But it may be that we must act in order to hear.
"I'm working in El Cuá. It is...the reality of the war. Zelaya province is falling under Contra control. They are killing children.
"I've asked myself what is my path. I've asked myself about my love for Alison and my family. I've asked myself about my love for my people. But we must act before we hear.
"I must not cower from the task ahead. In Nicaragua I was shown the trail ahead. Tonight I vow to set forth upon that trail...
"Great is the eternal power at the heart of life; mighty the love that is stronger than death."
Benjamin Linder, Sergio Hernández, Pablo Rosales, ¡Presente!
Death of Ben Linder