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Into the Heart of Chilean Darkness (Nov. 18, 1998)

General Augusto Pinochet’s detention in England raises issues about the nature of modern evil.

The late Hannah Arendt labeled the acts of Adolph Eichman as the banality of evil. Covering the trial of the man responsible for the slaughter of millions, mostly Jews, Arendt marveled at Eichman’s statement: “I was only following orders.” He bleated that his superiors had demanded that he make disappear millions of people but only gave him a meager budget. He felt a certain pride when he met this  bureaucratic challenge.

Arendt did not mean that mass murder stemmed from deferential bureaucrats. Eichman claimed he needed to please his superiors. But without identifying Nazi ideology as a source of the epic crimes, one cannot understand Eichman’s grotesque triviality. Petty bureaucrats need an intimidating vision, which Adolph Hitler provided. Hitler set out to conquer the world and slaughter entire races in the process.

In September 1970 Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, hardly Hitlers, provided their anti-communist vision to justify overthrowing the elected government of Dr. Salvador Allende and replacing it with a military gang. In doing so, they created the ideological space within which banal murderers could happily operate. The military coup of 1973, became the process by which evil appeared as commonplace events.

Take just one case among many thousands. Former FBI Agent Robert Scherrer discovered that DINA, the Chilean secret police, sought to question William Beausire, a businessman and British citizen. DINA wanted to locate his sister, Marianne, the compañera of Andres Pascal Allende, a leader of  an ultra revolutionary movement. Scherrer learned this information from DINA hitman Michael Townley. “Questioning,” Townley casually explained, meant electroshocking people in their genitals. Beausire’s mother learned of DINA’s plans and put her son on the first flight to London.. 

The plane stopped in Buenos Aires. Townley told Scherrer of the wonderful joke the two secret police agencies played on Beausire at the Argentine airport. He thought he had escaped their clutches. But he answered a page by immigration officials, who asked him to step into a room. Beausire entered a portable closet. They locked the closet and flew him back to a DINA torture house in Santiago. Beausire didn’t know the whereabouts of his sister, but couldn’t convince his joyful torturers of that fact. He has disappeared.

FBI Agent Scherrer said Townley and friends had played a terrific joke on Fat Billy as they called him. Again, the banality of evil emerges, a sick joke between secret police agents resulting in the torture and death of William Beausire — one of thousands of banal acts that led to death. In the context of epic evil, the Eichmans and the Townleys emerge. Pinochet’s lawyers said that his tortures and murders had been done by other heads of state also. But the decision by Nixon and Kissinger to forcibly replace Allende with Pinochet takes us straight into the heart of modern darkness.

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