What Bush Missed in Chile

By Ariel Dorfman
Ariel Dorfman's latest books are "Other Septembers" (Seven Stories Press, 2004), "Desert Memories" (National Geographic, 2004). Website: www.adorfman .duke.edu.

Los Angeles Times

November 23, 2004

It's a pity George W. Bush does not truly understand Spanish — or much English, for that matter — because he could have learned a thing or two during his trip last weekend to Chile for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. All it would have taken was for him to have listened to the national debate raging in my country, a discussion shamefully absent from the United States.

What has Chile in turmoil is a report by a commission designated by President Ricardo Lagos to investigate how the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, in power from 1973 to 1990, subjected thousands to the most savage forms of torture. What is scandalizing our citizenry is not only the overwhelming narrative of extraordinary cruelty — the child tormented in front of his mother to make her speak, the prisoner forced to defecate into the mouth of another victim, the electrodes in the penis, the rats in the vagina, the needle in the eye, the fire on the skin. All of this was known — though perhaps not in such excruciating detail and magnitude.

No, what is intolerable to Chileans is that after this report, their country cannot deny that the terror inflicted on defenseless bodies was both systematic and systemic, essential to the survival of the Pinochet regime. The same horrors and humiliations were repeated in every corner of this land, in a cellar in the far north and in an attic in the extreme south, identical mock executions carried out in regiment after regiment, the same recurring methods to extract a confession, to devastate a life.

The incontrovertible evidence of this widespread, ubiquitous aggression demolishes the thesis sustained for decades by Pinochet and his followers that tried to explain away such excesses. This report makes it impossible to claim that these were isolated cases, a few rotten apples, merely some pathological individuals gone wild or bad.

As a result, Gen. Juan Emilio Cheyre, commander in chief of the Chilean army, has astonished the nation by declaring that he recognizes the institutional responsibility of the army for this use of torture, stating that there can never be a justification for these violations of human rights — not even to safeguard national security.

Cheyre's admission that the army is itself as a whole to blame for these abuses has sparked Chileans to an anguished examination of their past. Calls have been made for the navy, air force and national police to follow suit, and for the many civilians who served in the Pinochet government to also accept that they did nothing to stop their countrymen from being tortured and, indeed, encouraged such brutality. And the time is approaching when the citizens of this land will need to scrutinize their own complicity, the moment when we must each respond to a few burning questions: When did I first know that someone was being tortured? And what did I do with that knowledge?

And so, we come to George W. Bush.

I doubt that he paid attention to this dilemma shattering the Chile he briefly visited, and I would wager that he has never allowed the misgivings and moral questions we Chileans are facing to surface in his soul. Bush has not, of course, directly ordered the torture of his adversaries. But nothing could be more crucial to his second term than to deal with the issues we are working through: how men with immense power are ultimately responsible for the violence perpetrated on remote bodies, how death and destruction can rain down on so many faraway innocent thousands in the name of security and freedom.

In a post-9/11 world, where the "war" on terrorism has led to the disastrous invasion of Iraq, to the obscenity of Abu Ghraib, to the preventive detention of countless men inside and outside the United States without recourse to counsel, in a world so full of fear that any ferocity that renders us safe seems justifiable, Bush would do well to listen to the words of Cheyre. Unfortunately, it seems all but certain that for the next four years, the president of the United States will continue to imitate what might be called the Pinochet model of shirking responsibility for any ethical catastrophe that might ensue from his policies.

Another missed chance. There Bush was in Chile, an entire country that is shouting to the world that violations of human rights, no matter what the circumstances and what the dread, can never be excused. There was Bush, eyeless and deaf in Chile, unable to hear what Cheyre was saying, what should be heard and valued by every ruler and every soldier on this planet, an inspiration to us all in these turbulent and dangerous times.

There was Bush in Chile and he saw and he heard and he learned nothing.