Dirty wars cast shadow on virtues of Patriot Act

Can more than 69,000 people be killed and most of their deaths go unnoticed? The final report of Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, issued recently, would seem to say they could. The commission concluded that many people died between 1980 and 2000 in political violence - that's two to three times earlier estimates. That fact says much about Peru, but the implications of its experience extend beyond its borders.

Three quarters of those killed were Quechua-speaking, peasants - the bottom rung on Peru's socioeconomic ladder. Most of them were killed by Shining Path terrorists, 30 percent by the armed forces, 14 percent by rural self-defense groups, and the remaining 2 percent by another terrorist group.

Many of Peru's elites, who live mainly in coastal cities, say they were unaware of the extent of the violence in the country's remote mountains and jungles. Others who should have known came up with different excuses.

Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, who was once a bishop in one of the most troubled regions, said he did not accept the government-sponsored report "because it was not true." Former military officers who commanded units responsible for abuses denied any wrongdoing or accused the commission members of being communists or terrorist sympathizers.

The debate over who knew about the abuses and who committed them will not be easily or quickly resolved. Nor will the questions of retribution and reparations. The debate will last at least as long as those who committed the acts and those who suffered from them still have the breath to argue.

Peru will not be unique in that regard. Argentina's war on terrorism and Chile's overthrow of an elected Marxist took place in the 1970s, and in both cases none of those issues has been laid to rest.

In these countries, the majority of citizens weren't involved in the violence, but felt directly threatened by it. Because of their fear, they were willing to look the other way when those who promised law and order brought the latter at the expense of the former.

What does all that say about countries outside Latin America? Just that when a society feels itself at risk, it turns to whoever promises security and often sets aside its constitution, laws, and civil liberties. Some people justify such a response by saying the country is faced with a unique threat and ignore their own history and that of others. Others assert the constitution isn't a suicide pact and disregard the fact that judges almost always use that argument to justify preserving civil liberties in difficult times rather than as an excuse to abridge them.

Some leaders will accuse critics of the government of encouraging the enemy, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently did. Others will claim that the protections of due process are too untidy in a crisis as Attorney General John Ashcroft has done while barnstorming around the country praising the virtues of the Patriot Act and lobbying for even more power to be given to law-enforcement officials.

In considering such arguments, it's worth remembering the experience of Peru and others. To be sure, the torture and murder of thousands does not begin to compare with denying people due process or access to a lawyer, or invading their privacy.

Nonetheless, it is a slippery slope. A number of pundits - spanning the political spectrum - have already suggested torture would be acceptable if it prevented more terrorism. And there was no great controversy when we moved from being a country that banned assassination attempts on foreign leaders to being one that believed that any whiff of intelligence on Saddam Hussein's location is reason enough to spray an area with automatic weapons.

Many in the military in Latin America would argue that the people they killed in their wars against terrorism were as much collateral damage as thousands of Iraqi civilians and unknown numbers of Afghans are in ours.

The US is not unique in being threatened by terrorism. And it will not be unique if the response is for the majority to accept the violation of the rights of a few in exchange for the promise of greater security. Some would argue that has already happened.

Dennis Jett, former US ambassador to Peru, is dean of the International Center at the University of Florida.

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