poetix (old content)

oh build your ship of death

Deathless Vindictiveness

The Grauniad today make their feelings on the departed killer hilariously plain. The main news item has two one-word subheadings: “Torture” and “Repression”. On the obituary pages, two large-type quotes from the article are placed side by side on facing pages:

Torture was institutionalised and murder squads were dispatched to kill dissidents abroad.


He cultivated a mutually admiring relationship with Baroness Thatcher at meetings for tea.

Not much you can add to that, but I’ll try. I do not believe that the disappearances, death squads, electrocutions and so on were in any sense expedient from a “security” perspective: there wasn’t a heavily-armed and well-funded left-wing insurgency in progress at the time, and most of the people tortured and executed by Pinochet’s regime were pretty harmless. Neither was the rationale simple sadism and malice, although Dr Sheila Cassidy’s comment that Pinochet regarded his victims as “dirt” who got what was coming to them is undoubtedly correct. The purpose of the terror was rather was to inculcate a particular notion in Chilean society at large: that it was normal, unavoidable and ultimately acceptable that at any given time there would be significant numbers of people suffering horribly, senselessly and invisibly; that “ordinary” citizens were happily exempt from this suffering, but that this exemption could be revoked at any time.

That notion is characteristic of “authoritarian” dictatorships, but it is also a hallmark of societies under the sway of neo-liberal ideology, and Pinochet was adulated by the wealthy for his dedication to the latter. Under Thatcher, this was very plainly promulgated: it was understood that the “weak” and “undeserving” went under, and it was best not to think too much about what happened to them when they did. Now this is not so brazenly admitted: we have governments that every now and then come up with some new “initiative” to “tackle social exclusion”, that wish to emphasize their compassion for the innocents upon the rack. But the outcome of their policies is the same: marginalisation, poverty, mental illness, homelessness, victimisation. Who needs the knock upon the door at 4am?

What Pinochet was about was the same as what Thatcher was about: making this acceptable, making it normal, putting a wall of silence between the world of the “ordinary” citizen and that of the scapegoat, and making sure that everyone was afraid, all the time, of ending up on the wrong side of that wall.