Latin America Reflects on the Other 9/11

35 years ago on September 11th, 28 years before Al-Qaeda fighters crashed hijacked passenger planes into the World Trade Center's two towers, the Nixon Administration helped orchestrate a right wing military coup against democratically elected Chilean President Salvador Allende. As troops under the command of General Augusto Pinochet approached the presidential palace, Allende gave a farewell radio address to the nation and then shot himself in the head, refusing the military's offer of "safe passage."

Today in Chile, thousands across the country gathered, as they do every year, to remember that day.

A recent New York Times article discusses how many people in the Middle East believe that the U.S. government must have been behind the attacks on New York and Washington seven years ago. They don't believe that a guy hanging out in Afghanistan could get by the ostensibly foolproof security of the world's most powerful nation. While I think that it is certain that, for better or for worse, a group of Muslim fundamentalists carried out the attack, I also think that it worthwhile to consider about how 9/11 has turned into a contested symbol, a symbol that remains the point of departure for a long running political and military disaster.

The dominant image in the U.S., the one articulated by Bush and co-ideologues in the attack's aftermath, was that a great nation was attacked by horrible people who hated this great nation for everything that made it great. This sense of exceptionalism and ahistoricism, that our tragedy is qualitatively "unique," has buttressed eight years of cultural chauvinism and war that ranks as extreme even in the context of a rather checkered history of U.S. foreign policy.

The global propagation of this 9/11 image has caused some distress in Latin America and other parts of the world. In claiming that 9/11 was a unique tragedy, we belittle the tragedies of others. In claiming that 9/11 was a crime against an innocent nation, we render our support for brutal dictatorships in Latin America and other parts of the world invisible.

September elevenths took place on other dates throughout Latin America: Guatemala (June 27, 1954), Argentina (March 24, 1976) and the dirty wars in Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador of the 1980s, to name some prominent examples.

In Chile, too, September 11th is a complicated symbol and an enduring political legacy. President Michelle Bachelet, whose father was tortured to death by the regime, today inaugurated a President Salvador Allende White Room in the presidential palace, La Moneda. The room, an exact replica from September 1973, will be a permanent reminder of what a small part of Chile looked like on the day democracy was overthrown.

But it will take more than a yearly ceremony to exorcise Chile's ghosts. The coup destroyed a dream of a democratic and socialist Chile. The "transition to democracy" that began 18 years ago was forged on the Right's conditions: a binomial electoral system that excludes the Left (akin to the U.S. two party system), a neoliberal economic system that favors private education, the privatization of natural resources, and so on.

According to Chilean professor Álvaro Cuadra, "September 11th has not ended in our country. It is present in every line of the constitution...In the Chile of today, there is peace neither for the dead nor for the living."

35 years later, the U.S. army occupies the countries of two toppled governments. Of course, neither the Taliban or Saddam's regime was progressive or democratic. Regardless, the pain and death inflicted is on some basic level the same, inflicted by a country with an unfortunate combination of limited geographical awareness and boundless military imagination.

Could September 11th instead be an opportunity to reflect upon the suffering and perseverance that unites us as humans? Putting aside the taunts such a suggestion would provoke from Bill O'Reilly and the like, wouldn't such a remembrance be a more human tribute to the dead, more human that having your name embroidered on an American Flag of Heroes?

We should not interpret overseas reminders of the existence of "other September elevenths" as insensitivity to the 2,974 people who died in the twin towers -- most of who were, unlike our government, innocent. Instead, we should take this opportunity to reflect on the need for a more just foreign policy and a world where no one has to suffer through burning buildings or torture chambers.


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