Monday, December 18, 2006

Thoughts on Pinochet's Apologists

I realize that I'm well behind the news cycle on this, but the American reaction to Pinochet's death upset me enough that I wasn't able to crystalize my thoughts about it until now. Now, of course, many others have already broached the subject and said most of the things I would like to say. (These excellent Glenn Greenwald pieces say most of what needs to be said.)

There are a few points I would humbly venture to make nonetheless:

It's hardly surprising that some right-wingers would mourn the dictator, since he was, in so many respects, their dictator, their creature. We should all be concerned, however, when the Washington Post starts wearing the same black veil.

The Post's editorial page puts a mainstream, "moderate" stamp on right-wing coldwar "realism" of the Jeane Kirkpatrick/Henry Kissinger school; this much goes without saying, and shouldn't be particularly surprising in itself. (We no longer have any reason to expect anything other than hawkish drivel from the Post, as the past five years have amply proven.) What's really remarkable here is the timing, not the message. It's one thing to say that we ought to support dictators who we believe will help us strategically in a prolonged, deadly, semi-declared global war. It's quite another to defend the legacy of those dictators themselves thirty years later. If the Post limited itself to defending America's support for Pinochet's bloody regime, I would disagree, but I would disagree respectfully and with considerably less alarm. Defending Pinochet himself, as the Post clearly does, alarms me deeply.

To say that Pinochet's massive and well-documented crimes against humanity are in some way mitigated or balanced by his restoration of free market capitalism and the oft-cited "Chilean Economic Miracle" is not just objectionable on high-minded principle, but actively dangerous. (By the way, I seem to recall another dictator having accomplished an "economic miracle" at some point. In Germany, I think. Maybe there are some parallels. Someone really ought to look into that.) The danger lies in accepting the underlying logic of the argument. The moment we begin to accept making this sort of trade-off--of fundamental human rights and democratic values for security and economic stability--in any context, we lose something. We start to see our most basic principles as things that can be traded, instead of seeing them as the things that define us, that cannot be given up without losing ourselves entirely.

I do not intend to suggest that it is never permissible to make compromises with deeply inhumane governments; sometimes no better option exists. But it is never permissible to become such a government, no matter how much it might seem to increase security, stability, or economic growth. To apologize for Pinochet constitutes permitting exactly that: if Pinochet's crimes can be mitigated by Chile's latter-day economic successes (such as they are), our own present-day crimes can appear to be mitigated by the hope of future benefits. As Greenwald points out, the logic here is essentially identical to the logic of the defenders of our own home-grown torturers in Iraq and Guantanamo.

I, personally, consider apologies for Pinochet to be even more alarming than the shockingly widespread apologies for torture as a tool in the "war on terror", for the following reason: Pinochet's use of state terrorism was almost solely directed at his internal enemies--socialists, communists, trade unionists, democratic dissidents, etc. If turning massive state force against one's own citizens can be the best case scenario, as the Post suggests, would there be any situations in which they would support turning it against us? I don't know the answer to that question. Hence my alarm.

I can understand, if not sympathize with, the idea that brutal state violence can be the lesser evil in some situations. But those situations surely require at least a powerful, relentlessly brutal adversary. In Pinochet's situation, his adversaries looked a lot like, well, me. They opposed the brutalities of unrestricted capitalism, as I do, and supported the principles of democracy and the rule of law, as I do. They were not cartoonish, scraggly-bearded terrorists living in caves and plotting mass murder--as we apparently imagine our enemies to be today--nor were they the cartoonish, scraggly-beared, Pravda-worshipping Soviet Borg we imagined them to be at the time. They were ordinary people with left-leaning politics. Not so different from me, or likely from you, the hypothetical reader of this blog. Yet one of our nation's most respected newpapers sees fit to mourn their torturer and murderer publicly. I have no words.

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