A dozen years ago, after 9/11, W.H. Auden’s haunting poem “September 1, 1939” circulated widely on the Internet. The poem, which described the “neutral air” of New York as war broke out in Europe, seemed to capture the uneasy sentiments of many Americans as they struggled to comprehend the evil done in 2001:
I and the public know What all schoolchildren learn, Those to whom evil is done Do evil in return.
September 11 also marks the fortieth anniversary of the coup that toppled Chile’s democratically elected Marxist President, Salvador Allende. Auden’s poem rings with irony regarding that tragic event as well:
But who can live for long In an euphoric dream; Out of the mirror they stare, Imperialism’s face And the international wrong.
But who were the perpetrators of evil in 1973? Certainly General Pinochet and his cronies. But what about the American government under the leadership of Richard M. Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger? What about the American public who remained silent as if in its own “euphoric dream”?
A friend once asked me what lessons I learned from researching Under a False Flag, my novel about American complicity in the Chilean coup. Although I am leery of historical “lessons,” I came up with four:
- If your elected leader lacks a moral compass, what can you expect but a rudderless foreign policy? Be careful whom you vote for, and remain vigilant and vocal.
- Fear begets deception and deception begets cruelty. During the Cold War, we feared the spread of Communism and frequently used subterfuge to counter it. But the outcome of our clandestine wars was often the opposite of what we hoped to achieve. How can a democracy win a war for freedom if it backs repressive regimes that are contrary to democratic principles and solely bent on self-preservation? Look at the brutal outcomes of our covert actions in Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and Chile. Has the War on Terror replaced the Cold War to the same end?
- A plurality is not a mandate. Despite the constitutionality of Allende’s election, he did not have a mandate to convert Chile into a Marxist state. His presumption of a mandate led to political stalemate and obstruction. Chile became a dysfunctional state.
- Factionalism can destroy democracy, and extremism kills compassion and encourages cruelty. This happened in Chile with its extremes of wealth and poverty, and with the stubborn entrenchment of the political right and left. The middle class was neither large enough nor strong enough to neutralize the polarized segments of the electorate.
Of course, proponents of realpolitik might argue that America’s clandestine intervention saved Chile from a bloody civil war with many more deaths than the 3,000-plus who “disappeared” during Pinochet’s seventeen-year dictatorship. Or they might point to Cuba and argue that Chile would have gone the same way—becoming a nation stymied by economic embargo, languishing in poverty, and lacking basic freedoms.
As I wrote Under a False Flag the philosopher Richard Rorty’s extraordinary book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity weighed on my mind. Rorty defines a “liberal ironist” as one who believes that “cruelty is the worst thing we can do” and who hopes, while recognizing the contingency of such hope, that “suffering will be diminished, that humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease.”
For the liberal ironist, Rorty says, the question “Is it right to deliver n innocents over to be tortured to save the lives of m X n other innocents?” is as hopeless and unanswerable as the question “Why not be cruel?”
At first I questioned that statement, but now I accept it. Entirely. No human being can rationalize the murder of 3,000 other human beings (or even one) for the sake of some other number. Not Pinochet, not the CIA, not the jihadists of 9/11. That may sound hopelessly idealistic but, as Auden says,
All I have is a voice, To unfold the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And the lie of Authority Whose buildings grope the sky: There is no such thing as the State And no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.