Remembering September 11

This September 11, people are pausing to think about past events and the ongoing effects on their lives today, and understandably so. The murder of over 3,000 people and the impact on the thousands of other family members directly affected would leave a mark on society no matter what; the images associated with the murders only further cemented those events in the public’s mind, and the public is still dealing with the fallout of the events of September 11th years after they took place.

Of course , the United States is commemorating September 11 today too, for its own loss of over 3000 people. But well before 9/11 entered the American conscience, it had been unavoidable in Chilean identity. For it was thirty-eight years ago, on September 11, 1973, that the Chilean armed forces rose up and overthrew democratically elected president Salvador Allende. With U.S. support, General Augusto Pinochet established a 17-year dictatorship that murdered and “disappeared” 3000 Chileans, tortured tens of thousands more, and created wounds and losses that can never heal. Even before the military turned against those deemed “subversive,” the violence was obvious to all, as the air force bombed the presidential palace while troops waited to invade. Ultimately, president Salvador Allende, undone by military leaders he had once trusted, chose suicide over capture, humiliation, and possible execution, and in so doing, shaped future debates on both the right and the left over the ways the Allende presidency and the military regime of Augusto Pinochet would be remembered. And from the moment of the military dictatorship’s inception, the United States gave its support through diplomatic agreements, economic arrangements, and discursive support.

It has been 21 years since Pinochet was forced to leave the presidency, and nearly five years since he died, disgraced and discredited, and with the passing of time, more and more Chileans don’t recall a time of military repression, torture, and “disappearances.” Certainly, it is all too easy to focus on the sterile number of 3000 people dead, to overlook the individuals who suffered needlessly and brutally in the name of right-wing ideology. Yet the impact of the Pinochet regime is not restricted to those 3000 or to the period of 1973-1990. Even today, the legacies of Chile’s September 11 make themselves felt on a daily basis. The debate over how to deal with the legacies of human rights abuses in Chile under Pinochet have dominated national politics since 1990. As lists of the regime’s victims increase, controversy continues to erupt over who is included or excluded as “victims” of the authoritarian regime’s brutal practices.  More recently, students who were born after 1990 have mobilized against educational reforms that have their origins in the Pinochet dictatorship. While these students never knew a day under a military regime, they still use it to identify their own movement, declaring themselves to be a “generation without fear” due to their upbringing in a full post-Pinochet democracy. And for all of those who lost loved ones whose bodies never were or could be recovered, the gaping hole of their absence, the imposed inability for families to mourn the definitive loss of their children, parents, siblings, relatives, will last as long as the memories of the disappeared live on in the minds of the living.

And it is in this way that the United States and Chile may have more in common than appears on the surface. For while the U.S. supported the Chilean coup, and while the U.S. lost its 3000 in one day, in both countries, the uncertain final moments and fates of many of the dead will continue to haunt their families and friends until there is no one left to remember them as the human beings they were, as Ariel Dorfman reminds us. In the public memory-making of the United States’ own September 11, we will inevitably focus on the broader horrors of the events: the images of planes headed directly towards buildings, the sight of the twin towers burning, the soon-repressed images of bodies falling (or throwing themselves) from the inferno, the cloud of dust, debris, and human remains that hovered over New York City for days, all while the world tried to make sense of things. Certainly, both Chile’s and the United States’s September 11 were followed by brutal, bitter, and tragic politics, posturing, and propagandizing. Yet at the heart of it all, the tragedy still rests not in the politics, but in the needless murders of thousands of people. As Dorfman puts it:

What I recognized was a parallel suffering, a disorientation that echoed what we had lived through in Chile. Its most turbulent incarnation was the hundreds of relatives roaming the streets of New York after 9/11, clutching photographs of sons, fathers, lovers,There was something horribly familiar in that experience of disaster, confirmed during my visit to the ruins where the twin towers had once reached for the sky.daughters, husbands, begging for information, are they alive, are they dead?, every citizen of the United States forced to look into the chasm of what it means to be desaparecido, with no certainty or funeral possible for those who are missing.

And it is these victims’ families we should remember today. Ultimately, September 11 “belonged” to Chile well before it was an event in the U.S. Commemorating the U.S.’s own “9/11” is understandable, but let us never forget the role our own government and citizens had in the events of Chile’s 9/11. We should pause and remember the dead in Chile and the families and friends who are left to deal with the unthinkable loss of loved ones who can never be replaced. Today, let us remember them as well.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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