Rattling with Implications


Terrorism and torture, those twin nightmares of modern life, seemed before 9/11 to exist, somehow, out there. Terrorism was a Middle Eastern and North African phenomenon, mostly, and torture a South American specialty. Of course neither could really be confined geographically. There were terrorists in Northern Ireland, Italy, and Sri Lanka, and torturers in Iran, North Vietnam, and Uganda. Still, for those of us who remember the 20th century, the terrorist was PLO and the torturer worked for a Latin American military dictator, views reinforced by three offerings in this issue. And yet, because it is no longer possible to think of terrorism or torture as existing at a distance, each of the articles rattles with implications for the here and now.

Consider Bruce Falconer’s impressive piece of narrative reporting, “The Torture Colony.” It focuses on a truly evil man named Paul Schaefer, a German who moved to Chile in the 1960s with a group of followers and set up a community with the Orwellian name Colonia Dignidad. Orwellian because what Schaefer did there was the opposite of conferring dignity upon his colonists. He sexually abused the children, intimidated the adults both physically and mentally, and taught them to terrorize one another. And when General Augusto Pinochet, an admirer of the Nazi way of doing things, became president of Chile after the military coup in 1973, Schaefer offered his colony not only as a place to torture and disappear Pinochet’s Chilean enemies, but also as a school to teach the fine art of torture to his agents.

Leonard Bernstein considered the problem of terrorism in a 1986 speech that has not seen print until now. He gave the speech soon after leading the Israel Philharmonic on its 50th anniversary tour, during which he and the orchestra had been guarded heavily for fear of a terrorist incident. The speech is a meditation on the dangers that the fear of terrorism, not terrorism itself, poses for civilization and for our individual souls. There could hardly be a more important message for post–9/11 America.

Critic Wendy Smith reconsiders an important film about terrorism and torture that takes seriously the Arab perspective: Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966). Smith’s larger point in her essay is that the casting off of French rule by the Algerians led not to the widespread freedom for the Algerian people (including women) that the film forecast, but to a Muslim state that replaced colonial oppression with the religious variety. She alludes to a moment in the film that I can’t get out of my head. A reporter asks a terrorist if it isn’t cowardly to have women carry bombs in baskets to kill civilians, and the terrorist responds that it might be “even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs,” as the French were doing. “Obviously,” the terrorist says, “planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up