A year before 9/11 meant anything in the United States, I found myself cornered at a dinner party in Santiago, Chile, trapped into a conversation with a middle-aged man, a friend-of-a-friend of a second cousin of my host parents. He was trying to teach me about Pinochet and human rights, and I will never forget what he said:
“What you gringos don’t understand is that most of those people who disappeared were communists.”
This quote is referring to Chile’s 9/11, an event that happened almost three decades before planes crashed into the Pentagon, the Twin Towers, and an empty field in Pennsylvania. It happened in 1973, when Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected president Salvador Allende in a bloody military coup on September 11. The crackdown began immediately, and this legacy of violence still deeply divides Chile today. The disappeared, literally thousands of people, were kidnapped, detained in secret centers, routinely tortured, and executed. Some of them, like Allende himself, were Marxists.
While I have accurately reproduced the Chilean man’s words above, only half of his meaning was spoken. The other half was left unsaid, but the implication was clear:
“What you gringos don’t understand is that most of those people who disappeared were communists… so it was okay to torture and kill them. They were bad, dangerous people, and they deserved it.”
When I talk to people about Guantánamo, the aftermath of my 9/11, I sometimes feel like I am once again at that dinner party in Santiago, backed into a corner, and hearing the things left unsaid. I hear things like:
“They are terrorists, dangerous people…so it is okay to deny them legal rights.”
“They would do worse things to us…so it is okay to torture them.”
“They were responsible for 9/11…so they deserve it.”
In the logic of these half-said statements, human rights become completely relative. It is bad to torture the innocent, but it is okay, or at least less bad, to torture the guilty. Guilt on the part of the detainees erases any wrongdoing on the part of the United States. As a result of this logic, the United States no longer has to defend its actions; it is the detainees who must prove that they are innocent and deserve to have their human rights respected.
It is not just supporters of U.S. policies in Guantánamo that fall into this relativistic thinking. Some vocal critics of the abuses at Guantánamo have emphatically stated that the people tortured there were “known-to-be-innocent.” This focus on innocence implies that torture is more immoral if the victim is innocent, and that performing the same actions on a guilty person would be less objectionable.
Thus the debate over the innocence or guilt of the torturers is hijacked into a debate over the innocence or guilt of those detained and tortured. In both the post-9/11 United States and post-9/11 Chile, the question of state guilt is sidestepped, forgotten, hidden behind a host of other distracting questions that fundamentally undermine the notion of universal human rights: Were the disappeared really communists? Were the detainees really terrorists? Were they bad, dangerous people? Did they deserve it? When we are sidetracked by these questions, we are leaving a larger, more important issue uninterrogated: Regardless of guilt or innocence, should the state have the right to torture?
Posted by Jennifer Thornton, PhD student at the University of California, Riverside
University of California, Riverside is participating in the Guantánamo Public Memory Project‘s National Dialogue and Traveling Exhibit. Opening at NYU’s Kimmel Center for University Life Windows Gallery in December 2012 and traveling to 9 sites (and counting) across the country through at least 2014, the exhibit will explore GTMO’s history from US occupation in 1898 to today’s debates and visions for its future. The exhibit is being developed through a unique collaboration among a growing number of universities as a dialogue among their students, communities, and people with first-hand experience at GTMO.