The Persian Gulf War has left all civilized people appalled at the terrible brutality used by Saddam Hussein's forces to suppress Kuwait. But it would be a mistake to dismiss such methodical violence as the aberrant behavior of one brutish Middle Eastern dictator. For a sad lesson of recent history is that Western governments also have shown themselves capable of comparable acts.
Last week, as most of the world celebrated the liberation of Kuwait, the people of Chile were being reminded of the darkest period of their recent history: 17 years under a repressive military government headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. The reminder is a tribute to Chile's new president, Patricio Aylwin. Democratically elected after Chileans enacted a new Constitution that forced Pinochet to step aside, he made public a report on the activities of Pinochet's secret police. It confirmed what most Chileans had fearfully suspected--that the general's minions detained, systematically tortured and even murdered his political opponents.
In often graphic detail, the report documents how suspected subversives were tortured with electric shocks or were forced to watch family members being beaten and raped. All told, 2,043 people were killed by Pinochet's secret police, many of their bodies dumped into the sea with the stomachs slit open so they would not float to the surface. Clearly--sadly--Saddam Hussein's forces are not the only thugs who used bestial behavior to terrorize a restive population.
The report, and how to handle it, is the greatest challenge facing Aylwin and his year-old government. He is under pressure from human-rights groups and relatives of the victims to prosecute those responsible for the torture campaign. But Aylwin still must deal with Pinochet as commander of the armed forces (the imperious general stepped aside only because the new constitution left him in charge of the army). The Chilean president also has to live with the frightening example of neighboring Argentina, where three military uprisings in five years show what can happen when civilian governments try to prosecute military men for crimes committed while in power.
So it is understandable that Aylwin might be tempted to take the safe course and not prosecute Pinochet and his thugs, opting to let this report stand as a damning historic record of the old regime's brutality. But that would send an unintended signal to authoritarians the world over--that democratic governments don't have the courage to punish officials who do terrible things under the cover of public interest or national security. That's not the message that was sent to Saddam Hussein. It's not the message to send Pinochet, either.