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9/11 After Forty Years

Lord, you who are everywhere,
have you been in Villa Grimaldi too?
-Ariel Dorfman

While conspiracy theorists vainly attempt to implicate the United States government in the attacks on September 11, 2001, there is little argument that the United States government, from President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger on down, was deeply complicit in a violent attack on another nation forty years ago this September 11.  The deadly coup that toppled democratically elected President Salvador Allende in Chile on September 11, 1973 was the culmination of decades of US intervention in Chilean politics, initially to protect US multinationals involved in the copper mining industry, and then to guard against a Cuban style leftist government in the 1960’s and early 1970’s.  A report by the Select Senate inquiry led by Senator Frank Church of Idaho concluded that in the decade prior to the violent coup the US covertly spent over $8 million to influence Chilean presidential electoral politics, and that the CIA was involved with military officers actively opposing the regime.  At one point the CIA delivered cash and weapons through diplomatic pouches in an assassination attempt against a key general opposed to a coup.

While the CIA, at the president’s direction, had been actively encouraging military officers to stage a coup since Allende’s election in 1970, and while the US had been engaged in an aggressive campaign to destabilize the Allende government, most historians believe it is unlikely that the CIA was directly involved in the attacks on the Presidential palace on September 11, 1973.  But as the generals took power and Allende’s body was removed from the burning palace, the mood in the White House was celebrative:

Nixon:  Nothing new of any importance, is there?
Kissinger:  Nothing of very great consequence.  The Chilean thing is getting consolidated and of course the newspapers are bleeding because a pro-Communist government has been overthrown.
Nixon:  Isn’t that something.  Isn’t that something.
Kissinger:  I mean instead of celebrating – in the Eisenhower period we would be heroes.
Nixon:  Well we didn’t – as you know – our hand doesn’t show on this one though.
Kissinger:  We didn’t do it.  I mean we helped them [garbled] created the conditions as great as possible.
Nixon:  That is right.  And that is the way it is going to be played.

CIA support for the Pinochet regime continued following the coup, even when its appalling human rights record became evident.

In a quiet neighborhood of Santiago visitors can find the grounds of a former residence called the Villa Grimaldi.  Hidden behind walls protecting it from public view, this beautiful setting was transformed by the Pinochet regime into one of its main detention, interrogation, and torture centers.  Between 1973 and 1978 4,500 persons were brought to the Villa Grimaldi.  They were detained in solitary confinement in small wooden box like structures, deprived of sleep, food, exercise, and human contact save for the soldiers who tortured them with electric shock, asphyxiation, beatings, and sexual humiliation.  Nearly 250 “disappeared” forever.  The “tour guide” who showed me through what is now a memorial site described his own experience there, a harrowing tale of fear, pain, and isolation.  He pointedly wondered how the US could have condoned this, and in the years since a later 9/11, how we could continue to condone torture in our so-called “war on terror.”

Overall during the Pinochet years 40,000 persons were detained, interrogated, and tortured.  An estimated 3,000 were killed or disappeared, a number eerily equivalent to those who died on September 11, 2001.  Meanwhile Pinochet introduced fierce free market economic reforms that devastated the poor.  These reforms were inspired by “Los Chicago Boys,” a group of Chilean economists trained under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago.  They took to heart Friedman’s statement during a 1975 visit that “Chile’s economy needed shock treatment,” an unfortunate comment given the electric shocks being administered to prisoners in the Villa Grimaldi and elsewhere.

No president has apologized for our role in the overthrow of a democratically elected president in Chile, or for the horrific crimes committed by the generals we supported, or for the long years of military dictatorship that overtook Chile.  The Clinton administration commented on the release of previously classified documents from that period, noting simply that “actions approved by the U.S. government during this period aggravated political polarization and affected Chile’s long tradition of democratic elections.”  Colin Powell, in 2003, acknowledged that “it is not a part of American history that we’re proud of.” 

Since “our own” 9/11 hundreds of prisoners have been held without charges at Guantanamo, subjected to highly dubious extra-judicial procedures, and many who have been officially cleared for release remain confined with no avenue for appeal.  Countless others were sent secretly to foreign nations where they were tortured by CIA operatives.  White House lawyers wrote opinions providing a legal cover to justify torture.  The horrors of Abu Ghraib were revealed.  Targeted assassinations by drones ramped up.  The national security agencies exponentially expanded electronic surveillance. 

No one has been held accountable.  The leaders who set this in motion live comfortably in retirement, writing their memoirs to justify their actions.  Guantanamo remains open despite pledges to close it.  Innocent victims of our abuses have either disappeared or been set loose to rebuild their lives without compensation.  Commissions that have conclusively revealed our crimes have been ignored.  The president tells us to look forward, not back.  The crimes of Assad conveniently distract us from the crimes of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, not to mention the long ago crimes of Nixon and Kissinger.  Accountability has been reduced to chest thumping after the military assassination of bin Laden.

September 11, 2001 provided us with an appealing narrative of America as victim, a narrative that has justified all manner of horrors.  September 11, 1973 reminds us of another narrative, a narrative far less appealing – America as victimizer.  Until we acknowledge and come to terms with the later, the former will nurse the dangerous ego of an imperial America whose arrogance will continue to undermine our moral stature in the world.

John H. Thomas
September 12, 2013

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