July 2004 Issue
When Veronica de Negri first saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, she happened to be writing her testimony for the Chilean commission investigating human rights abuses during the regime of Augusto Pinochet.
"That kind of abuse was what I lived in Chile under Pinochet," says de Negri, who came to the United States twenty-seven years ago. Even the vocabulary carried an echo. "They told us, too, they were trying to soften us up."
De Negri was detained in 1976. "I was beaten up. I had electroshock," she says. "I was raped not just by the torturers but with a mouse. It's very repulsive. Imagination cannot reach the reality."
She recognizes that "the torturers in my case were Chilean," but she blames Washington for helping to overthrow Salvador Allende in 1973, for supporting Pinochet, and for training Chilean torturers. De Negri left Chile with her family in 1977, but her son Rodrigo Rojas went back almost a decade later. "He was participating in a national strike on July 2, 1986, when he was arrested, badly beaten, and set on fire and burned alive by Pinochet's forces," she says.
Americans are "very naive" by the CIA's own count.
One CIA officer assigned quotas of assassinations for officers to fulfill, Douglas Valentine writes in The Phoenix Program. There was even a bounty and a "contest between the Phoenix advisers to see who could rack up the biggest body count," he writes. One participant barged in on a dinner that a lieutenant was having and "dumped a dirty bag on the table. Eleven bloody ears spilled out."
Memory is a prerequisite for morality. And it is the lack of memory that struck many of the people I talked to for this story. "The idea that we have no past history of torture is amnesia," says William Blum.
The Chilean American writer Ariel Dorfman calls such historical amnesia a "false innocence" and explores its roots. "It is entirely functional to the sort of empire that the United States has become," he says. "It is true that the media does not serve up enough analysis and information to allow people here to judge what is happening. But it is also true that too many people are willingly blinding themselves to truths that are looking them in the face."
A. J. Langguth agrees that torture is an integral part of being an empire. "We are the beneficiaries of an empire, and the empire rests on a number of props that we don't care to look at," he says. "And torture has been, and I'm afraid will continue to be, one of the tools."
Discarding this tool may not be easy, says Dorfman. "If Americans were to truly acknowledge (let me emphasize that word 'truly') what is being done in their name, they would have to change the way they live and remember, work and play," he says. "Or give up seeing themselves as ethical."