That September 11, that lethal Tuesday morning, I awoke with dread to the sound of planes flying above my house. When, an hour later, I saw smoke billowing from the center of the city, I knew that life had changed for me, for my country, forever.
It was September 11, 1973, and the country was Chile and the armed forces had just bombed the presidential palace in Santiago as the first stage of a coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. By the end of the day, Allende was dead and the land where we had sought a peaceful revolution had been turned into a slaughterhouse. It would be almost two decades, most of which I spent in exile, before we defeated the dictatorship and recovered our freedom.
Twenty-eight years after that fateful day in 1973, on another September 11, also a Tuesday morning, it was the turn of another city that was equally mine to be attacked from on high, it was another sort of terror that rained down, but again my heart filled with dread, again I confirmed that nothing would ever be the same, not for me, not for the world. It was not the history of one homeland that would be affected, not one people who would endure the consequences of fury and hatred, but the entire planet.
For the past ten years, I have puzzled about this juxtaposition of dates; I cannot get it out of my head that there is some sort of meaning hidden behind or inside the coincidence. It is possible that my obsession is the result of having been a resident of both countries at the precise time of each onslaught, of the circumstance that those two assaulted cities constitute the twin cornerstones of my hybrid identity. Because I grew up as a child learning English in New York and spent my adolescence and young adulthood falling in love with Spanish in Santiago, because I am as much American as I am Latin American, I can’t help taking the parallel destruction of the innocent lives of my compatriots personally, hoping that lessons may arise out of the pain and smoldering confusion.
Chile and the United States offer, in effect, contrasting models of how to react to a collective trauma.
Every nation that has been subjected to great harm is faced with a fundamental series of questions that probe its deepest values. How to pursue justice for the dead and reparation for the living? Can the balance of a broken world be restored by giving in to the understandable thirst for revenge against our enemies? Are we not in danger of becoming like them, in danger of turning into their perverse shadow—do we not risk being governed by our rage?
If 9/11 can be understood as a test, it seems to me, alas, that the United States failed it. The fear generated by a small band of terrorists led to a series of devastating actions that far exceeded the damage occasioned by the original ordeal. Two unnecessary wars that have not yet ended, a colossal waste of resources that could have been used to save our environment and educate our children, hundreds of thousands dead and mutilated, millions displaced, a disgraceful erosion of civil rights in America and the use of torture and rendition abroad that ended up giving carte blanche to other regimes to flout human rights. And, last but not least, the bolstering of an already bloated national security state that thrives on a culture of mendacity, spying and trepidation.
Chile also could have responded to violence with more violence. If ever there was a justification for taking up arms against a tyrannical overlord, our struggle met every criteria. And yet the Chilean people and the leaders of the resistance—with a few sad exceptions—decided to oust General Pinochet through active nonviolence, taking over the country that had been stolen from us, inch by inch, organization by organization, until we ultimately bested him in a plebiscite that he should have won but could not. The result has not been perfect. The dictatorship continues to contaminate Chilean society several decades after it lost power. But all in all, as an example of how to create a lasting peace out of loss and untold suffering, Chile has shown a determination to make sure that there will never again be another September 11 of death and destruction.
What is magical about that decision to fight malevolence through peaceful means is that Chileans were echoing unawares another September 11, back in 1906 in Johannesburg, when Mohandas Gandhi persuaded several thousand of his fellow Indians in the Empire Theatre to vow nonviolent resistance to an unjust and discriminatory pre-apartheid ordinance. That strategy of Satyagraha would, in time, lead to India’s independence and to many other attempts at achieving peace and justice around the world, including America’s civil rights movement.
One hundred and five years after the Mahatma’s memorable call to imagine a way out of the trap of rage, thirty-eight years after those planes woke me in the morning to tell me that I would never again be able to escape terror, ten years after the New York of my childhood dreams was decimated by fire, I would hope that the right epitaph for all those September 11s would be the everlasting words of Gandhi: “Violence will prevail over violence, only when someone can prove to me that darkness can be dispelled by darkness.”