Elizabeth DeVisser: Celebrating dictators a slippery slope

“Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong.”

A Patriot Prayer member displayed this slogan last Saturday, when the group, supported by white supremacists, held a rally in Portland. This person’s ideals terrify me — not due to choice of clothing or promotion of hate, but because Augusto Pinochet was a vicious dictator.

Pinochet’s domination over the Chilean people was characterized by two decades of state-sanctioned violence and the murder of scores of his political opponents. I know this because I helped identify some of his victims.

Once Chile became a democracy in 1990, its Justice Department created a special division devoted to the victims of Pinochet’s brutality — the Humanos Derechos or Human Rights Department. It was staffed by an amazing group of scientists dedicated to identifying the remains of the Desaparecidos — the legions of people who “disappeared” during Pinochet’s regime.

Political dissidents targeted by Pinochet’s government were often young men and women the age of my students at Linfield College. People were detained, raped, beaten, shot, stabbed and even thrown alive from airplanes during a campaign that promised “Free Helicopter Rides for Political Dissidents.”

Guest Writer

Elizabeth DeVisser served as a death investigator and forensic anthropologist before returning to her alma mater in McMinnville to become coordinator of the anatomy lab. During a tour in Chile, she worked with a team dedicated to identifying victims of the bloody dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

His supporters said he would never do that. He did.

Man’s inhumanity to man was evident on each person I examined. Every victim showed evidence of torture.

They endured trauma horrendous enough to leave evidence of their pain on their bones. Some of their bodies were tossed into rivers, others buried in unmarked mass graves.

The largest grave, Patio 29, lay within the Santiago General Cemetery. It contained the remains of hundreds of unidentified Chileans.

As if mass graves weren’t terrible enough, Pinochet also established more than 1,170 concentration camps, spread throughout the country.

The slogan worn by Saturday’s proclaimed patriot scares me because language matters.

Americans love the First Amendment, especially the part about free speech. But speech doesn’t come without responsibilities or consequences.

Dictators use demeaning, demoralizing and dehumanizing language to create a scapegoat, an “other.” They use this language against their fellow citizens, whether they be journalists, teachers, minorities or immigrants. The young people I examined were tortured by their government because they were deemed the enemy.

Here in the U.S., our president praises dictators like Kim Jong Un, while insulting our allies and branding fellow citizens the “enemy of the people.” He has used language to demean women, black people, Hispanics, Native Americans and non-Christians.

Democracies die by a thousand cuts. Are the president’s remarks just one more cut, one more step toward America becoming a country of mass graves and concentration camps?

I don’t know. But I would rather not find out.

The Chilean people paid a terrible price to win back their democracy.

Your vigilance and your voice can help ensure that our own strong democracy remains free from tyranny.


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