A Life Worth Living: Benjamin Linder, 1959-87

Against the Current, No. 9, May/June 1987

Alan Wald

ON APRIL 28, Benjamin Linder, a 27- year-old mechanical engineer performing volunteer humanitarian service as one of 1,300 North American “internationalists” in Nicaragua, was murdered by contras in northern Jinotega Province.

The assassination, sponsored by the Reagan administration, occurred at 8:00a.m. as Ben, an associate of the Nicaraguan Energy Institute, was working on a concrete channel to measure the water flow of a creek that might be used for a small hydroelectric plant.

An autopsy reviewed by Ben’s father, Dr. David Linder, a retired pathologist from Portland, reached the following conclusion. First, Ben was immobilized by hand grenade injuries to his arms and legs; shortly after, he was executed by a gun&shot wound to the head from a distance of less than two feet.

Many details of Ben’s life and activities have not yet been disclosed, but the information we have to date suggests that he would resent being depicted as a martyr.

It is also likely that Ben would have felt strongly that the Nicaraguans murdered along with him-Sergio Fernandez and Pablo Rosales-be equally mourned and remembered, along with the 16,000 Nicaraguans slain since the contra war began. I also suspect that he would have felt uncomfortable with the continual references in the U.S. press to his fate as “tragic.”

On the contrary, all the indications are that Ben knew exactly what he was doing and what was likely to happen to him in the Nicaraguan war zone, only forty miles from contra headquarters in Honduras.

In my judgment, he deserves our admiration, not our pity, for he was living his life to the fullest; that is, in accord with his convictions and in solidarity with the human community.

What is “tragic” is that individuals of Ben’s quality, who seek to act systematically in the interests of humanity, end up on the “hit list” of their own government.

Love Of Life & Children

Indeed, if there is anything positive to be gained from this disgraceful execution, it may be that greater attention will be drawn to the remarkable group of U.S. citizens who have joined with Linder in seeking to preserve and extend the achievements of the Nicaraguan revolution.

By all accounts, Ben was not a political “heavy,” although he was a founder of the University of Washington Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and at the age of 17 had been arrested with one hundred others at a sit-in at the Trojan nuclear power plant outside of Portland.

Ben seems to have been primarily a decent person who happened to care-who could see where simple injustice was being committed and who was willing to take sides.

One aspect of Ben’s unique personality can be seen in his love of entertaining children. Ben began his association with the Nicaraguan people as a clown and juggler in the National Circus. He was also a devotee of the unicycle.

Only a few days after moving to El Cua from Managua, Ben decided to promote a measles vaccination campaign for children by wearing a clown outfit and riding his unicycle through the town. By the end of his ride he was leading hundreds of cheering, laughing children to the health clinic chanting, “Death to measles! Death to measles!”

This is why his April 30 funeral procession in Matagalpa, the capital of the region where Ben worked, was led by a sad-faced clown, and included jugglers and other clowns.

But Ben was also a very serious person. When he returned to the United States to study engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, it was not to initiate a career but to learn skills that–he could put to use on behalf of the Nicaraguan people. Since 1983 he had been working in a dangerous area of the war zone to bring electricity to the Cua Valley for the first time.

Some reports have claimed that Ben, who was well aware that he was a contra target, was armed with a rifle or pistol at the time of his murder, although he had never received any military training.

If so, this is hardly to Ben’s discredit. Indeed, the fact that this warm-hearted juggler, unicyclist, and clown, may have been forced to spend his final days carrying a weapon to defend himself and his Nicaraguan brothers and sisters as they labored in the mountains, only underscores the sickness of world in which the Oliver Norths hold power.


One other aspect of Ben’s example deserves special attention. Ben was a member of New Jewish Agenda, and Hebrew prayers were said at his funeral, which was attended by Daniel Ortega, Rosario Murillo, the Linder family, and thousands of Nicaraguan friends. Yet it is no secret that the Israeli state plays a despicable role on the side of the oppressors against the oppressed in Central America, South Africa, and the Middle East.

As is to be expected, Linder’s murderers in the Reagan administration-such as Elliot Abrams are enthusiastic defenders of Israeli policy.

Moreover, at the very moment of Ben’s execution a trial was opening in France for Klaus Barbie, ‘The Butcher of Lyon,” who was saved from punishment for his Nazi atrocities after World War II by the U.S. government, which wanted to collaborate with Barbie in “fighting communism.” It is likely that some elements in the Jewish community will use the emotions generated by the Barbie trial to increase support for Israeli nationalism and expansionism.

This approach is tantamount to responding to one form of nationalism and chauvinism by fomenting another. The immediate result will be to worsen the situation of oppressed people in the Middle East, South Africa and Central America. In the long run the situation of people of Jewish origin will be worse as well, especially if continued Israeli aggression precipitates international war.

In this regard, the life of Ben Linder presents an important alternative. Ben’s choice was to combat nationalism and chauvinism not with its mirror image but with internationalism.

It is precisely his decision to ally himself with the Nicaraguan people in their struggle for independence and economic justice that points the way toward a world of social justice-and social justice is the absolute prerequisite for international peace. Not all of us have the talents, personal fortitude, and courage of Ben Linder. But I think Ben would never “guilt trip” us for this; he would have been happy for us each to do what we can in our own ways

Moreover, our motivation for following Ben’s example should not be from a sense of charity or self-righteousness; I believe it is in our own self-interest to live a full life, as Ben did, in accord with our principles and at one with humanity.

Ben only lived 27 years-but it was a life truly worth living.

Note: It is evident from statements published by the contras that the murder of Linder was intended to frighten U.S. volunteers into leaving Nicaragua. In response, TecNica, a group that arranges work in Nicaragua for technical volunteers, has launched a Ben Linder Volunteer Campaign to double the number of U.S. delegations to Nicaragua this summer.

May-June 1987, ATC 9

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