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Certainly...get him hanged! Why not? Anything--anything can be done
in this country. --Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
So here we are, barely into the next century, and the indications
couldn't be better. Peace and prosperity rule. Forget World Wars I and
II, the Nazi death camps, the gulag, Hiroshima, even Vietnam. Forget
that whole last benighted century of ours, that charnel house of
darkness in the heart of the West, or the Free World as we called it,
until, ever so recently, the whole world was freed. That's old news. It
was old even before the "short Twentieth Century," which began amid
nationalist cheers in August 1914, ended early as that wall in Berlin
came down. It's hard to believe now that in 1945, after Europe's second
Thirty Years' War, the civilization that had experienced a proud peace,
while dominating two-thirds of the planet, lay in ruins; that it had
become a site of genocide, its cities reduced to rubble, its fields laid
waste, its lands littered with civilian dead, its streets flooded by
refugees: a description that today would be recognizable only of a place
like Kosovo, Chechnya or Sierra Leone.
What a relief, when you think about it; more so if you don't: Mass death,
massacre (every acre of it), the cleansing of civilian populations, the
whole bloody business has finally been handed back to the savages in
countries nobody who counts really gives a damn about anyway. After all
these years, we face a world in which genocide happens in Rwanda or East
Timor, slaughter and mass rape in the cesspool of the Balkans, which
hardly qualifies as Europe anyway, or in African countries like
Congo--and most important of all, they're doing it to one another. Even
when it comes to nuclear matters, the MAD policies of the two
superpowers have been deposited in the ever-fuller dustbin of history
(though most of the weapons linger by the thousands in the same hands),
and the second team, the subs, have been called in. Now, Indians and
Pakistanis have an equal-opportunity chance to Hiroshimate each other
without (at least initially) involving us at all.
We always knew that violence was the natural state of life out there;
that left to their own devices they would dismember one another without
pity. We've more or less washed our hands of mass death, the only
remaining question being: If they slaughter each other for too long (or
too many gruesome images appear on our TVs), do we have a moral
obligation to intervene for their own good?
With history largely relegated to the History Channel and hosannas to
the Greatest Generation, the disconnect between the exterminatory
devastation of 1945 and our postmillennial world of prosperity seems
complete. So it's hard to know whether to respond with a spark of
elation or with pity on discovering that a few intrepid writers--Mark
Cocker, Adam Hochschild, Jonathan Schell and Sven Lindqvist--have begun
an important remapping of the exterminatory landscape of the last
centuries. (As an editor, I should add, I have been associated with
Hochschild and Schell.) Interestingly, none of them are professional
historians; and I hesitate to call them a grouping, for they seem
largely ignorant of one another's work. Yet their solitary efforts have
much in common.
They have taken remarkably complementary journeys into the West's now
largely forgotten colonial past. Considered as a whole, their work
represents a rudimentary act of reconstructive surgery on our collective
near-unconscious. They are attempting to re-suture the history of the
West to that of the Third World--especially to Africa, that continent
where for so long whites knew that "anything" could be done with
impunity, and where much of the horror later to be visited upon Europe
might have been previewed.
Worried by present exterminatory possibilities, each of these writers
has been driven back to stories once told but now largely ignored. Three
of the four returned to a specific figure, a Polish
seaman-turned-novelist who, as a steamboat pilot in the Congo, witnessed
one exterminatory moment in Africa and on the eve of a new century
published a short novel, Heart of Darkness, based on it. Of the
four, only Hochschild has done original historical research. But that,
in a way, is the point. They are not telling us new stories but
reclaiming older ones that have dropped from sight, and so
re-establishing a paper trail on extermination without which our modern
moment conveniently makes no sense.
During the Kosovo crisis of last year, it was commonplace if not routine to hear two mantras being intoned by those who had decided that "never" would be about the right time to resist ethnic cleansing with a show of force. We were incessantly told (were we not?) that NATO's action would drive the Serbs into the arms of Slobodan Milosevic. And we were incessantly told (were we not?) that the same NATO action would intensify, not alleviate, the plight of the Kosovar refugees. Now there has been an election that was boycotted by almost all Kosovars and by the government of Montenegro. And even with the subtraction of these two important blocs of opposition voters, it is obvious that Milosevic has been humiliated, exposed, unmasked, disgraced.
"Covert action," the late Senator Frank Church concluded in 1976 after his long inquiry into CIA operations in Chile and elsewhere, is a "semantic disguise for murder, coercion, blackmail, bribery, the spreading of lies...." Had the CIA been fully forthcoming with Church's committee about its ties to Augusto Pinochet's regime, he would have included "and consorting with known torturers and international terrorists."
To the rogues' gallery of world-class criminals the CIA has directly supported--among them Panama's Manuel Noriega, Emmanuel Constant of the FRAPH in Haiti, Nicolas Carranza, former head of the treasury police in El Salvador, Guatemala's Col. Julio Alpírez and, many believe, ousted intelligence chieftain Vladimiro Montesinos, who recently fled Peru--can now be added Gen. Manuel Contreras of Chile. In a declassified report provided to Congress on September 18, titled "CIA Activities in Chile," the agency confirms what so many have long suspected: At the height of the Pinochet regime's repression, the head of Chile's infamous secret police, the DINA, was put on the CIA payroll.
Contreras ran the torture centers in Chile; he ordered the murder and disappearances of hundreds of Chileans. But unlike so many other infamous CIA assets who viciously violated the human rights of their countrymen while their covert handlers looked the other way, Contreras took his dirty war beyond Chilean borders, dispatching his agents throughout the world to commit acts of international terrorism. He is currently in prison outside Santiago for the most brazen terrorist attack ever to take place in the capital of the United States--the September 21, 1976, car bombing that killed former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and a 25-year-old American associate, Ronni Karpen Moffitt.
Having covered up its relationship to Contreras and the DINA for all these years, including initially keeping it secret from federal prosecutors investigating the Letelier-Moffitt murders, the CIA now admits that it knew in 1974 that the DINA was involved in "bilateral cooperation...to track the activities of and...kill political opponents" abroad. Yet in 1975, shortly after the CIA's own intelligence reporting documented that Contreras was "the principal obstacle" to improving human rights in Chile, CIA officials "recommended establishing a paid relationship with Contreras," and a "one-time payment was given." Cozying up to the DINA, the report makes clear, was done "in the interest of maintaining good relations with Pinochet" and to "accomplish the CIA's mission," presumably to gather intelligence to safeguard US security.
The report, however, does not address how the CIA failed to avert a planned terrorist attack in Washington directed by its own asset. Only after the Letelier-Moffitt assassination, the report concedes, did the CIA approach Contreras to discuss Operation Condor--the network of Southern Cone intelligence services he led, which, the CIA already knew, was engaged in acts of murder abroad. "Contreras confirmed Condor's existence as an intelligence-sharing network but denied that it had a role in extrajudicial killings," states the report. Could his gullible handlers have believed this lie? On October 11, 1976, based on a leak, Newsweek reported that "the CIA has concluded that the Chilean secret police were not involved in the death of Orlando Letelier."
Either the CIA was criminally negligent in failing to detect and deter the Letelier-Moffitt assassination, or it was complicitous. Even if the covert operatives running Contreras were not aware of his plans to send a hit team to Washington, their close relations with him, despite his atrocities inside and outside Chile, may well have emboldened him to believe he could get away with this act of terrorism within a few blocks of the White House.
Advancing the US ability to protect itself from international terrorism is reason enough for Congress to hold hearings on how the CIA's covert associations in Chile compromised US security and cost the lives of two human beings. But the larger issue of the US role in Pinochet's horrors must also be addressed. Even the most cynical political observers cannot help but be profoundly disgusted by the CIA's callous debasement of US principles in Chile.
A full accounting will require release of the documents from which "CIA Activities in Chile" was written, as well as the hundreds of other records covering the history of US covert operations there. Despite a presidential directive to declassify the record of its contribution to political violence, terrorism and human rights abuses in Chile, to date the CIA has refused to release a single document on its clandestine actions that helped the Pinochet regime seize and consolidate power. The White House has delayed a final declassification of US records in order to press the CIA to be more forthcoming.
The Chileans have shown great courage by moving to hold Pinochet accountable for his crimes against humanity. But what Chile's human rights investigators have called "the cleansing power of the truth" in confronting their past applies equally to the United States. The CIA can no longer be allowed to hold this history hostage. A full accounting is required for Washington to begin to wash the blood from its hands.
Madame Curie's denial of radiation dangers is emblematic of the legacy we now face as America's romance with the atom draws to a close.
In a bad spy flick, there's got to be a character like Notra
Trulock, an obsessed sleuth who always gets his man--even if it's the
"This is a story about a spy," writes Millicent Dillon in Harry Gold: A Novel.
These days, the once highly revered nuclear weapons lab at Los
Alamos is the butt of jokes and investigations over the latest
revelation--that top-secret files supposedly locked in the most sec
Gay-Baiting in the Military Under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'
It's difficult to get over the idea that we failed Timothy McVeigh and that his execution fails us all. How deceptive a finale it is that leaves history neatly packaged in the cemetery of our imagination, safely removed from the festering reality of life. It happened, it's over, and we can now move on when we ought not to.
By killing McVeigh, we served only the purpose of avoiding responsibility for his creation. How convenient to not have a living reminder that this callow, awkward, unformed youth was a product of mainstream American culture--varnished by the "be all you can be" Army, no less--and not some easily dismissed dropout aberration. No, he was us in our darkest moments, even as we acknowledge gratefully that he was possessed by malevolent forces that the healthy can conquer.
If he was the devil, how did he get that way, this product of a strong Catholic family that raised a son to be a patriot, a son who then suddenly took his own government to be the enemy? What did he learn from us, his neighbors, the media and the government, that left him plotting in seedy motel rooms, manufacturing a weapon of mass destruction, while singing the disturbed loony tunes of the assassin?
His execution is to be denounced because it brings to an all-too-tidy conclusion a phenomenon that cries out for more complex and sustained examination. That's true in any capital case, but all the more so that 168 innocent men, women and children died at his hands, and scores of others were injured. It hardly serves their memory that McVeigh at worst will be venerated as a martyr by generations of lunatics to come and at best be dismissed as a weirdo actor in a script that is not of our hand.
We are told that the grieving relatives of those killed in the bombing need "closure," an unattainable state that has become the basic mantra of denial of harsh reality. It's a word now inevitably accompanied by the horrid phrase of "getting on" with the next phase of one's life, invoked even by McVeigh's lawyers before the execution to refer to their client's "future." But the so-called closure afforded by capital punishment, as some relatives of the dead have noted, cheapens the quest for real healing, which can never be an act of amnesia but rather requires the search for meaning in even the most dastardly of events.
For that we needed McVeigh alive, to be tormented every day in his own mind by the enormity of his crime, to the point where that smug self-righteousness of the killer would be pierced, and he finally would have to confront the pain of mass death as something other than a clinically ordered act of ideological game playing.
But we too, the uninvolved, needed his presence as an open wound to remind us of the pain that political madness, no matter its source, induces. In this case, the madness was, in effect, condoned when an unshaped youth was taught by his government to kill.
It should be a matter of deep national soul searching that we as a nation sent McVeigh to roam the desert on a Bradley fighting vehicle inflicting the "collateral damage" of the Gulf War. Did his military training prepare him to differentiate between what he did as his government's agent in Iraq and his own subsequent war on civilians? The absurdly celebrated mayhem of the Gulf War was the alternative to the college experience McVeigh never had. He was at least in need of a crash course on the distinction between what he called the "collateral damage" of the Oklahoma City bombing and the morality of shooting Iraqi draftees as they fled the battle.
Unfortunately, McVeigh completed his education at desultory gun shows in which patriotism often is equated with a defiance born of personal failure, and fire power is the means to dignity and freedom. That and the literature of angry white men, who believe their skin color and a musket should be all that is needed to make them meaningful players in the computerized global marketplace.
The merchants of madness will now exploit the government's execution of McVeigh as confirmation of their paranoia. Better to have had McVeigh as an aging reminder of how horrible the taste can be when the American brew is curdled.
Generals and admirals often tell us that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, but they sure don't appreciate being on its business end.
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