A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers. By Lawrence Weschler. Pantheon Books, 293 pages, $22.95 hardcover.
May 16, 1990        

At first, I saw no reason to read, much less review, Lawrence Weschler’s “A Miracle, a Universe: Settling Accounts With Torturers.” True, the “New Yorker” staff writer has produced some excellent journalism (collected in, among other books, “The Passion of Poland” and the prize-winning “Shapinsky’s Karma”, “Boggs’s Bills and Other True-Life Tales”). But I had read, I thought, enough about political brutality Bruno Bettelheim and Primo Levi on the Holocaust; Hannah Arendt on the psychology of totalitarianism; Jacobo Timerman’s grim memoir, “Prison Without a Name, Cell Without a Number”; Elaine Scarry’s curious phenomenology, “The Body in Pain” ; Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s monumental “Political Economy of Human Rights.” With even this not-very extensive background, would I really, I wondered, be moved or enlightened by another book on the subject?

My skepticism was groundless. As Weschler’s interviewees told their tales, I paced agitatedly, choked back tears, contemplated the torturers with fury or numb bewilderment. That is, I reacted exactly the way virtually anyone else would when confronted with such stories, however much he or she has read before, It’s hard to be blasé about torture.

Actually, “A Miracle, a Universe” is not chiefly about torture — there are 30 or 40 pages of harrowing description, but they are not the point of the book. It is mainly about the efforts of torture victims and human-rights activists in Brazil and Uruguay to document the repression each country suffered during its recent decade or so of military dictatorship: Brazil from 1964 to l979, Uruguay from 1973 to 1985. in both cases, those efforts were not merely admirable: they make far more absorbing reading than one might expect.

In July 1985 a modest looking volume entitled “Brazil Nunca Mais” (“Brazil: Never Again”) appeared in several São Paulo bookstores, it meticulously documented the torture of thousands of political prisoners from 1964 on. The report was compiled from the military regime’s own record; every file in the archives of the Supreme Military Court — 1 million pages on more than 7,000 prisoners — was checked out by lawyers supposedly researching the case, then photocopied, tabulated, crow-indexed and microfilmed. The office staff was changed several times during the six years the project was under way. The office itself was moved overnight three times — sometimes without telling the staff — when the organizers feared a security breach. The copied files were flown out of Brasília the military capital, and stored in São Paulo. Thirty people took part at one time or another, of whom only half a dozen (at their center a Presbyterian minister and a Catholic archbishop, with clandestine financial aid from the World Council of Churches) knew what was being produced. In a society under constant surveillance, the existence of this immense project was never suspected by the secret police. And with no publicity or promotion, “Brazil: Nunca Mais” became (and remains) the best-selling nonfiction book in the country’s history.

In Uruguay, after the partial restoration of civilian rule in 1985, the military insisted on and received amnesty for human-rights violations committed during their reign. But the amnesty law was extremely unpopular, so a campaign was begun to gather signatures for a referendum to repeal it. The military threatened first the organizers and then, as the movement gathered steam, the population; the politicians cajoled; and the government’s Referendum Commission imposed outlandish requirements on the campaign, drastically limited its access to media, made public the names of signatories in violation of its promises and finally began disqualifying signatures for no reason at all. After so much official interference, the referendum campaign still lacked a few thousand signatures the weekend before deadline. The story of how they were obtained, despite fierce electrical storms and even fiercer government harassment, is a cliffhanger. The referendum itself was an anticlimax: the proposal to repeal the amnesty law was defeated (though if the 10 or 15 percent of Uruguay’s adult population forced into exile had been allowed to vote, the outcome might well have been different). But the mere holding of the referendum, like the publication of “Brazil: Nunca Mais”, was the product of such extraordinary courage and ingenuity that it went some way toward healing the society, toward restoring its democratic self-confidence.

Weschler narrates these two episodes with skill and tact. But his comments about them, however intelligent, do not add up to an interpretation. This may be a proper discretion on Weschler’s part — no doubt he was decently reluctant to reduce the noble efforts he was reporting on to a mere occasion for propounding a thesis — or it may be a conventional (and misguided) notion of journalistic objectivity. In any case, we are left to make ultimate sense of this hideous history, to answer the urgent questions it presses on us, pretty much on our own.

Some at these hopelessly large but in escapable questions are: Is torture a symptom of cultural pathology? The sign of a society’s political immaturity, which will wither away as modernization proceeds? Or is institutionalized violence universal and only more or less well disguised, as Foucault and others have claimed? Where did the national security doctrine, which inspired the Latin American military’s murderous campaign against “subversion”, come from, and what makes a society vulnerable to totalitarian ideologies of this sort? How can civilian authority over the military — the sine qua non of democracy — be established beyond challenge and the insidious “professionalization” of the military—a global trend—be reversed? And the jackpot question (for the Third World, at any rate): Does capitalist development necessarily entail the suppression of trade unions, peasant unions and other popular organizations? Or is it only a historical contingency that virtually every instance of capitalist development so far has involved ferocious (though usually “legal”) violence by owners and managers against workers and the dispossessed? (Actually, this may soon be a live question for the former Second World as well. The dissident Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano summed up that country’s decade of dictatorship this: “People were in prison so that prices could be free.” One hopes his counterparts in Central Europe, currently passionate partisans of the free market, will profit by this insight.)

Of course, all such questions are blessedly irrelevant so the peaceful, prosperous First World, aren’t they? Here history has ended, as everyone knows — except, perhaps, a few worrywarts like Weschler. In a footnote be speculates:

“The economic crisis facing the United States today — the towering twin deficits, the increasing pauperization of a growing portion of our body politic, the continual draining of financial resources from productive investment into speculative frenzies — is obviously different in kind from the one that faced Uruguay in the early ‘60s. But the sheer inability of the political process in any way to come to terms with even the vaguest lines menu of the crisis — the timorous refusal of politicians in either party so frame issue, clearly and thereby offer citizens any real options, the reluctance of citizens to demand that they do so, the persistent recourse to serene obliviousness (from the “Morning Again in America” campaign of 1984 to the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” serenades of 1988) — these qualities are not at all unlike those which characterized the Uruguayan political scene in the years before their debacle. There are no Great Exceptions. Wherever it has appeared and endeavored to persist, democracy has always been the most fragile and most perishable of enterprises.”

This is judicious, historically in formed and morally sensitive — just the opposite of most neoconservative triumphalisim.

The heroism of Brazilian and Uruguayan democrats makes “A Miracle, A Universe” an inspiring book. Inspiration, however, is supposed to lead to action, not end in pious sentiment. The fact is, we American democrats also have some accounts to settle. As Weschler and other writers have made clear beyond doubt to anyone willing to know — which does not, apparently, include the editors of “The New York Times” and the “Washington Post” or the news executives of the major networks — the United States military bears consider able responsibility for the plague of torture and political murder that descended on Latin America in the last several decades. At the School of the Americas and the annual Conferences of American Armies, the United States, partly as a result of official hysteria over the Cuban Revolution, trained nearly ever senior Latin American military officer in “national security doctrine,” emphasizing counterinsurgency, countersubversion and intelligence — with what lethal consequences we now know.

Of course there were other indigenous sources of national-security doctrine. And the left, particularly in Uruguay, sometimes behaved with appalling recklessness, which provoked, even if it does not excuse, the repression. But a share of the responsibility rests with us. One occasion after another— Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973—the United States played an important part in establishing and maintaining some of the most vicious regimes in Latin American history. Regimes at least as violent as those whose recent overthrow in Central Europe we are all currently celebrating. Reparations in some form to the afflicted societies, and a strict reckoning with the Pentagon brass and civilian policymakers who laid the basis for terror in Central America and the Southern Cone, are minimum requirements of decency and democratic health.

Seems like a long shot, I admit. As once did Brazil: Nunca Mais to two Brazilian clerics and a national anti-amnesty referendum to a few doughty Uruguayans.