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It’s Time the United States Accounts for Its History of Torture

Photo by Debra Sweet | CC BY 2.0

President Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel to head the CIA has stirred objections from many quarters. After 9/11, Haspel ran an illegal black site in Thailand where a man was tortured, and she later wrote a memo calling for the destruction of proof of such “enhanced interrogations.” She has paid no price for these actions, nor has she been called to account for them.

As a native of Chile, I can attest to how difficult it is for a people to confront horrors committed in their name, how disturbing to acknowledge a monstrous past. But that hard work of reckoning is crucial.

In 1973, Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile, was overthrown by the military. During the 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet that followed, legions of Allende’s followers, accused of being terrorists and enemies of the state, were unspeakably brutalized in secret detention centers run by agents of Chile’s intelligence services. More than 3,000 prisoners were executed, and close to 40,000 were traumatized and scarred for life.

The majority of the perpetrators were men, but a large contingent were women. Some of those women worked in the bureaucracy that made possible the reign of terror, pushing paper or serving coffee and cookies. Some were directly involved in the kidnapping, torture and murder of the regime’s opponents. Just as cruel as their male counterparts, they proved especially efficacious in humiliating the detainees sexually and extracting information from them.

Reports based on interviews and court proceedings show that most of those female torturers joined the security forces early on. In January 1974, barely four months after the coup d’état, 70 women spent three months being trained as secret police in Rocas de Santo Domingo, a resort on the Pacific Ocean, incongruously occupying the very cabins that Allende had built so workers and their families could enjoy vacations by the sea for the first time in their lives. The female agents had been carefully selected by Ingrid Oldebrock, a Nazi sympathizer and police officer who would soon become notorious for, among other niceties, using a dog nicknamed Volodia to rape prisoners. Survivors told investigators that her protégés and disciples engaged in more traditional forms of torture: beatings, waterboarding, electrical shocks to the genitals, threats levied against families, and false executions. The justification for such atrocities? Duty, the agents later claimed, and defense of the fatherland.

A book by Javier Rebolledo, based on the testimony of a secret police informant, among other sources, described some of the crimes committed by women: Lethal injections administered to detainees who were then cast from helicopters into the sea. Men sexually assaulted as they hung by their wrists from the ceiling. Prisoners attacked sadistically by a tormentor who made sure no blood stained her elegant dresses.

It took many decades before the major role of women in the worst abuses was fully accepted by the public. It was as if Chileans found it particularly shameful, even far-fetched, that women could be as vile as men, that there was nothing inherently gentle about the so-called gentler sex. Eventually, the terrible truth was inescapable: No part of society is immune to the contagion of violence. National commissions took testimony that documented the outrages inflicted by women; articles and books were published; television series fictionalized the repression; and some of the worst offenders were tried and imprisoned for their crimes.

Of course, the women, as well as the far guiltier men who were responsible for ordering and perpetrating the acts of terror, have their defenders, who, though lamenting the “excesses” of a “few bad apples,” insist that the secret police and their deeds were necessary to save the country from communism. But these are a minority. Most of my compatriots understand that torture was highly organized and systematic, part of an illegal and immoral program ordered and condoned by the highest authorities of the country. The soul searching that has accompanied such a realization, we hope, ensures that such abominations will never be repeated.

Very little soul searching about “enhanced interrogations” has taken place in the United States. It’s one reason Trump could be elected despite declaring that he would bring back “waterboarding and a hell of a lot worse.” In Chile and other countries that have suffered sustained state-sponsored terror, such words would ignite a firestorm of outrage, disqualifying anyone seeking higher office. And yet here, an ignorant man who believes, against all evidence, that “torture works,” chooses a black site supervisor to run the CIA and gets away with it.

It may seem unfair to compare Haspel’s less direct actions with those of her intimately vicious Chilean counterparts. She oversaw a site where at least one detainee was waterboarded, and she wrote a memo calling for the destruction of 90 videotapes.

In my view, Haspel, if she was aware of what was going on at the Thailand site, would be as guilty as Pinochet’s secret police of crimes against humanity. Treaties to which the United States is a signatory were flouted. She oversaw a chamber of horrors and was involved in erasing the evidence. In Chile, those actions would be prosecuted, and Haspel might end up jail.

I doubt that anything of the sort will happen in the United States. And yet, appalled as I am by the possibility that Haspel may be confirmed, I am hopeful too. Trump’s misbegotten nomination presents a unique chance for Americans to finally engage in a national dialogue about the torture they allowed to happen, grappling with how its existence and acceptance, by women as well as men, can corrupt the well-being of the nation.

This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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