“I am obsessed with the body,” Isabel Letelier said. “I turned from painting to sculpture because I needed to work with something I could feel.. Bodies are so open, so vulnerable, so easy to abuse.”
Isabel Letelier had just read my column (When Should You Tell the Kids?) about proposals to use torture to elicit information from suspected terrorists. It recalled memories that clouded her eyes.
“I was teaching Spanish to English speakers in Washington,” she said. “One morning I came to work and the elevator didn’t work. A sign said that the U.S.A.I.D. (Agency for International Development) was holding classes and access was forbidden to unauthorized personnel.
“I went upstairs and the halls were full of paramilitary in battle dress from Spanish speaking countries, some from Chile. What are you doing? I asked a young man.
“Learning to fight guerillas,” he said.
“But we don’t have any guerillas in our country.”
“We do, but they are invisible. The enemy is within.”
Isabel noticed diagrams on the walls identifying points on the human body. “What are those?”
“Sensitive points,” he said with a smile “We are learning how to interrogate guerillas.”
“I was so naive,” she told me, ” I didn’t realize the United States was teaching them how to torture under the cover of that agency.”
Isabel Letelier and I were gathered with others last week for the twentieth reunion of recipients of the Gamaliel Chair in Peace and Justice, an annual speaking opportunity sponsored by the Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.
Isabel Letelier learned more about torture than she ever wanted to know. Her husband, Orlando Letelier, served as Ambassador to the United States from Chile under the government of Salvador Allende before being called home to serve in the cabinet. His expertise in economics was needed when the Nixon administration, having failed to subvert Allende’s election and inauguration, worked to undermine the Chilean economy.
Because their first attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government of Chile by a military coup had failed, Nixon told the CIA, “We will make the economy scream.” .
“They did, too,” Isabel said, “Our major export is copper which moved in American trucks. Manufacturers refused to give us spare parts. They subverted the economy every way they could.”
A second coup, backed by the CIA, succeeded. Allende was overthrown by General Augusto Pinochet and the military. Orlando Letelier was tortured, beaten, his fingers broken. He was sent to Dawson Island, a concentration camp near Antarctica. Pressure from friends and colleagues led to Letelier’s release and deportation, first to Venezuela, then to the United States. In Washington he continued to speak out against the Fascist regime. He received numerous threats.
Anonymous callers told Isabel she was not a wife but a widow. When a dead chicken was found in her front hallway, she called the police.
“It’s a chicken,” an officer said. “What do you want us to do?”
“It’s a threat,” she said. “They are planning to kill my husband.”
“It looks fresh,” the officer said, pointing to the blood pooling from its headless body. “Maybe you can eat it for dinner.”
A bomb planted in Orlando Letelier’s automobile exploded, severing his legs and killing him instantly. It was revealed later that the killers were part of a cooperative effort in state terror (under the guise of counter terror) called Operation Condor carried out by Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil.
The CIA knew about Condor but did not prevent the assassinations. After Letelier was killed, the agency leaked inaccurate information to the press to divert attention.
Terrorism consists of violent illegal behaviors configured to the contours of perceived political necessity that justifies that violence and illegality. Terrorism can be carried out by state or non-state actors. It is a set of behaviors regardless of who does them.
Isabel Letelier spoke of friends showing her holes in their breasts where cigarettes had been repeatedly crushed out during interrogations, damaged legs on which they had been forced to stand for days, scars from electric shocks all over their bodies. They spoke of unspeakable indignities that made the flesh crawl.
“Flesh,” she said, “is so vulnerable. Our bodies are so available.”
She became obsessed with bodies.
The only defense of the flesh is the will and intention of a society not to permit its violation. It is not what we say that matters but what we do, and what we have often done is the worst that people can do. The track record is not good.
When Isabel Letelier was told of her husband’s murder, she gathered her four sons in her arms and made them swear that they would not hate. They would seek justice, yes, but they must not hate lest they too fall into the abyss.
I don’t know a good definition of spirituality but I know it when I see it.
That act by Isabel Letelier was the real thing.
Words in print, words on a monitor, are easy to mistake for the real thing. But this medium is reality once removed. It is words about torture, not torture. Words become real only when they become flesh.
Flesh is a thin envelope that opens to reveal our real beliefs when it is torn.
There were judges in Chile, the equivalent of “torture warrants,” the consensual fictions of a lawful society. That did not prevent the society from tumbling into the abyss.
A nation can not claim the high moral ground unless its words become flesh. Words read in a vague disconnected way from a teleprompter, words about meeting terror with terror … those words are a means of numbing the moral sense. They are not the real thing.
The real thing looks like a declaration on behalf of forgiveness and justice seamlessly fused in the prayer of a sobbing widow on her knees, holding her sons.
RICHARD THIEME speaks, writes and consults on the human dimensions of technology, work and our lives.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org