FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Remembering the Disappeared

Photo by Dan Buck | CC BY 2.0

Of the 2,753 victims of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, no physical trace has been found for 1,112 of them. Thus, for 40 percent of those who died that day, no remains have been returned to their families. In the aftermath of the carnage, some people exhibited photos, family snapshots, of those who had vanished and remained unaccounted for, despite the efforts of the authorities.

What could be more natural than to seek information that would, at least, offer clarity and closure, surcease to the mind and heart? As long as there was no body to mourn, there was always a desperate shred of belief that perhaps the loved one might somehow have survived. Any bereavement is hard enough, but when someone has disappeared, seemingly annihilated from the face of the earth, it becomes unbearable.

When I was growing up, I had always heard the Spanish verb “desaparecer” used intransitively: “Se desapareció mi libro,” my book disappeared somewhere, my mother or my father would say, as if it had somehow mislaid itself. Years later, after the Chilean military coup of Sept. 11, 1973, we learned a sinister new usage. Around 1974, like others who had gone into exile to escape the dictatorship, my wife and I began to hear a transitive version of the verb coming from our country: “lo desaparecieron” or “la desaparecieron,” they disappeared him or her.

“Desaparecer” became a verb that, far from being passive, described a ferocious act of violence and dissimulation. Agents of the state were kidnapping opponents of the regime and then denying their relatives any knowledge of their whereabouts. The verb’s new meaning was a response to a particularly cruel form of terror: Those in power were eliminating anyone they considered a threat while whitewashing their responsibility for the persecutions. The abductors wanted to spread fear — Will I be next? Will my son, my parents, my spouse? — and simultaneously claim there was no human rights abuse.

But this monstrous criminality incited its own form of resistance. The families, primarily the mothers, of the “desaparecidos,” the disappeared, were not going to let their dear ones fade into the darkness. In the years that followed, the world witnessed how those relatives stood up to the authorities, demanding that the detained be returned alive or, if they had been murdered, that their bodies be released for a proper burial and commemoration. Emblematic of this resistance were the photos pinned to the dresses of women or held aloft on placards at rallies or silent marches that were often savagely repressed.

Though such acts of defiance had their start in Chile and Argentina in the mid-1970s, they soon became globalized, as globalized as the terror they were protesting. Over the decades, families in Afghanistan and Myanmar, Ethiopia and Cyprus, to the more recent cases of Syria, Yemen and Mexico, adopted the same tactics, a determined attempt to memorialize the missing.

In time, it was not just the victims of political brutality who were, in some sense, kept fiercely alive in this way. In the 1980s, after our family had moved to the United States, we were surprised to see the images of youngsters on milk cartons, placed at the behest of parents whose children had disappeared. The context was very different — unlike in Chile, in America the police were allies in the search for the missing — but the impulse to call attention to the lost loved one was something we recognized with a shudder. We could identify with the pain felt by those families, the uncertainty and bewilderment corroding their existence.

Despite the disparity in circumstances, the photos staring at consumers from peaceful milk cartons in the United States and the photos paraded by relatives of the desaparecidos who were beaten and jailed and persecuted for demanding justice, shared a very human trait. They wanted to make visible the face and fate of someone who could not speak for himself or herself, and to enlist the wider citizenry in a quest for the truth.

It is that communion across borders, a bond of grief between some of the most and least fortunate people in the world, that makes the idea of bearing witness to the disappeared powerful and universal, and especially relevant right now. At this crossroads in history, the disappearance that was inflicted on a sliver of the earth’s population could now be perpetrated against all humanity, dragging into the void every other species as well. The very extinction of our world, whether by thermonuclear war or from unstoppable man-made climate change, is ominously possible.

The vanishing we face would apply not just to the billions breathing at this moment, but to those generations that lived before us and the legions of the unborn yet to come. All of them, all of us, “desaparecidos.”

In these circumstances, we should look to the families of the disappeared for guidance and courage. Despite the price they paid for struggling against indifference and fear, they refused to let death have the last word. Perhaps we, too, should pin to our clothes the photos of those most precious to us.

If we do not make visible all who would be perpetually disappeared, if we do not find the means to force the powerful to listen and reverse course, humanity will be engulfed in an apocalypse on an infinitely greater scale than the Sept. 11 attacks. Everything and everyone we love would be reduced to dust in a planet emptied of life and laughter, forever.

But we can still refuse to be disappeared. It starts by depriving disappearance of our complicity or resignation.

This column originally appeared in the New York Times.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
June 22, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Karl Grossman
Star Wars Redux: Trump’s Space Force
Andrew Levine
Strange Bedfellows
Jeffrey St. Clair
Intolerable Opinions in an Intolerant Time
Paul Street
None of Us are Free, One of Us is Chained
Edward Curtin
Slow Suicide and the Abandonment of the World
Celina Stien-della Croce
The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People 
James Bovard
Pro-War Media Deserve Slamming, Not Sainthood
Louisa Willcox
My Friend Margot Kidder: Sharing a Love of Dogs, the Wild, and Speaking Truth to Power
David Rosen
Trump’s War on Sex
Mir Alikhan
Trump, North Korea, and the Death of IR Theory
Christopher Jones
Neoliberalism, Pipelines, and Canadian Political Economy
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned?
Robert Fantina
MAGA, Trump Style
Linn Washington Jr.
Justice System Abuses Mothers with No Apologies
Martha Rosenberg
Questions About a Popular Antibiotic Class
Ida Audeh
A Watershed Moment in Palestinian History: Interview with Jamal Juma’
Edward Hunt
The Afghan War is Killing More People Than Ever
Geoff Dutton
Electrocuting Oral Tradition
Don Fitz
When Cuban Polyclinics Were Born
Ramzy Baroud
End the Wars to Halt the Refugee Crisis
Ralph Nader
The Unsurpassed Power trip by an Insuperable Control Freak
Lara Merling
The Pain of Puerto Ricans is a Profit Source for Creditors
James Jordan
Struggle and Defiance at Colombia’s Feast of Pestilence
Tamara Pearson
Indifference to a Hellish World
Kathy Kelly
Hungering for Nuclear Disarmament
Jessicah Pierre
Celebrating the End of Slavery, With One Big Asterisk
Rohullah Naderi
The Ever-Shrinking Space for Hazara Ethnic Group
Binoy Kampmark
Leaving the UN Human Rights Council
Nomi Prins 
How Trump’s Trade Wars Could Lead to a Great Depression
Robert Fisk
Can Former Lebanese MP Mustafa Alloush Turn Even the Coldest of Middle Eastern Sceptics into an Optimist?
Franklin Lamb
Could “Tough Love” Salvage Lebanon?
George Ochenski
Why Wild Horse Island is Still Wild
Ann Garrison
Nikki Haley: Damn the UNHRC and the Rest of You Too
Jonah Raskin
What’s Hippie Food? A Culinary Quest for the Real Deal
Raouf Halaby
Give It Up, Ya Mahmoud
Brian Wakamo
We Subsidize the Wrong Kind of Agriculture
Patrick Higgins
Children in Cages Create Glimmers of the Moral Reserve
Patrick Bobilin
What Does Optimism Look Like Now?
Don Qaswa
A Reduction of Economic Warfare and Bombing Might Help 
Robin Carver
Why We Still Need Pride Parades
Jill Richardson
Immigrant Kids are Suffering From Trauma That Will Last for Years
Thomas Mountain
USA’s “Soft” Coup in Ethiopia?
Jim Hightower
Big Oil’s Man in Foreign Policy
Louis Proyect
Civilization and Its Absence
David Yearsley
Midsummer Music Even the Nazis Couldn’t Stamp Out
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail