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Why did Osama bin Laden choose September 11 for his attack on America?
On September 11, 1973 a military coup d’état supported by the administration of President Richard M. Nixon in the United States put an end to the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. After the coup Nixon supported both diplomatically and economically the military Junta that seized power. The junta, led by Augusto Pinochet, arrested, tortured and murdered thousands of Allende’s supporters.
It is not farfetched, therefore, to suppose bin Laden chose September 11 in order to make us look like the pot calling the kettle black when we charged him with being an antidemocratic religious fundamentalist. And if that is the case the choice was well made.
In the past the U.S. supported the repressive regimes of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, Suharto in Indonesia and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. In addition it helped to overthrow the democratically elected governments of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala. Yet as a textbook example of how the U.S. has violated human rights and the enlightenment ideals embodied in its constitution while undermining democracy and the rule of law in another country nothing surpasses Chile.
Chile before the coup was the most democratic country in Latin America and one of the most democratic countries in the world. It had a democratically elected President and a democratically elected two house legislature, an independent judiciary, a free and active press, and prestigious universities. Allende ran for President in 1952, 1958, and 1964 but it wasn’t until 1970 when he ran as the candidate of a coalition of parties called the Popular Unity that he finally won.
During the time Allende was President the opposition published six daily newspapers in Santiago with a weekday circulation of 541,000 while pro-government forces published only 5 with a circulation of 312,000. Additionally, the opposition controlled the majority of radio stations and most of the newspapers and magazines circulating outside of Santiago. Nevertheless, in the congressional elections that took place six months before the coup the Popular Unity parties that supported Allende picked up six seats in the house and two seats in the Senate.
Yet despite Allende’s popularity and respect for the democratic process, powerful heads of multinational corporations with disproportionate influence in Washington were hostile to him. They were hostile before he was elected because he threatened to nationalize their investments in Chile and hostile after he was elected because he carried out his threats.
Consequently, when Allende ran for President in 1964 President Johnson ordered the CIA to support a propaganda campaign to discredit him. Then, after a similar campaign failed in 1970 President Nixon and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger directed the CIA to promote a coup d’état. And finally, after the coup took place, Nixon and Kissinger looked the other way as the military Junta led by Pinochet unleashed a wave of violence and repression far worse than anything Chileans imagined could occur.
Thousands of Allende’s supporters were arrested, tortured and murdered. Thousands more were exiled. The Congress and labor unions were abolished. Political parties were banned. The press was censored. Military officials were appointed as rectors of the universities. Books were burned. The music of popular folk singers was prohibited and Victor Jara, one of the best known of those singers, was arrested, tortured and killed.
Hence if Osama bin Laden wanted to make the point that the United States lacks credibility as an arbiter of democracy he could not have chosen a better date to carry out his attack on America than September 11. That may be a hard pill for us to swallow but swallow it we must if we are to learn from the past and work to change our image so others view us as a country whose actions in the international arena reflect our democratic ideals.
PAUL CANTOR is a professor of economics at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut.