Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Facile Solutions on the Road to Tyranny

This past week, I allowed myself—as I too often do—to get drawn into an informal debate on the Internet, over issues of human and civil rights. This happens to me, I think, because my background includes years of up-close encounters with the arbitrary nature of the kind of “special powers” that lead to rights violations of all kinds and the extent of the so-called “collateral damage” that they cause. The trigger for my apparent incapability to keep my mouth (or laptop) shut, I think, is my utter amazement that supposedly “educated”, otherwise apparently “normal” people can be so completely blind to the fact that if a single person’s civil or human rights are violated by the powers that be, then everyone’s rights are at risk and the principle of equality before the law becomes an entirely moot point. Why? Well, because if a single other person’s rights can be suspended, so can mine—or yours, or those of other people we know and love.

I can’t help thinking that anyone who can’t see that has to be terribly short-sighted. But then, experience, in these cases, is always a good—if singularly cruel—teacher. I recall thirty years ago, during the Argentine military dictatorship known as the Proceso, how bewildering it was for people from so-called “good families” when they suffered the loss of one of their number at the hands of the regime. These were often people who had cheered the Armed Forces government and considered necessary the suspension of constitutional guarantees in order to win “the dirty war on terrorism”. Sadly, they were too confident in their own status as good citizens and good families to think that the arbitrary nature of de facto rule could ever negatively affect their lives. They were, after all, from good families, patriotic families, families with traditional national values. If people were snatched off the street or out of their beds by the military’s hit squads “there must have been a reason.” The military was fighting a “dirty war” precisely to protect people like them. Good people, decent people didn’t disappear, only the bad ones did.

But then, that wasn’t true—not even most of the time. And that, they learned the hard way, was why wiser men than those now in charge, and men more far-seeing than themselves, had come up with the idea of a bill of rights, a set of constitutional guarantees to protect citizens—all citizens— from the arbitrary nature of raw political power.

Here in Argentina, there are fewer and fewer people, thankfully, who will publicly voice support for the actions of the former military dictatorship that rode roughshod over the country from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. I’m not saying there aren’t a number of people out there who wouldn’t give a conspiratorial wink to the now tottering old ex-military chiefs who are, finally, doing prison time for their crimes against humanity, discreetly pat them on the arm and whisper, “Hang in there, General, the ‘silent majority’ is with you!” All I’m saying is that popular standards of political correctness tend to keep them from opening their traps. And although I’m certainly not one to try and infringe on anyone’s right to free speech, I myself, and rights-aware people like me, are grateful for their silence. After all, the fewer times such poisonous, hateful opinions are stated, the better, since advocating hatred and unbridled violence seems to be the path of least resistance for impressionable minds.

And why is that? Well, because hatred and unbridled violence are all about destruction, which looks spectacular, lends itself to sensationalism (as witnessed by modern special effects in the movies), and even sometimes appears to quickly accomplish immediate short-term goals. But the fact is that it has far-reaching negative effects. Its appeal is, clearly, that it takes infinitely less effort to engender than does the building of sound democratic institutions and the development of a society of mutual respect for the rights and obligations of each of its members, much in the way that a wrecking ball or a few well-placed charges of dynamite can bring down an architectural masterpiece in seconds, while the building of it, with sublime style and infinite care, may have taken years or even decades.

In other words, throwing the rulebook out the window is a facile shortcut and, ultimately, the lazy man’s way out. And, as we all know—well, most of us, anyway—indolence and reckless disregard for authentic values never lead to excellence or to anything else worthwhile treasuring. They only lead to destruction, chaos and rubble. For this reason, I almost laughed aloud when one of the people I was ‘debating’ with actually quoted the proverbial quick fix as a valid reason for toppling a democracy in order to “save it”. It was such a patent far-right cliché that it tickled my funny-bone. I mean, what a caricature! He had no problem with how, in 1976, the Argentine Armed Forces had done away with pesky institutions like democratic government, the elected legislature, the bill of rights, unions, the incumbent president and her administration, rule of law, legal security, etc., etc., to say nothing of as many as 30,000 people who were dragged into the de facto monster’s dark cave and never again saw the light of day. The end, he was proud to tell me, justified the means. It was necessary to violate democracy and the Constitution in order to “save” them. And no one was going to tell him any different.

He dubbed “romantic” my opinion to the effect that a stable democracy could only be ensured by practicing it, upholding it, defending it, empowering it, criticizing it, and subordinating all other political or military entities and passing it from one elected administration to another, ad infinitum. And he allowed that “dogmatic liberals” like myself “aren’t bad people” but that we “don’t measure the consequences of our actions” when we demand that abuse of power, gross violation of human and civil rights, and wholesale slaughter be punished. We who demanded that anyone exercising legal authority (be it democratic or de facto) abide by the law and by universally accepted standards of decency were, he seemed to think, at least spoil sports, if not seditious and treacherous dangers to society.

But anyway, although, as I say, fewer and fewer people think this way in Argentina, clearly, you run across coveys of these mostly aging fanatics, with angry defiance in their eye and a bulging vein in their necks, who will tell anyone who will listen that subversion and terrorism can’t be fought within a democratic framework and that the only way to fight this kind of lawlessness is by stepping outside of the law. And you’ll also find a handful of young people among them, who are either from the families of these patriarchal and matriarchal figures or who have been convinced of these ideas on the strength of their desire to fit into the (frequently aristocratic or upwardly mobile) classes where such ideas tend to be prevalent. These are people who would rather have a neat and tidy dictatorship with clear rules (submit or die) and a quiet atmosphere (the peace and quiet of a cemetery) than a messy, boisterous and often rebellious democracy. This is especially true of people who think themselves “owners of the truth” and whose truth has to do with “their kind” being at the top of the food chain.

This is to be expected in a country like Argentina, in which, for more than half a century, from the 1930s to the 1980s the “natural” fuse for political change was not suffrage, but insurrection, carried out by a recalcitrant military, at the behest of the landed aristocracy and their industrial cousins, quite often with the connivance or at least tacit approval of the powerful local Roman Catholic hierarchy, all of whom feared nothing as much as “godless communism” or the Fascist-based populism of Juan Domingo Perón. And often too, with a nod from “the usual suspects” among international power brokers. It is only since 1983 that Argentina has witnessed the consistent passage of political power from one elected administration to another, and even then, with attempts by all but the first and most democratic of these administrations (that of the late President Raúl Alfonsín) to perpetuate themselves in power: Saúl Menem by pushing constitutional reform that would allow presidents to serve two consecutive terms (originally it was a single six-year term), a move that permitted him to serve for an entire decade, and the late President Néstor Kirchner, who sought to pass power back and forth between him and his wife (current President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner) indefinitely—a plan rendered moot by his untimely death at 61 last year. And this sort of thing, too, is to be expected due to the country’s natural political immaturity in terms of democratic life, and should tend to work itself out as experience is gained and as a new and ever stronger opposition emerges to temper and compete with the traditional Peronist cult movement with its dwindling populist appeal and the fading Radical Party which, since 1989, has tended to be stronger on political theory and textbook ethics than on practical governance and political savvy.

The “back to the future” advocates of rule at the point of a gun that I locked horns with this past week still—after everything that has happened in Argentina in the past three and a half decades—justified everything from the suspension of the bill of rights to the torturing of prisoners and the summary execution of suspected terrorists and their allegedly subversive supporters. The funniest thing—not ha-ha funny, obviously, because it kind of makes you want to cry—is that people who think this way remain, even today, so mentally divided that if you should ask them what was being defended during Argentina’s military dictatorship, they will tell you, without batting an eyelash, that it was democracy and the Constitution. (Say what?) That’s right, they find no contradiction whatsoever in the fact that, back then, Argentina’s Armed Forces claimed to be defending the nation’s democratic institutions even as they engaged in sedition and insurrection, suspended the country’s US-style Constitution and ruled by decree for the better part of a decade, broadly ignored and violated human and civil rights, rejected or manipulated the authority of the courts, created a mock ‘legislature’ to replace Congress so as to give some semblance of legitimacy to the arbitrary rules they imposed, muzzled the press, murdered outspoken opponents or drove them into exile, banned, censored and blacklisted books, art, music and films that were considered “dangerous” or subversive, institutionalized torture of every kind imaginable as a standard “interrogation technique” and, over the course of their nearly eight-year reign, kidnapped and murdered tens of thousands of the country’s citizens, as well as a number of foreigners considered to be “opponents of the regime”. Many of these “opponents” were no more than school children, many were pregnant mothers whose babies were snatched from their wombs and given in secret adoption to friends of the regime before they themselves were murdered, a few others were business people who wandered into the territories staked out by those in power and many more were just “collateral damage”, people whose names happened to be in the address books of murdered prisoners or fell from the delirious lips of torture victims. Not content with this, the regime also started a war with a major international power (Britain), costing the lives of several thousand combatants on both sides, immersing the country in a sea of shame and remorse and leaving the Treasury in a ruinous state.

Whenever you see something that looks democratic here, please, jump right in!

At all times during this debate—in which I was pretty much the only one writing in favor of democracy and freedom at all costs—I was treated, when not as an evil subversive element, at least as a naïve leftist loon and a useful idiot who was incapable of understanding what had been at stake. So, I sought to inject logic into the conversation by quoting a case of democratic fervor, which I mentioned elsewhere in this blog some time ago and which I still find a highly inspiring anecdote that expresses the view of any true democrat:

In the midst of a democratic Italy’s struggle against the terrorists of the Red Brigades, former Prime Minister Aldo Moro was abducted and murdered by the leftist extremist group. Despite the high profile of Moro’s assassination and the political machinations behind it, government and security officials at the time refused to bend the law to fit their political needs. Italy’s staunch pro-human rights stance remained firm despite the formidable threats posed at the time by the Red Brigades on the one hand and the long-standing Mafia on the other. When it was widely suggested that certain political-profiled prisoners’ feet should be held to the fire in order to expedite the investigation and secure the immediate release of the former prime minister before it was learned that he had been killed, General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa—a ranking officer in the Italian Carabinieri and one of the architects of the country’s anti-terrorist policies and enforcement strategies—responded: "Italy can survive the loss of Aldo Moro. It would not survive the introduction of torture."

Dalla Chiesa himself was murdered along with his wife and driver by the Mafia in 1982. But that didn’t make him any less right about what he said. Although the fight waged by all legal means against the Sicilian Mafia and the Red Brigades brought the assassinations of numerous law enforcement and justice officials, persistent legal action eventually brought the substantial dismantling and stunning debilitation of both movements and the clear strengthening of Italy as both a political power and as a paladin of civilized culture and society.

Alas, my interlocutors were unimpressed. And the saddest cut of all were their cheers and applause for the former Bush administration in the U.S. which, in their eyes (and, I confess, in mine) seemed to have taken lessons from the former Argentine military regime in its holding of prisoners without trial, its use of torture as an interrogation technique, its suspension of civil rights for certain “special” cases, its invasion of the privacy of common citizens “for the sake of national security and a greater good” and its expansion of executive powers “for the protection of democracy”. It irked me that they could throw my own country back in my face as an example of a leader of Western civilization that had come to the conclusion that rules were made to be broken and that some people were “more equal” than others.

As an American and as a witness to the long-term ravages of de facto rule in Argentina, all I could say was “Viva Obama!”