Monday, October 7, 2013

Tyrants, Major and Petty

I am nowhere near the point of packing a survival kit and a gun (if I had one) and high-tailing it for the back country. But I do have a healthy nervousness about the size and power of government.

That is not the same thing as having something against people who happen to be employed by the government. The fact is that governments provide many services that are necessary or desirable for our quality of life. And I also understand that many government employees are dedicated professionals who do their best and not always under easy conditions. And in the case of those on the front lines, like police and firefighters, some actually expected to put their lives at risk to protect others.

But I have to admit to a certain amount of nervousness about all the information collected by agencies like the NSA and about abuses of power by the Internal Revenue Service. And, yes, I’m a bit nervous about the centralized government-run information system being built with the aim of accumulating medical information on every person in the country.

This nervousness isn’t born of small things like the inconvenience of waiting in a long queue at the driver’s license office or from the headaches involved in filing a tax return. It comes from reading things like history books and the writings of Franz Kafka. It also comes partly from dealing with bureaucrats and authorities in the various countries where I’ve lived over the years and from hearing the horror stories from others in those countries.

Free and democratic elections and an unfettered and skeptical press are indispensable for keeping a government’s powers in check. I’ve only lived in one place where the government’s power was not held in check. That was in Pinochet’s Chile in the 1970s.

As a foreign student who was sponsored by a well-established international organization and who was intent on having no political involvement, I did not feel particularly at risk while there. In fact, as I’ve written before, because of the strict regime of military law and order I actually felt personally safer there than in other countries. But in minor ways I did experience the effects of a government that was unchecked.

I was reminded of this recently when I happened to read of the suicide of General Odlanier Mena. During the year I lived in Chile, he took over the benignly named National Information Center (CNI). This replaced the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA), which had been established by Pinochet in 1974. The change had to do partly with the fact that, in the years immediately following the military coup that ousted Salvador Allende, the DINA had acquired a sinister reputation. Not only did it gather and keep information on citizens but it also had a paramilitary wing and secret police force that were associated with disappearances and torture. The CNI, if anything, wielded even more power than the DINA since it also had significant judicial powers.

General Mena ran the CNI from 1977 to 1980. Five years ago his retirement was interrupted when he was tried and convicted because of his role in the killing of three leftists shortly after the coup in 1973 while he was commander of an army regiment in Arica, near the Bolivian border.

The general had been serving his sentence at the Cordillera Detention Center in Santiago, a facility where inmates received preferential treatment. According to The New York Times, Cordillera’s ten inmates—which included Mena’s predecessor, Manuel Contreras Sepúlveda, and other DINA and CNI commanders—lived “in five cabins—each with a private bathroom—on grounds that include a tennis court.” The English-language Santiago Times described Cordillera as “luxurious.”

Mena had recently learned that he would be transferred to a less plush prison because of a decision by President Sebastián Piñera to close the Cordillera facility. During a weekend leave at his home, the 87-year-old prisoner shot himself in the head with his own gun, which was registered to him as “a collector’s item.”

I am sure there are many who feel that Mena and his colleagues got off way too easy. But, beyond the fact that they were eventually convicted of committing murders, there also seems to be at least some kind of cosmic justice in the fact that these men in charge of making other people’s lives hell have been spending the end of their lives as the unwilling guests of government functionaries.

Personally, I had only one brush with the CNI. It came at the end of my year in Chile. To leave the country I had to acquire an exit visa. That required an interview with the CNI. Mostly, they wanted to make sure that I didn’t owe any unpaid taxes, but there really wasn’t a limit on whatever else they wanted to delve into. As I nervously sat down for my interview, four framed photographs of the members of the military junta looked down at me from behind my interrogator.

It turned out there was a hitch, as I have previously written. Weeks earlier a border official had refused to stamp my passport when I had entered Chile from Argentina. For a couple of uncomfortable days, it looked as though I might wind up a prisoner of some kind of bureaucratic nightmare.

When it was finally sorted out, I had a good laugh over how silly the government was with all its rules and its slavish attention to forms and stamps and having all the right signatures. I could afford to laugh because, after all, I was never really in any danger of being locked up with no hope of release. There were plenty of others who were not so lucky.

Still, the experience was nerve-wracking enough that I have never since lost my sense of foreboding when it comes to the power of bureaucrats sitting behind desks who do not answer to anybody other than a chain of command that is unbothered by democratic institutions.

Even when they ostensibly answer to an elected government, bureaucrats can still wield their bit of arbitrary power over you when you are in the uncomfortable position of needing them to use their stamp or signing pen.

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