Recently, I was discussing the death of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet with some friends when I remarked that Pinochet was the kind of person that makes me wish I believed in Hell. Between 1973 and 1990, his murderous regime killed over 3,000 political dissidents, tortured thousands more, and exiled roughly 200,000. Since the downfall of his regime, Pinochet has become a byword for despotism and cruelty and, to the left, a symbol of all that was wrong with American cold war policy (the Nixon administration encouraged the 1973 coup against the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende that put Pinochet in power, and other administrations propped him up against unrest through the 1980s). Whatever he symbolizes, I tend to associate him with that pantheon of leaders whom the world is better off without.
I suppose that I expected everyone to share my sentiments. In fact, most people do. There was much celebration on the streets of Santiago when Pinochet went, and most media outlets have made it perfectly clear that Pinochet was not a figure to be emulated. But I was surprised that Pinochet still had supporters in Chile and elsewhere, even after the truth about the excesses of his regime came out.
In truth, Pinochet was not a genocidal maniac like Hitler. He was no insane power-hungry nut like Idi Amin. He honestly believed that he was saving the country from communism and he was willing to go to gruesome extremes to do it. He often said that Allende was going to turn Chile into another Cuba. Be that as it may, to me that justifies neither the coup he launched nor the havoc he wreaked. But to many people, it does. Hard-liners in Santiago still hail Pinochet as Chile's savior.
It is this fact that, to me, is the most bone-chilling aspect of Pinochet's legacy. While it is hard to imagine a Hitler or Amin taking power in America, you could imagine America getting a leader who is so intent on "saving" our country from one threat or another that he is willing to go to extremes to do it. You could imagine people supporting our strong leader for his brave stance against this threat even as their neighbors get dragged away in unmarked cars, never to return again.
In short, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine an American Pinochet. We may be comparatively short on hate and intolerant of insanity, but we have plenty of fanaticism to go around, and plenty of fear for a fanatic to play on. It wouldn't have been unthinkable for Joseph McCarthy to have been elected President, and how much less extreme would McCarthy have been? How many Americans watch Glenn "How Do We Know You're Not A Terrorist" Beck or read Dennis "Screw the Koran" Prager? And how many Americans would support a general quashing of dissent in order to keep us safe from terrorism?
It is absurd to compare President Bush to Hitler, to Amin, or even to Pinochet. But when people ask me why I rail against the erosion of civil liberties in the name of the "war on terror," and when people ask me why I argue against the use of the legal black hole that is Guantanamo, I will now point them to the torture chambers and death squads of Chile's past. For Pinochet is not a lesson against hatred or genocidal rage, but rather a caution: it is all too easy to support someone who, in the name of defense, crosses the fine line into fanaticism. We must not only be vigilant against threats from without, but we must also be vigilant in protecting our own ideals. If we fail in this latter regard, it is not difficult to imagine a Pinochet as our reward.
Update: Bad week for dictators: Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile Mariam, the "Butcher of Addis Ababa" who murdered some 150,000 people during his 1974-1991 reign, was convicted of genocide by an Ethiopian court. Mengistu is apparently still hiding out in Zimbabwe under the protection of strongman Robert Mugabe. Interestingly, Mengistu and Pinochet can be seen as almost mirror images - they ruled at roughly the same time, were put in power by bloody coups against popular leaders (in Mengistu's case, he overthrew emperor and national hero Haile Selassie), used as Cold War pawns, and murdered people for their political beliefs. The differences - Mengistu was a lot more murderous, a lot more insane, faced a civil war, and was backed by the Soviets rather than by the Americans. Mengistu also had a racial element to his butchery - he hated the lighter-skinned Ethiopians.