Torture’s Long Reach: Chile 34 Years Later

A summons from a Chilean attorney that arrived a couple of weeks ago opened a dam and painful memories from 34 years ago flooded in: “We are looking for Mr. Shepherd Bliss in order for him to travel to Chile to testify in the case of Frank Teruggi.”

The attorney is gathering testimony in a slow-moving court case against those who kidnapped, tortured and executed my young, idealistic friend Frank and another American, Charles Horman, whom I did not know. He represents survivors of the Teruggi and Horman families and wants me to testify before a judge about what Frank was doing in Chile.

As someone who was raised in the prominent military family that gave its name to Fort Bliss, Texas, and served as a U.S. Army officer myself, I could be a credible witness to counter the generals being tried who seek to justify their atrocities and murders.

Soon after graduating from divinity school and being ordained a United Methodist minister I worked in Chile during 1971-72 on a church-funded mission. Dr. Salvador Allende had recently been democratically elected president. On Sept. 11, 1973, Gen. Augusto Pinochet toppled his government, with the well-documented support of the U. S.

Frank and Horman were among thousands slaughtered during the coup’s brutal aftermath, which continued for years and still haunts the surviving families and friends of those touched by that state terrorism. Horman’s shocking story was graphically revealed in the award-winning l982 film Missing by Costa-Garvas.

I have thought often of returning to Chile since that bloody event, but my traumatized body and soul have not yet followed those travel directives from my mind.

Unfinished business awaits me in Chile. Returning to the scene of that terrible crime and the massive trauma that it caused could support justice and promote my own healing. So I will probably go, but I have doubts and fears. My goal would be to help uncover what has been concealed these many years and report it widely.

Pres. Allende’s Chile had become a gathering place for those — especially young people — wanting to participate in a non-violent, democratic process of a progressive government that was not dominated by the U.S. Our innocence was shattered by Pinochet’s unrelenting violence. As Welsh poet Dylan Thomas writes, “After the first death, there is no other.”

I worked in Chile on religious, educational, artistic and journalistic projects and Frank was one of my closest associates. A common interest in spirituality, especially during times of change, connected us. Substantial change was occurring in the U.S. with a growing peace movement, and in Chile with the election of Dr. Allende.

The summons to come to Chile surprised me. I had given up hope of justice in Frank’s case. My patience these 34 years of waiting had ebbed. The legal, political, and social obstacles standing in the way of justice have been substantial.

Pinochet died Dec. 10, 2006, at the age of 91. Though he finally confessed to his crimes, he was never brought to justice. His power and wealth protected this U.S.-supported dictator and enabled him to escape the justice that would have benefited many survivors and set a precedent for other vicious dictators.

Courts in Chile, Europe, and the U.S — into which Pinochet’s long killing arm reached — have failed the families and friends of those hurt by this assassin and his accomplices. Justice for Pinochet was delayed and denied, which has been happening also in the cases of Frank and Horman.

I remember Frank and think often of him — a playful and creative artist. At times memories overwhelm me. The request to return to Chile now brings tears to my eyes. Then I freeze, suppress the feelings. I shiver and shudder, though it is not cold outside on this California summer day.

I remember walking toward my office at Harvard University when I first heard of the military coup in 1973. Crushed, I fell to my knees on the sidewalk, knowing that some of my friends were probably hurt and possibly killed. Sept. 11 has been a Memorial Day for me since.

When I learned of Frank’s death, much of my life came to a halt. His family invited me to be a pallbearer at his funeral in Chicago, but initially I did not respond. When a plane ticket from his girlfriend Annie arrived, I realized that I had to go and carry Frank’s body. It had been so butchered that the casket was closed. What was I doing, at twenty-something, carrying the tortured-to-death body of my good friend?

One might expect that I would appreciate the summons to return to Chile to contribute to a long-denied act of justice. But rather than respond immediately from the heart or mind, my initial response was in my traumatized body — a body that partly had shut down. A familiar numbness returned.

Even my tongue had lost its fluency in Spanish, a language that I had begun hearing as a child living in the Panama Canal Zone with my military family. My mind no longer thought clearly in Spanish.

Psychologists call such a defense mechanism “psychic numbing” — a protection of the psyche from feelings too powerful to endure. My memories of Frank and others were in Spanish, so by losing Spanish I was being protected from that terrible loss and enabled to continue living at least a partial life. Only decades later, when giving a paper at a psychology conference in Spain, did my Spanish begin to return. In Chile I will need to speak Spanish and deal with whatever memories return.

I write about this personal experience to honor my dear friend and to dilute the continuing hold that the horror of his death has had on me. Perhaps speaking my truth may help educate and remind others about that tragic Sept. 11, l973.

You may not have consciously met anyone who was literally tortured by a professional. You can read about torture by the U.S. military going on right now, but that is different from feeling it in your body. The multiple effects of torture reach far beyond the immediate victims to their families and friends, even to the torturer and his (or her) family members and to the nation itself that sponsors or condones torture.

Today’s Chile differs from that of the Pinochet regime. Its current president, Michelle Bachelet, was imprisoned and tortured by the Pinochet junta. Her father was a general who did not support the coup, so Pincohet killed him.

Chile no longer kidnaps, imprisons in secret jails, or tortures people. However, the U.S. can no longer make such a moral claim. Pinochet’s Chile parallels what has been happening today in Guantanamo Bay, at Abu Ghraib, and in numerous secrets prisons maintained by Washington in many countries.

It is now the U.S. that sequesters people — many of them innocent of any crimes — in secret places and detains them for years without charging them or giving them access to attorneys. Their families do not even know where they are. Can you imagine how you would feel if this happened to a member of your family?

The cases of Frank and Chile are hence instructive to us here in the U.S., especially since Henry Kissinger and the Nixon administration helped orchestrate Pinochet’s coup. Justice for Frank and Horman could have meaning for others currently held by the U.S. and help strengthen an international legal precedent.

By writing my story I seek to expose and speak out against the long-term traumatic effects of torture on its multiple survivors. Washington’s current torture of people from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere is not new. The U.S. has trained torturers from around the world for decades at the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Some of Pinochet’s worst torturers were trained there. HR 1701 is a bill to close that torture school, introduced to the U.S. Congress by Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.).

The Chile summons came a couple of days before our Veterans’ Writing Group met again. We’ve gathered regularly for nearly 15 years, told our stories to each other, wrote the award-winning book Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, edited by Maxine Hong Kingston, and recently spent an hour on Bill Moyers’ PBS-TV program. The veterans supported me to go to Chile, though I still feel some internal resistance.

I lost more than Frank in Chile; part of my soul perished, which I seek to recover. As I listen to stories of veterans returning to Vietnam and finding healing there, I am inclined to go to Chile. It is time to release and express more of my feelings and speak more of my truth, especially as Washington admittedly engages in torture, thus staining our nation and weakening our relationship with other countries and hence our national security. I have business to complete, both for myself and for society.

I would carry Frank with me to Chile, since he remains always with me. Frank’s life was stolen, because of his love of liberty, freedom, and authentic democracy. I want resolution about his death so I can more fully remember his life — youthful, playful, imaginative, and idealistic.

Frank Teruggi, Presente!

Shepherd Bliss (3sb@comcast.net) teaches college part-time and farms. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.