The two 9/11s: Chile and the United States

The coup of 1973 and the attacks of 2001 were very different in character. But the contrast in the responses of Chile and America to their respective national traumas is instructive, says Patricio Navia.
Patricio Navia
11 September 2011

For two countries, Chile and the United States, 11 September is a day that evokes destruction and symbolises all kinds of negative images, memories and legacies. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States propelled the country into a war mood - abroad and at home - that has lasted for ten years. The Chilean 9/11, in 1973, was a military coup that overthrew the democratic government of Salvador Allende and replaced it by a brutal dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet; it was to last seventeen years.

The character of the respective 9/11s was very different. The United States was attacked by foreign terrorists. In Chile, political divisions led to democratic breakdown and authoritarian rule. The nature of the traumas caused by the two events, and their long-term consequences, also differ greatly. The American 9/11 was a shattering national and global event (partly thanks to media coverage), and had far greater repercussions abroad than Chile’s military coup; though the effect of the Once de Septiembre on Chile’s history, politics and national life has in comparative terms been much larger than 11 September on the United States.

This is apparent in the way that Chile has ultimately been able to transform its 9/11 into a “never-again” moment. The suffering, pain and death caused by the 11 September 1973 coup stands as a permanent warning of the damage that can be caused when the national political elite fails to compromise. This date in Chilean history reminds Chileans of the destructive consequences of heeding voices of polarisation and extremism; and that compromise is a much better option than never-ending confrontation.  

It has been a long journey to reach this point. After the seventeen years of authoritarian rule, democracy in Chile was finally restored in 1990. In the twenty-one years since, economic development has lowered poverty to about 15% and has allowed for the emergence of a strong middle class. More importantly, democracy has flourished. The Freedom House index, and many other indicators, show Chile as the most democratic and the freest nation in Latin America. The political debates in the country are often passionate - as exemplified in the cycle of student and social protests in 2011 - but Chileans know that compromise is essential for democracy to function and for society to forge ahead. No matter how much they might dislike their adversaries, Chilean politicians know that is far better to debate with somebody who thinks differently than to be subject to military rule.  

After its own 9/11, the United States understandably focused on what needed to be done abroad to prevent future attacks on the homeland. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - regardless of their merits - responded to the logic that the source of the problems lay outside the national boundaries. But Americans has not (at least so far) learned the lesson that Chileans did about the need to put differences aside and compromise with those who think differently. Americans have not made a link between 9/11 and defending the country against the evil of polarisation; nor have they come to see the event as a testimony to the danger of associating political compromise with a surrender of principle. 

Both people suffered a grievous blow on their 9/11. Americans did not deserve to be attacked, Chileans did not deserve to be put under tyrannical rule. But if Chileans - admittedly over more than two decades, as opposed to the decade the US has so far had - learned tolerance and compromise from their traumatic experience, Americans seem to have become more divided and less willing to compromise after theirs.

Chile is a much better country than before its 9/11; few in the US would say the same. The United States has yet to make the terrible moment part of a larger lesson about the need for tolerance, compromise and national unity across political divides.

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