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Monday, December 02, 2002

Our Opinion

Who Will Guard the Guardian?

Recently, in a coincidence that was more striking for its political conjunction than for its esthetic juxtaposition, the premier showcase for (genuinely) independent, foreign, and documentary films in New York City, Film Forum, had two of its three screens occupied by documentaries in which the name of Henry Kissinger was more than a passing reference to a former American official. In The Trials of Henry Kissinger, directed by Eugene Jarecki, a film based on Christopher Hitchens’s book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (see our review, “From Nuremberg to the Hague and Beyond,” October 15, 2001), the former Harvard professor was in fact the movie’s central subject. In the second film, The Pinochet Case, Mr. Kissinger was a phantom whose ghoulish and calculating inhumanity haunted every frame. Indeed, while the tragic testimony of the victims recorded by the relentless camera of Chile’s great documentarian, Patricio Guzman, ceaselessly indicted the butcheries of former dictator Augusto Pinochet, the malevolent presence of his co-conspirator, and accomplice before and after the fact, was palpable.

Henry Kissinger just happened to be secretary of state of the United States when the legal, democratically elected government of Chile was overthrown and its president, Salvador Allende, was murdered, along with – over the next few years – thousands of his fellow citizens. Mr. Kissinger was also secretary of state, or national security advisor, when horrible, Biblical slaughter (dare we call it terror?) was visited upon the people of Cambodia, Bangladesh, and East Timor. As for Cyprus, we don’t think we need to remind our readers of Mr. Kissinger’s complicity in the structure of circumstances that led to the terrible events of the summer of 1974. Finally, all the evidence indicates that Henry Kissinger was, to quote Christopher Hitchens’s book, “the chief beneficiary” of Richard Nixon’s sabotage of the Vietnam peace talks in Paris in 1968. It will be remembered that when Richard Nixon finally did agree to peace four years later, it was under the same conditions that Lyndon Johnson had negotiated in 1968 – with one major exception: in the interim, another 20,000 GIs (and, to quote Christopher Hitchens again, “an uncalculated number of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians”) had died.

It will be remembered…. We all know the story (parable?): a generation after the Armenian massacres, Adolph Hitler notoriously asked his henchmen, “Who remembers the Armenians now?” Who indeed? And that genocidal amnesia sealed the fate of European Jewry – whose Holocaust, in supreme irony, Henry Kissinger managed to escape as a child. Almost 30 years following the events in which Mr. Kissinger had a fundamental role and which devastated nation after nation, who now remembers the Chileans, or the Cambodians, or the Bangladeshis, or the East Timorese, or the Cypriots, Greek and Turkish?

Certainly no one in the current administration. Last week, in what can only be termed an act of brutal contempt for history and – it goes without saying – for the suffering of (literally) millions of people throughout the world, living and dead, the son of the man who once promised a kinder, gentler nation, and the self-proclaimed arbiter of axes of planetary good and evil, President George W. Bush, appointed Henry Kissinger head of the recently announced commission to investigate the government’s responsibilities in the September 11 attacks. Even The New York Times was blindsided. “Indeed, it is tempting to wonder,” our newspaper of record asserted in a masterstroke of editorial understatement, “if the choice of Mr. Kissinger is not a clever maneuver by the White House to contain an investigation it long opposed” (“The Kissinger Commission,” November 29).

We need not waste much time in wondering. A cynic might well comment that, in the span of 20 brief years, we have gone from morning in America to the deepest, darkest night. It is difficult under the circumstances to enumerate in any order of injury what is most offensive about this latest act of presidential disdain for what was once upon a time in America called “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Clearly, no one in the administration cares a whit about the “opinions” of Cambodians, Chileans, or Cypriots. What is astounding, however, is how little they seem to care for the families of the roughly 3,000 Americans (and non-Americans living here) who lost their lives in Washington, DC, and, mostly, New York City. In the event, there is also something profoundly disturbing (and infinitely saddening) about the fact that the families themselves have accepted this appointment with such apparent equanimity. And while one might well ask what else they can do under the circumstances, we think an obvious answer is, scream bloody murder.

But those days are gone in the land of the free and the home of the brave. We suffer the continual indignities hurled upon us, endlessly undermining once-hallowed notions of vigilant citizenry, meekly nowadays. No more urban rebellions or campuses shut down. We just sit there, staring at the television, into the face of mass murder in our time. So this is what the future looks like.

Fortunately, however, not everywhere. In fact, the screams of bloody murder are resounding throughout the globe. One of the first ironies (but undoubtedly far from the last) in this most recent attack on common decency by our current administration is that the person who has been delegated with leading the inquiry into the most heinous case of international terrorism (at least of the non-state variety) in our lifetime has judicial warrants for complicity in thousands upon thousands of acts of terror (of the state variety) waiting for him in several Western countries – which he has lately been avoiding like the plague. Only recently, a lawsuit against him was dismissed in Belgium; even more recently, however, a new lawsuit against him was filed in Greece. The last time Mr. Kissinger visited France, he had to be whisked out of the country through the direct intervention of Mr. Bush to avoid being hauled into a French court. As for outstanding warrants in countries such as Chile and Argentina, the reader can imagine that they are ongoing and unquashable. So, Mr. Bush has now created the unedifying (in truth, grotesque) spectacle of the entire world following for the next many months America’s singular scrutiny of the worst terrorist crime on its shores being led by a man many people believe to be responsible for some of the worst acts of terror perpetrated by America in their countries.

One last point: This commission is legally mandated to examine mal-, mis-, and nonfeasance in government – and yet, it is now being led by the man who served as national security advisor and secretary of state to the only president of the United States who was forced to resign his office because of mal-, mis-, and nonfeasance committed by him against the people, government, and, of course, constitution of the United States, which, in the latter instance, he swore “to the best of my ability” to “preserve, protect and defend.” Any further comment would be superfluous – except for one, made by the slaveowner Thomas Jefferson about slavery in America: “I tremble for my country when I think that God is just.” Slavery was ultimately abolished in the United States – but God’s apparent justice has lately become a matter of great solace among our enemies.

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