the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2004 May 31


An appeals court in Chile has lifted the immunity from prosecution of former dictator Augusto Pinochet, an immunity he granted himself as a condition for leaving office. Being a dictator certainly has its perks. The most I can do for myself is take myself out for pizza, and that only occasionally. Dictators can appoint themselves senators-for-life, and that is merely at the low end. Usually the grand titles and associated privileges are accompanied by a fair amount of loot. Suharto, who like Pinochet was a military ruler and rightist puppet of the United States during the Cold War, ruled Indonesia long enough to steal, for himself and his near-and-dear, forty-five billion dollars, all of which, so far, he has kept. But then, ruling a country as populous as Indonesia must be a demanding job; it figures to come with a nice pension.

Pinochet and Suharto have so far escaped criminal conviction on the grounds that they are unfit to stand trial. Those in defense of these monsters are hoping that we will look at them, in their apparent feebleness, as pitiful creatures, perhaps even compare them to our own loved ones near the end of their lives. “I would hate”, the person is supposed to think, “to have my aunt Louise grilled by that mean prosecutor like she were some vicious criminal.” But what when your aunt Louise is some vicious criminal? What if, for instance, your aunt Louise, in between baking tollhouse cookies and misplacing her spectacles, had overthrown a democratic government and tossed a few thousand dissidents out of an airplane?

Pinochet and Suharto are practicing, from the other side, the Reagan Defense. Ronald Reagan claimed, while he was in office even, to be completely ignorant of one of his administration’s major foreign-policy initiatives, the ايران ’Īrān-Contra affair, in which hostage-takers were bought off clandestinely so that rightist insurgents could be armed clandestinely, the first in defiance of long-standing policy, the second in defiance of an actual Congressional statute. (But if conservatives believed that people should obey the law, surely they would say that on occasion.) When called to testify in the trial of Oliver North, who was executing his ايران ’Īrān-Contra policy, Reagan said, over and over and over, that he did not “recall”. This is the great legal dodge, almost impossible to prove either way. Should Reagan slip up later and admit to knowing some detail of the affair, he could not be prosecuted for perjury, because he would simply be said to have “remembered”. Most convenient. But the key to the Reagan Defense is damnation to avoid greater damnation. Reagan was claiming, while he was still the president, that he had no idea what was happening in his government; and if true, then he was confirming the beliefs of so many at the time ― that he was not actually running the government. In other words, he could not be the scofflaw mastermind that some accused him of being, because he was just a senile figurehead. I would suppose that, to avoid impeachment, Reagan would have gone so far as to admit that he was an idiot; and many’s the person who would have believed him.

With Pinochet and Suharto, though, there is really no question that these two army commanders were, throughout their reigns, in full command of their governments. It was impossible to believe, then, that immediately after being forced from office, they were suddenly not even in command of their senses. These were the architects of oppression and murder, soldiers who planned, staffed, and oversaw the seizure of power, and then constructed a system to keep it. They had assistance; but as general officers, they would understand perfectly that the soldier at the top bears the responsibility. He gets all of the credit, but may take all of the blame. (Not to suppose that he won’t avoid the blame if any convenient scapegoat is to hand.)

Since their reigns were built on deception anyway, we cannot wonder that they have attempted one last deception, feigning dementia to avoid prosecution. We should wonder, though, that so many are taken in by it. Perhaps some of it has to do with the inherent compassion in the medical field. Everything is a pathology to be treated, and certainly to be sympathized with. Even those who are faking a physical illness are thereby exhibiting a symptom of mental illness, and deserve our concern and, naturally, the attention of a competent mental-health professional. Perhaps it is just impossible for a physician to believe that the heart-rending appearance of dementia is the product of a superior mind. The physician then testifies as an expert that the “patient” is not of sound mind and not fit to stand trial. The court, in its mercy, accepts this. What else can it do? It is not as though a dictator would ever, to take a random example, lie.

After convincing a court that he could not participate in his own defense, Pinochet gave a lucid interview on television in which he offered up, of all things, his own defense. We should not have expected repentance, but it would surely have been advisable for Pinochet to be tacitly unrepentant. Instead, he walked out into the spotlight and took a bow. He had already shown a great strength of tyrants: he is wily. But the Judas in his wiliness is clearly his vanity. He was clever enough to appear senile in court proceedings, but not clever enough to leave it go. He wanted to correct the record in public; he wanted everyone to know how smart he was. This is true enough, I’m sure; but we can confidently conclude that he was rather stupid to indulge his vanity in this way. It may cost him his freedom. We can always hope, anyway.

It is obvious to many that we are giving a kind of humane treatment to Pinochet and Suharto that they pointedly denied to their enemies. I do not think this makes us better individuals; I think it makes us suckers. Is it ultimately so cruel to subject someone to trial? Is cross-examination really so brutal? If so, we should not be using it on any accused, since they are, theoretically, innocent until proven guilty. And if Pinochet and Suharto are found guilty (which they unquestionably are), is it so cruel to have them live out their lives in a shabby cell? The rule of the rape and the shiv and the unaccountable guard is what makes prison such a bad thing, but those are arguments for cleaning up our prisons, not for excusing certain convicts. Perhaps we should not have prisons. But if we must, then outlaws like Ronald Reagan and Strom Thurmond belong in them. And murderers like Pinochet and Suharto sure as Hell belong in them.

Elders, seniors, or (gag) senior citizens ― we can use many euphemisms, but we are still talking about old people. There is nothing wrong with being old. But there is also nothing so very right with it. The longer we can treat old people just as people, the better our society will be. We should be respectful but firm with our old people. We should acknowledge the experience of their long years; but we should not forget that they have refused to change many things that needed changing. We should honor them for winning World War II; but we should not accept their claim to have paid as much into Social Security and Medicare as they are now getting out. We should let them retire in peace and dignity if they deserve it; but we should make them retire in shame and poverty if that is what they deserve. Pinochet deserves this, as does Suharto, as did Erich Honecker and Ferdinand Marcos and the other old men who somehow outlived their reigns. If we are ever fortunate enough to see a pseudo-doddering Pinochet in the dock again, do not feel sorry for him. He’s not your grandpa. He’s the guy who shot your grandpa and dumped his body in the sea.



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