9/11 & American Exceptionalism

NOTE:  This piece originally ran for the anniversary of Sept. 11th.

When people speak of American exceptionalism, it is generally understood to mean that Americans believe that our way of living, governing, thinking–our very way of being–is superior to and unique among, anything that has come before or will come after.  That’s certainly an accurate understanding, but I would argue that it extends even further.  American exceptionalism also declares that American deaths are more tragic than the deaths of anyone who has ever been or will ever be.  The treatment of September 11th of 2001 is a prime example of this mode of thinking.

As we approach the 11th anniversary of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, I expect to see the American Tragedy played out over and over.  I expect to hear about America the Victim.  I expect the celebration of vengeance against Bin Laden.  I don’t expect to hear about any of America’s victims, though.  Not even those who died as a result of another 9/11.

Salvadore Allende Gossens was the 29th President of Chile.  Allende ran for the presidency, and took a plurality in the three-way race for the office.  He was declared the winner of the election because his 36.3% of the vote was greater than that of either of his two opponents.  He took office in November of 1970, becoming, in the words of the BBC, the world’s first democratically elected Marxist president.  Even before his election, the U.S. began trying to destabilize Chile.

The election of Allende was viewed in Washington as a significant setback to United States interests worldwide. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger was particularly concerned about the implications for European politics of the free election of a Marxist in Chile. Responding to these fears and a concern for growing Soviet influence in the Western Hemisphere, the United States embarked on a covert campaign to prevent Allende from gaining office and to destabilize his government after his election was ratified.

A devoted member of Chile’s Socialist party, he was actively involved in Chilean politics for 40 years.  His big sin?  He enraged the Americans by nationalizing industry and beginning the process of Socialist collectivization.  For that, he had to die.  His fall would come on September 11, 1973.  Despite claims to the contrary, it has long been suspected and is now being verified by declassified documents, that the coup was instigated and coordinated by the C.I.A.  The people of Chile would pay the price for decades to come.

[B]ecause of CIA covert intervention in Chile, and the repressive character of General Pinochet’s rule, the coup became the most notorious military takeover in the annals of Latin American history.

After the C.I.A. helped bring about the the American goal on Chile–that is, the violent overthrow of their elected leader–they helped install Augusto Pinochet Ugarte in power.  Pinochet’s brutality was legendary.  And fully supported by the U.S. until the election of Jimmy Carter.  Carter scolded Pinochet, but didn’t force him to step down, despite the horrific human rights abuses and war crimes committed by the Pinochet government.

His years in power were marked by inflation, poverty and the ruthless repression of opposition leaders. Pinochet was also involved in Operation Condor, a co-operative effort on the part of several South American governments to do away with leftist opposition leaders, often by means of murder. 

Even the U.S. opposition to Pinochet under Carter wouldn’t last.  When Ronald Reagan came to power, Pinochet was back in good graces.

Reagan argued that anticommunist authoritarian regimes should not be antagonized for fear that they might be undermined, leading to the triumph of a Marxist left, as in Nicaragua.

While Pinochet would eventually fall, the U.S. ties to the capitalist classes in Chile have remained strong.  In the early 1990s, I took a Spanish language course at our local community college.  My teacher was Chilean.  She recounted to me how her sister, a Leftist, spent years in prison under Pinochet’s rule.  Even after Pinochet left, her sister talked about how the corporate leaders in Chile would play the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the beginning of each work day.  These people, the class that had supported the brutal Pinochet regime, knew on which side their bread was buttered.

Before and during Allende’s rule, the stated goal of the U.S. was to destroy the Chilean economy.  In the words of Richard Nixon, they wanted to “make the economy scream”.  During Pinochet’s rule, his economic “plan” was actually run by American-educated economists known as the “Chicago Boys”.  The U.S.-backed plan was horrible for the Chilean people, but great for the wealthy in both countries.  While Americans called it “The Miracle of Chile”, “these reforms also led to a decline in wages and a spike in unemployment.”  Once again, we are shown how the gains of the monied classes do not mean that the workers or peasants will see any improvement in their lives.  It’s a lesson that we in America should think about as we prepare for the upcoming election.

In 1990, Pinochet would finally be forced out of power. Al Jazeera reports that “[h]is dictatorship caused the death or disappearance of more than 3,200 people, and another 37,000 people were imprisoned and tortured during the general’s 17-year rule, according to human rights organisations.” He was put on trial by Spain for his crimes, but died before he could be convicted.  Yesterday, the Chilean people took to the streets to remember their 9/11.  In the U.S., we refuse to even acknowledge that it happened.

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