More Thoughts on False Equivalency and Brazil’s Truth Commission

Greg Weeks has a post up suggesting that, by not investigating the crimes of the opposition, Brazil’s Truth Commission may actually be reinforcing the false equivalency of “both sides committed crimes” reasoning:

Actually, including opposition abuses helps the opposition because there are so few in comparison. In the case of Guatemala, for example, you get the following:

  • “State forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% of the violations documented” (Final Report, English Version, para. 15).
  • “Insurgent actions produced 3% of the human rights violations and acts of violence” (Final Report, English Version, para. 21).

In other words, this emphasizes the overwhelming state role and prevents the military from falsely claiming that both sides were relatively equal.

I don’t disagree with this, actually, but I’m not certain one can’t still get at these numbers even with a focus solely on the military, at least in the case of  Brazil. As I mentioned in my previous post, the numbers of crimes the opposition committed during the military dictatorship is well-known by this point. Collections in the National Archives and in state archives provide primary sources that detail in great depth the oppositions’ actions, often in its own words. Additionally, since the end of military rule, those involved in the opposition who survived the dictatorship have openly spoken about their actions, including violent actions, in their own diaries, memoirs, public interviews, documentaries, and other sources. Indeed, even during the regime, news stories of opposition crimes regularly appeared in newspapers and magazines, making their way through military censorship because the stories could help reinforce military narratives of a violent and dangerous opposition, narratives that the military could rely upon to justify its own (greater) use of force and repression. Combining these military-era public, high-profile accounts with archival materials and the subsequent flow of personal testimonies both written and spoken has given us a detailed understanding of opposition violence in Brazil.

The same cannot be said, however, for the military. While the Archdiocese of Sao Paulo was able secretly get military documents that allowed it to create and publish a report that detailed just how thorough and institutionalized the use of torture and repression was during the dictatorship (the publication of which made for its own incredible story), it only directly addressed the actual methods of torture the military employed. While some secret police documents have been made public, the most substantial collections that detail the ways in which the regime targeted individuals, outline the particular policies towards the opposition, and explain the use of torture, murder, and “disappearances” against subversives, remain concealed to this day, with the military either denying the documents’ existence or refusing to turn them over to the public (and sometimes doing both simultaneously!).

In focusing on the military’s crimes, the Truth Commission may be able to finally get access to these archives. Should that be the case, they would be able to detail both the military’s crimes and those of the opposition, without ever actually investigating the opposition. I speak from some familiarity on this topic, because I’ve worked with some of the secret police archives that have been made available to the public. In them, the secret police and military authorities not only specify their own view on threats to the country; they also do a great job providing annexes, attachments, and other forms that also let scholars have an insight into opposition activity. Thus, for example, in a secret police report that is commenting on the “subversive” nature of some pamphlets found on a university campus, the military institutions went to great pains to annex and include all of the pamphlets analyzed, so that a researcher can simultaneously see both how the military perceives threats and “subversion” and see what the opposition itself was actually saying. While documenting campus activity is perhaps different from chronicling murders in terms of content, there’s no reason to think the overall methodical approach in documenting military policies and actions varies in form. Indeed, there’s a reason Brazil’s regime (and others like it) is often referred to as “bureaucratic authoritarianism.” Not only is evil banal, as Hannah Arendt suggested; it’s also remarkably detail-oriented and bureaucratized, and police archives in general are some of the clearest examples of that bureaucratization.

For this reason, should the Truth Commission have access to the archives at last as it conducts its investigations, it would be able to detail both the state’s crimes and the opposition’s crimes. If that were to take place, the percentages that Greg provides for Guatemala would still be attainable; we could still get a firm sense of what percentage of the overall human rights violations and crimes that took place during military rule in Brazil were the state’s responsibility, without the Truth Commission ever investigating the (again, already very-public) opposition’s crimes.

Of course, it is going to be dependent on the Truth Commission to actually come up with that data itself, and it may not do that. However, even if it can simply publish total numbers on state crimes during the dictatorship, historians and human rights scholars should have enough materials to provide their own percentages on how many crimes the state committed during military rule compared to how many the opposition did. In that way, the false equivalency of “both sides did it” could be (hopefully) put to rest once and for all in Brazil. Time will tell, but, at least in the case of Brazil, I’m certainly not willing to give up hope that the Truth Commission will finally help us better understand the nature and extent of human rights violations during military rule.

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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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