I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Washington Post and authoritarianism -- then and now

The more one thinks about The Washington Post's warm editorial embrace yesterday of Augusto Pinochet (as well as its affirmation of Jeane Kirkpatrick's general affection for right-wing dictatorships), the more extraordinary it seems. Few events illustrate quite as vividly the complete corruption of our journalistic institutions, as well as just how fundamentally the political spectrum has shifted over the last decade, and particularly during the Bush presidency.

Both in theory and in practice, The Washington Post -- as the most influential newspaper in the nation's capital -- has been a vitally important check on the power of the federal government. Its greatest successes and contributions have been when it has acted as an adversarial force balancing abuses of power by national political officials. That is the core function which newspapers are intended to perform, and the Post has a long and illustrious history of performing it as well as any other newspaper.

Those who have political power are naturally seduced by the temptations of tyranny. That's why our entire system of government is structured so as to provide as many mechanisms as possible to check and limit that temptation, with newspapers being one of the most critical opposing forces. Politicians will naturally err on the side of exceeding the proper limits of their power, and balance is achieved when adversarial branches -- led by newspapers -- err on the side of opposing audacious and novel exercises of government power.

That is why it is so jarring and amazing to read the Editorial Page of the Washington Post -- in the form of Fred Hiatt -- defend and laud one of the most vicious and reprehensible tyrants of the last 30 years.

What kind of media do we have where one of the most prominent editorial voices views the slaughter of political opponents, pervasive torture, death squads, state-sponsored terrorism, military coups, and merciless, bloody tyranny as nothing more than some necessary, perhaps unfortunate measures, benevolently invoked to preserve order and mitigated -- even justified -- by the pursuit of free market economics? That is just perverse for anyone to argue, but particularly perverse for a newspaper editorial page.

It is not the least bit surprising to see the National Review hold a "symposium" in which its authoritarian-loving participants gush with admiration for the lawless and violent despotism of Augusto Pinochet. That is who they are.

But to see the "centrist" Post Editorial Board join them in paying homage to this despicable, murderous dictator -- a tyrant who, even ten years after his coup, was so brutal and inhumane that even the dictator-loving Reagan administration eventually tried to help push him out of power -- reveals all one needs to know about how radical our political dialogue and newspapers have been transformed in a relatively short period of time.

Just compare yesterday's pro-Pinochet Post Editorial to what the pre-Fred Hiatt/Donald Graham Washington Post used to say about Augusto Pinochet -- there are all from the Editorial Page (via NEXIS):

September 11, 1983:

Some tens of thousands of Chileans were killed outside the law, many others were imprisoned and exiled, the natural political tendencies of the country were suppressed, and an economic system was imposed that has meant extreme hardship for most of the people.

For turning a national crisis into an excuse for personal dictatorship, Gen. Pinochet will not be forgiven. It explains why most of his countrymen, believing his continuance in power to be a national disgrace, have turned against him now.

November 25, 1984:

TO CONTINUED criticism of its harsh state of siege, Chile's government responds by pointing to the spread of terrorism in the country in recent months. . . .

Of the hundreds of Chileans arrested and either detained or sent into internal exile, none -- at least until yesterday's massive police sweeps -- has been charged as a terrorist. The independent organizations, meanwhile, are convinced that Gen. Pinochet exploited the threat of terrorism to default on his pledges of liberalization.

Over a period of years, moreover, much of Gen. Pinochet's rule has deserved to be called state-sponsored terrorism: murders, disappearances, torture.

April 12, 1985:

Is Chile going back to the death squads? Seven political opponents of the Pinochet regime were seized on the streets in broad daylight the other day. Three were found dead the next morning, their throats cut, and four were released, having been tortured. . . .

Nearly 15 years after Gen. Pinochet seized power, Chile is foundering. Even before last month's cruel earthquake, the Chilean "economic miracle," which was just the opposite of a miracle to the classes that paid for it, had long since yielded to pervasive hardship, depression, inflation and indebtedness.

April 13, 1986:

Human rights conditions in Chile, which had gravely deteriorated in 1984, remained at least as poor if not worse in 1985 despite the lifting June 16 of the seven-month state of siege. Abuses in the country occurred on such a broad scale throughout the year that Pinochet's rights record ranks Chile as the worst violator in South America . . . .

July 9, 1986:

THE CHANCE DEATH of a 19-year-old with Washington connections has given Americans a rare glimpse of the condition of state terrorism prevailing in Chile. Rodrigo Rojas graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School and recently returned to visit his native country, which his mother had fled as a political refugee.

He was in a group of students entering one of the slums that army units regularly invade and terrorize. Soldiers grabbed him and a companion, beat them, doused them with an inflammable fluid, set them afire and dumped them by a road. When they were finally brought to a hospital, they were denied suitable treatment. Mr. Rojas died last Sunday.

October 31, 1986:

THERE IS near universal agreement among political people in Chile and elsewhere in the Americas that President Augusto Pinochet ought to leave office before he drives Chile into a renewal of civil war. . . . So far, however, President Pinochet has managed to use terrorism as a rationale for his own continued strongman rule.

March 19, 1987 -- HEADLINE: The Chilean Torture Master

CHILE HAS a military dictator who, quite incredibly, may be planning to extend a rule that began in 1973 to nearly the year 2000. . . . But it is easy to see one of the things President Pinochet is doing along the way. He is using violence on detained terrorist and political suspects in newly enlarged and vicious ways.

Torture seems to have been routine in Gen. Pinochet's Chile from the start. But a run of terrorist actions against his regime last fall, including an assassination attempt, produced a surge of horrors by the security police of the CNI.. . .

Gen. Pinochet always contrives to look stern and well turned out in his public poses. Can you imagine this man -- acting through his CNI -- beating, shocking and drugging prisoners, forcing them and their kin to watch each other suffer unimaginable abuses, shoving live rats into their mouths?

Chile, remember, is not the sort of unorganized place where a leader could plausibly claim that, for 14 years, no less, he didn't know what his police were up to. . . .

It is terrible that President Pinochet keeps his country from returning promptly to its democratic traditions. But torture is an unforgivable abuse, and his practice of it deprives him of any claim on the respect of decent people anywhere.

October 20, 1998:

The arrest of Gen. Pinochet is being protested partly on the basis that "no legal respect for his position is being applied." The irony is cutting: This plea is being made for the officer responsible for arresting, killing, terrorizing and torturing large numbers of Chilean (and Argentine and Spanish) citizens without an iota of legal respect for their positions. In Santiago, the general was able to contrive a soft landing for his dictatorship on Chilean soil; this is how he comes to be living in comfortable and even, in some quarters, respected retirement.

But in London a striking example has now been set of international collaboration in the pursuit of alleged war-crimes violators who desert their domestic havens. If it is carried through, the arrest of Gen. Pinochet will be a model for extending political accountability internationally for a range of grievous offenses committed at home.

When the Post editorialized that "for turning a national crisis into an excuse for personal dictatorship, Gen. Pinochet will not be forgiven" -- and that Pinochet's torture "deprives him of any claim on the respect of decent people anywhere" -- it probably would never have believed that a mere 19 years later, Pinochet would be able to claim exactly such respect and forgiveness from the Post's own Editorial Page Editor.

But in 2006 Establishment Washington, things like torture and unlawful, arbitrary detentions are really not all that bothersome -- not just when wielded by third-world dictators, but by the U.S. itself. At worst, they're just some isolated "excesses" and flaws which only shrill, partisan hysterics object to in moralistic and outraged tones.

Careful, serious, somber "centrists" like Fred Hiatt understand that rulers sometimes need to get their hands a little dirty, unburden themselves from the effete constraints of law and civilized norms, in order to preserve the proper order of things. Thus, a history of state-sponsored torture, murder and tyranny -- while undesirable and all -- can be dismissed away with a deeply amoral "however" ("It's hard not to notice, however, that the evil dictator leaves behind the most successful country in Latin America") or by some sort of depraved comparison to something that is allegedly worse ("ultimately less malign than communist rulers").

The disintegration of our nation's media -- likely the single greatest enabling factor that allowed the President to drag the nation to war in Iraq -- is glaring, and is demonstrated by so many events. But few events demonstrate it as profoundly as that Washington Post editorial yesterday, particularly when it is contrasted to what the Post editorial page was only a decade ago.

In the 1980s, Jeane Kirkpatrick's defense of authoritarian dictators was a radical and extremist right-wing position even in the right-wing Reagan administration. It is now the officially embraced position of the Washington Post Editorial Page -- "She, too, was vilified by the left. Yet by now it should be obvious: She was right" -- the Page which lies at the heart of the "liberal" national media.

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