We need a truth commission to uncover Bush-era wrongdoing
As Latin America's experience shows, there's great value in confronting official misdeeds.
Does the United States need a truth commission to uncover wrongdoing committed by the Bush administration in the war on terror? Yes, says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont. Earlier this month, he proposed a process to do just that. "Many Americans feel we need to get to the bottom of what went wrong," he said. "We need to be able to read the page before we turn the page."Skip to next paragraph
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Many in Washington bristle at the idea. "If every administration started to reexamine what every prior administration did, there would be no end to it," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania. "This is not Latin America."
No, Senator Specter, this is not Latin America. But as someone who has spent the past quarter century researching and working on human rights issues in the Americas, I cannot help noticing instructive parallels and lessons that we might learn from the experience of our southern neighbors.
To be clear: I am not suggesting that the scale of wrongdoing by the US in the past eight years equals the atrocities of Argentina's dirty war, Augusto Pinochet's Chile, or Guatemala's long civil war. But the nature of the abuses and the official responses and justifications are, tragically, similar. How so?
Let's begin with the violations that characterized the authoritarian Latin American regimes of the 1970s. In Argentina and Chile, state agents employed brutal violence in the interrogation and detention process (torture). They kidnapped political dissidents and suspected subversives whom they often tortured to extract information, and ultimately, secretly executed them (forced disappearances). Latin American judicial systems failed to oversee the actions of the executive branch of government to gauge the legality of security and antiterrorism policies (lack of judicial independence). And, all too frequently, state agents killed suspects without legal process (extralegal killings).
Sound familiar? It should. In the past eight years of the war on terror, the US government has compiled quite a record of torture, forced disappearances, extralegal killings, and lack of judicial independence. In light of these similarities, we should ask – despite Mr. Specter's objections – whether anything can be learned from the Latin American experience. Two lessons spring to mind: