Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Saturn Devouring One of His Children

In 1964, the military in Brazil (with the support of the U.S. government) overthrew democratically elected president Joao Goulart and created a "national security state" under the rule of a succession of generals. The military dictatorship there would last until 1985. Kate Millett's The Politics of Cruelty, which I first mentioned in this post yesterday, prompted me to think about Brazil--along with Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, and other states that fell under the sway of the national security doctrine's perverted belief that the armed forces were required to defeat vast conspiracies inside the state. As I read Millett's comments about Argentine political prisoner Alicia Partnoy's memoir entitled The Little School and the Archdiocese of Sao Paulo's report entitled Torture in Brazil, the image of Francisco Goya's Saturn Devouring One of His Children came to mind. The painting, which I first saw in Madrid's Museo del Prado in 1979, depicts Saturn--Cronus in Greek mythology--grotesquely biting the arm off the headless torso of one of his sons. Saturn, who had seized power from his own father, Uranus, was obsessed by the prophecy that he would in turn be overthrown by his own offspring. He sought to avoid this fate by consuming each of his children at birth. Jupiter (Zeus), however, was hidden by his mother from Saturn and, in time, fulfilled the prophecy. [continued below]

Saturno devorando a un hijo
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Across much of Latin America from the 1960s to the 1980s the generals' exaggerated fears led them to devour thousands of their nations' children. In Argentina under the military regime, an estimated 30,000 people were "disappeared." (Consider Millett's linguistic reflection on Argentina's desaparecidos: "The ability to 'disappear' a human being is such an awesome power that the verb itself, grammatically intransitive, becomes transitive and now takes an object. A new passive is also created: one does not disappear, one is disappeared.") Eventually, the mothers of the disappeared--including the courageous Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina--acted, like Saturn's wife Ops, not only to save their children but to ensure that those devouring them would be overthrown.

The myth of Saturn and the twentieth-century history of the Latin American national security state both offer a cautionary tale about the dangers of succumbing to paranoia in the face of an intramural threat. It is a cautionary tale well worth heeding as we read that the London bombers were apparently British citizens. (Tomorrow's New York Times describes two of the suspects as, "in many ways, . . . British to the core.") If, as I believe, Al Qaeda's ideas (both its ideology and its strategy) are now more threatening than its institutional structure and if, as Robert A. Pape believes, the American military presence in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East is driving a new Al Qaeda campaign, then we can expect to see suicide bombers on this side of the Atlantic soon. How we respond, particularly under circumstances in which repeated attacks are carried out on American soil by American citizens, will determine whether we fall victim to some version of the national security doctrine that crippled many South American republics for a generation or more.

I fear that a state that is willing both to wage preemptive war and to torture foreigners when faced with a serious external threat may be tempted to begin devouring its own if it believes there is also a serious internal threat. As much as I would like to say that it can't happen here, I hesitate to do so because I recall that at one time both preemptive war and torture seemed to me to be beyond the pale for the United States of America.