Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Missing but not forgotten


"Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." —Reinhold Niebuhr

The 1982 film "Missing," starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, won an Oscar for best screenplay. The film was based on real events involving the 1973 homicides of an American journalist, Charles Horman, and an American student, Frank Teruggi, in the immediate aftermath of the military coup in Chile that resulted in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and the death of Allende himself. The coup was supported by the CIA and the U.S. government and "Missing" inspired a libel lawsuit by several U.S. officials for the way the film portrayed them. The libel lawsuit was dismissed but the homicide cases remained.

At the time of his death, Horman was investigating the murder of Rene Schneider, commander in chief of the Chilean Army at the time of Allende's election in 1970. Schneider was a constitutionalist and would not support a coup and he was murdered a month after the election by elements of the Chilean military. There is considerable evidence that the CIA was involved in Schneider's death.

The military dictatorship that replaced the democratic government of Allende lasted 16 years and was headed by the megalomaniac General Augusto Pinochet, who famously said during his reign, "Not a leaf moves in this country if I'm not moving it." Chile, during the Pinochet years, defined the term "police state," and thousands of innocent people, including some Americans, were "disappeared" and tens of thousands of others arrested, tortured, raped, imprisoned, terrorized and had their lives destroyed. Some lucky ones escaped to other countries, and the majority who remained in Chile lived in the uncertain fear that prevails in all police states. Even some of the lucky ones, like Orlando Letelier and his American assistant Ronni Moffitt, were hunted down and murdered in exile by agents of DINA, the Chilean secret police, in their case in downtown Washington, D.C. These assassinations were part of a larger operation known as Operation Condor, which received organizational, technical and financial assistance from the United States.


Like justice itself in the all-too-common, sad and shameful twining of our government in the murderous affairs of dictatorships like Pinochet's, Horman and Teruggi were missing but they were not forgotten. In 2003, a former Chilean Air Force officer, Rafael Gonzales Verdugo, was charged in Chile as an accomplice to Horman's killing.

Last week a Chilean judge requested the extradition of a now-retired U.S. military officer, accusing him of involvement in the homicides of Horman and Teruggi 38 years after they were killed. The indictment charges former Navy Capt. Ray E. Davis with the homicides of the two American citizens. At the time of their deaths, Davis headed an American military group tied to the U.S. Embassy in Santiago. Judge Jorge Zepeda's indictment says Davis lives in the U.S. and asks Chile's Supreme Court to consider an extradition request to bring him to trial in Chile. In 2000, The New York Times reported that Davis said he "had nothing to do with the deaths" of the two Americans and that he "appeared offended by the resurgence of questions about the killings."

But one of the enduring qualities of justice in our world is that while it may all too often be as missing as the disappeared of Chile in the 1970s, it is, like the missing people themselves, never entirely forgotten. Justice has family and friends who do not forget injustice any more than family and friends of the murdered forget their loved ones. Horman and Teruggi are missing but they are not forgotten, and they never have been.

Horman's 66-year-old widow, Joyce, said of the indictment, "I'm very glad for this step forward. I'm very grateful for it, and I hope it keeps going."

Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., who has worked with the Horman and Teruggi families to push for the release of documents connected to the cases, said, "We finally have the wheels of justice turning slowly in Chile, but turning. ... The Chilean courts have been the one place, the one untapped potential mine of information on how Charlie and Frank came to die, and whether the United States was involved. ... The families deserve to know, and they deserve justice after all these years."

In this time of Guantanamo, it is good to keep in mind that even when justice is missing, it is not forgotten. It provides hope and healing and perhaps even the ability to forgive to the victims of injustice and their families, and it provides a reminder to those responsible for such horrors that justice just might make an appearance from the missing in a year or 10 or 20 or 40, for it is never forgotten.

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