How important is the pain of the past? Should people strive to confront it or try to forget it?
Such questions routinely underlie news stories and media debates. Depending on the spin, history can seem crucial or irrelevant to the present. In deep ways, the past is far from over. But commentators often claim that we should just move on and let bygones be bygones.
Lately, world attention has been riveted on former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the possibility that — a quarter of a century after he seized power from Chile's democratically elected government — the general may face prosecution for his crimes.
Since Pinochet's arrest, news outlets in Chile have been delving into horrible truths about the 17 years of his brutal regime. Meanwhile, the media discussions in the United States have been more restrained.
The political repression overseen by Gen. Pinochet — including widespread torture and the murders of more than 3,000 Chilean people — did not only result from the policies of the junta in Santiago. Top officials in Washington were also directly responsible.
A recent New York Times article mentioned “some uneasiness in Washington with the idea that former government leaders can be held responsible by foreign courts.” According to the news account, a Boston-based law professor worried aloud: “What's to prevent Spain from extraditing Henry Kissinger, who was involved in the coup?”
A few days later, Times reporter Barbara Crossette observed that “efforts to subordinate national sovereignty to internationalist notions of universal crimes are especially tricky for the United States.” She added: “Suppose Cambodians decided to indict Henry Kissinger on charges of ordering the bombing of their country during the Vietnam War?”
Those kinds of scenarios are far-fetched nightmares for many in the US media elite — such as Ted Koppel, who long ago declared himself “proud to be a friend of Henry Kissinger.” The ABC newsman has ranked his pal as “certainly one of the two or three great secretaries of state of our century.”
Likewise, for the past three decades, Washington Post Company owner Katharine Graham has counted Kissinger among her closest friends. Any detention of Kissinger on charges of war crimes would probably also distress the movers and shakers at CBS, where he has served on the board of directors.
It's easy to toss off platitudes about people in another society — how they should face up to their past. But it's always much more difficult to implement such principles closer to home. So, Kissinger has never been compelled to answer for his role as a key architect of policies that caused a total of more than 1 million deaths in Chile, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, East Timor and elsewhere.
Kissinger, of course, remains free to live in luxury and travel as he pleases.
Shortly after Pinochet's arrest, the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman penned an open letter to him that appeared in the Spanish newspaper El Pais and has now been excerpted in the December issue of The Progressive magazine.
“What I have wanted to see for 25 years now — and I still have a hard time believing that it might be about to happen — is that before your death you will be forced to look with your blue eyes into the dark and light eyes of the women whose sons and husbands and fathers and brothers you made disappear, one woman after another,” Dorfman wrote. “I want for them to have the chance to tell you how their lives were fractured and torn apart by an order that you gave, or by the ‘action’ of the secret police that you chose not to stop. I have asked myself what would happen to you if you were forced to hear day after day the multiple stories of your victims and to acknowledge their existence.”
Here at home, in the United States, we may cheer about Pinochet's belated legal difficulties. But we could render a valuable service by demanding that the news media finally expose a wide range of deceptions that have never been given a proper burial.