Violence and blindness: the case of Uchuraccay

James R Mensch
7 August 2009

Only rarely does life imitate art in the starkness and directness of its message. When that message is a tragic one the effect becomes indelible. Such was the impact on Peru of the events of Uchuraccay, a small village located in its central highlands. Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission called it "an emblematic referent of the violence and pain in the collective memory of the country" (TRC, 121). [i] In the twenty-year turmoil that engulfed Peru at the end of the last century, 69,280 violent deaths were recorded. What makes Uchuraccay emblematic of this carnage is not just its own destruction; it is the web of misunderstandings that entangled the participants.

On January 23, 1983, eight journalists from Lima were caught in this web. Mistaken for terrorists, they and their guide were attacked by the natives of the village. Remarkably, one of the journalists left a photographic record of their slaughter. There also exists a photograph of the bodies of the journalists after they were exhumed a few days later. In it, their eyeless sockets are clearly evident.[ii] When I saw the photo in Lima, it reminded me of the moment in Greek tragedy that is called "recognition." This is the point when the veil of illusion is stripped from the characters. The most striking example of this is Oedipus' appearance after he has blinded himself. In his eyeless state, the audience recognizes his previous blindness to his unnatural condition. This moment of recognition is a public exhibition. It is a disclosure of the way things actually were during the events depicted. In what follows, I am going to take this final image of the journalists as a disclosure of the communal blindness that engulfed Peru. My aim is to relate this blindness to the violence that was its tragic correlate.

Events and misunderstandings

James R Mensch is professor of philosophy at St Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada. He is the author of Knowing and Being: A Postmodern Reversal (Penn State University Press, 1996). A collection of his writings available online is herThe background to the events of Uchuraccay is long and tragic and can only be mentioned here in the briefest of terms. The Spanish conquest of Peru was catastrophic for the natives and ended in their being reduced to the condition of indebted servitude. Working on large haciendas, they neither owned their land nor the products of their labor. Even the houses that they built were not their own. In the Andean highlands, this situation led in the 1950's and 1960's to a series of strikes and occupations. But it was not until 1968 that the military government of general Velasco began to dismantle this system. Progress, however, was sporadic and largely ceased with the general who replaced him in 1975.[iii] This was the milieu in which Abimael Guzman, a philosophy professor at a University in the highlands, founded the Shining Path Movement in the late 1960's. Embracing a radical form of Maoism, similar to that advocated by the Khmer Rouge, it began military action on May 17, 1980. The Movement joined with the natives in their struggles with the landlords and corrupt government officials and, by 1981, had spread throughout the villages of the central highlands. An essential part of its strategy was to attack and overrun the local police stations, thus leaving the rural areas defenseless.

The effect of all of this on Uchuraccay was that by 1982, its inhabitants found themselves under the authority of both the Shining Path and their local council (TRC, 127). Such a situation could not long continue. The tensions between the two came to a head with the attempt by the Shining Path to establish a "Peoples School" for women and to raise its red flag during a religious festival. The council reacted by expelling their six resident members. Returning in force and determined to show their authority, the Shining Path publicly executed the council presidents of Uchuraccay and Huaychao, a neighboring village (TRC, 129). In the general revolt that followed, several dozen guerillas were killed by the natives. The district was then put under direct military rule, with the general in charge, Roberto Noel, commending its inhabitants for the "courage and virility" of their revolt. The President of the Republic added his wishes that their " presence and the valor" would be sufficient to reestablish peace (TRC, 131). In a gesture of support, a helicopter with troops spent the night at Uchuraccay. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Report, the message of the soldiers to the village, which was not reachable by road, was clear: "continue with this action; kill every foreigner who enters the village on foot" (TRC, 132). Three days later, on January 26, 1983, the reporters from Lima walked into the village. After fruitless attempts to explain who they were and desperate appeals to be taken to the police, they were beaten to death. According to the report, "the killing was cruel" since lacking guns, the natives used their farming implements. It lasted, however, "no more than thirty minutes" (TRC, 135).

Although widely publicized, the slaughter of the journalists was but one event in the process that led to the destruction of Uchuraccay. In the days following this event, the attacks on the Shining Path terrorists continued. As for the journalists, their deaths were initially reported as those of the terrorists. In the subsequent inquiry, the natives laid stress on the fact that they were told that the Armed Forces would arrive by helicopter, while the terrorists would come on foot. The problem, however, was: who was a terrorist? The inhabitants of Uchuraccay attacked a neighboring village suspected of harboring them. Retaliations followed. The Shining Path, meanwhile, repeatedly assailed Uchuraccay and other villages in its attempts to crush the revolt (TRC, 141-3). In the years that followed, the villagers were subject to increasing assaults. The various self-defense committees set up by different villages in the region sent out patrols to ferret out members of the Shining Path. In the indiscriminate fighting that followed, the village was repeatedly overrun. As one survivor described the situation,

... the Shining Path, the members of the Self-Defense Committees and the military all came and burned the houses. They took our belongings, robbed us of our livestock, sheep, llamas and horses. They respected neither man, woman nor child, subjecting them to public beatings. They raped and killed the women; moreover, when they wanted, they killed the children. No one could protest without being killed. Because of this, we lived hidden in the hills (TRC, 145).

This condition was clearly unsustainable. Having lost 135 of its original 470 inhabitants, the village was abandoned in 1984 (TRC, 146).

As the accounts of the final year of Uchuraccay make apparent, the question of who was a terrorist became paramount. In the internecine struggle that engulfed the region, the participants struck blindly at each other. Natives accused natives of being Shining Path supporters and were themselves accused of being such by the army and paramilitary groups. Even the terrorists in their incursions were unsure of who their opponents were. The journalists, who were mistakenly killed for being terrorists, blindly chose a guide who was himself suspected of being a terrorist. They were also blind to the nature of the Shining Path movement. As noted by the Report, it was viewed at the time as a "group that was misguided, but driven by the desire for the social transformation of the country" (TRC, 155). The focus of the urban press was not on its excesses but rather on "the abuses committed by the forces of order." Thus, the "context" of their visit was "a certain urban legitimacy for the Shining Path and an increasing loss of prestige for the police" (TRC, 156). Even after the journalists' death, sections of the press continued to view what happened in terms of their "political battle against the government" (ibid.). This was, in part, because the military's punitive actions often equaled those of the terrorists. Both were indiscriminate to the point of blindness. Such blindness extended to the government's attempts to try the natives responsible for the killing of the journalists. After a year of judicial inquiry, the prosecutor asked in vain that the case be thrown out because "they had not succeeded in proving the participation of the accused in the massacre" (TRC, 165). The difficulty was not just that of singling out particular individuals in a mass action. What the court authorities found hardest to accept was, in the words of the Report, "the possibility that the peasants could be capable of violently defending themselves" (TRC, 169). They could not come to terms with their acting on their own. This attitude continued throughout the trial. During its five years, according to the Report, "the voices of the inhabitants were never even heard" (ibid.). As for the terrorists, they also suffered from a practical and ideological blindness. Attempting to impose a Maoist form of communism that had already been discredited in China, they viewed the Inca descendents dwelling in the highlands through the lens of their vision of an idealized Chinese peasantry. The failure of the natives to live up to this ideal was probably behind much of their brutality.

The visibility of public space

This web of misunderstandings, this inability to recognize friend or foe, can only be classified as a general public blindness. How are we to understand its relation to the destructive violence that consumed Uchuraccay? To answer this question, I must shift my focus from the historical to the philosophical. I have to examine the visibility and, hence, the light of the public space we share in our social and political relations. Aristotle defined light as the actualization of the visible. Allowing things to appear, its absence makes us blind. The question of public blindness is actually that of the light that makes things publicly visible.

Ordinary light gives things their bare physical presence; but what gives this presence its practical significance is the use we put these things to. Employing them in our projects, they gain their sense as means to achieve our goals. Each project is, in fact, a disclosure. It makes things appear in a definite light. The water of a stream, for example, appears as water-to-drive-my-mill when I use it for this purpose. It can also appear as water to drink or to wash or cook with, depending on my particular needs. This determination of the appearing of the world and, hence, of its sense is also a determination of the way we appear to ourselves. Each particular "I can" that accomplishes a project is both disclosure of the world and a self-disclosure. Through it, we exhibit our identity as the accomplisher of some action. This point holds not just for individual actions, but also for collective ones. Thus, the violinist playing in a string quartet discloses not just the music but himself as a member of the ensemble. As this example indicates, the world disclosed by a collective "I can" is itself collective. The music that is there for everyone can be present only through the collective action of the players. To take another example, the same holds for the world disclosed by an aboriginal hunting party. Each member of the hunt has his own tasks and weapon. Each engages in an individual disclosure of his world through his action. But founded on this, there is the collective disclosure of the world of the hunt. The pragmatic senses of this world are there for everyone. They are public rather than private. So are the identities of the members of the hunting party.

Such public disclosure does not just involve our performing different functions in a common project. We also have our public identities as we engage in our individual projects. Even though these involve different goals and, hence, different disclosures of the practical senses of things, our actions are intelligible to others. They can grasp the different ways of interpreting a situation that are correlated to different projects. The basis of this ability is our growing up in a common culture, one where, from childhood on, we learn from others such things as how to eat at the table, dress ourselves, ride a bicycle, read and so on. Each new project opens up a world with its set of defining senses. Each also enriches the options available to us. It adds another way of being and behaving to our repertoire. This process continues as we continue to learn from others in later life. As adults, whatever we see others do tends to be regarded (whether favorably or unfavorably) as a human capacity. Even though we might never choose to engage in it, we recognize it as something we could be capable of given the proper motivations and circumstances. When it is an act we disapprove of, our not performing it involves, in some measure, our willing not to do so. The essential point here is that the choices that make our freedom real are generally provided by our others. Whether or not we engage in them, the world that they disclose is not foreign to us. Its pragmatic senses are part of our culture. So are the public identities of its actors.

The public space such actors shape through their projects is multiply determined. The objects that fill it "vibrate," as it were, with the different pragmatic senses that they are capable of sustaining. These senses are a correlate of the choices open to those within it, choices that form the practical content of their freedom. Such "public freedom," as Hannah Arendt observed, is "something created by men to be enjoyed by men rather than a gift or capacity." Since it consists of the choices that we make available to one another, it can "only exist in public" (OR, 124)[iv] As something "whose very existence hinges on appearance," it depends on the public space in which we see and are seen by the other public actors (OR, 94). Such public freedom is essentially social and political. Given that humans are not solitary, but must cooperate to survive, they must come to terms on their common projects. At issue are both their public identities and the public world that corresponds to them. It is here that politics as "the art of compromise" enters in. In political life, agreement is the result of the give and take of negotiation. This involves an openness to the perspectives of the participants and a continual return to the point at issue. The goal of this return is to find common ground, that is, to uncover the areas of overlap that make agreement possible.[v]

Such negotiation would, of course, be worthless if the participants could not keep their word. To give and keep one's word is to respond to the self that originally authorized the agreement by taking responsibility for it, that is, for the promise one made. The person maintains the authority of the agreement by holding fast to it. Doing so, the person both preserves and embodies this authority. In realizing it across time, he generates it. In other words, the identity he creates across time is that of himself as the author of his word. The result is a public identity that is distinct from that of gender or race. We cannot choose these inherited factors, but we can choose to bind ourselves to our agreements. So conceived, authority is the pubic presence of the "I can" that binds itself to its word. The root of the authority of political covenants is our collective ability to bind ourselves over time.[vi]

Given the above, we can say that the public visibility that goes beyond bare sensuous presence is provided by disclosure. To disclose is to make visible by exhibiting the purposes of objects. I have concentrated on their practical purposes but it is easy to see how such purposes, in religious and cultural practices, can be symbolic. The meanings that express the "what is it for" of objects can extend from the practical to the symbolic. It can include the symbolic references of the red banner that the Shining Path raised at Uchuraccay.

Insofar as disclosure involves both the objects disclosed and the agents who disclose, public visibility has essentially two sets of conditions. We have to be able to grasp the purposes and, hence, the meanings of the objects that occupy the public realm. This requires a sense of the projects that disclose them. We also have to apprehend the agents who disclose themselves through such projects. This requires that the agent keep to the purpose of his project. This does not just allow him to complete it, but gives him an identity over time. When the purpose is collectively arrived at through negotiation this identity has a political dimension that extends to all those bound by the negotiated settlement.

Blindness and violence

Public blindness occurs when these conditions cannot be fulfilled. Experiencing it is rather like entering a totally foreign culture where the practical and symbolic meanings of its objects are not at all apparent. This involves a blindness to the purposes of its agents. In a real sense, this was the state of affairs when the urban journalists entered Uchuraccay. Neither they nor the villagers could grasp each other's purposes. They thus were blind to the practical and symbolic meanings correlated to these. The journalist, for example, could not see that the farming tools the inhabitants carried would be the means of their destruction. This general blindness soon extended to the military's relation to the natives and, indeed, to the natives' relation to each other. No one could be sure who was a terrorist and who was not. There was a general blindness to the public identities of those involved in the conflict. Symbolic of this loss of identity was the fact that the military took to wearing ski-masks to prevent their being identified and held responsible for their often brutal actions. Even the judges who ultimately tried Guzman, the Shining Path leader, wore hoods to conceal their identities. In this climate of anonymity and suspicion, it is easy to see how the public realm took on a menacing quality. It is a well-known psychological truth that we tend to project on the unknown other those aspects of ourselves that we cannot tolerate. In Lacanian terms, he becomes the censored chapter of our consciousness. The other is taken as harboring our darker desires.[vii] In a situation of high tension, this can be disastrous. Seemingly threatened by the other, we react with violence.

Such violence does not just result from public blindness. It also engenders it. It does so when it attacks the conditions for public visibility. At their basis is the "I can" in its ability to shape the world and, thus, to disclose its presence and significance. As shaped by multiple agents, public space is characterized by its openness to multiple projects. Violence narrows it by enforcing a single form of the "I can." In normal political life, the problem of conflicting projects is solved through negotiation. When violence enters the scene, agreement is secured by force. Those with the greatest physical force determine what can be done and, hence, what can be disclosed. With this, authority becomes identified with power backed by violence. Those who are subject to it have no authority. The difficulty here is that authority is a public identity. It is the public presence of the "I can" that through self-binding preserves (and, hence, generates) its identity across time. When, however, the binding of the "I can" is through violence, such identity becomes problematic. We cannot know how the individual will react in the absence of compulsion. Given this, the person becomes an object of suspicion. The only thing we can see is his enforced identity.

Even this becomes problematic in a situation of competing violences. The residents of Uchuraccay were subject to violence from the Shining Path, the military, and the rural patrols sent out by the surrounding villages. They thus were caught between competing impositions of the "I can," competing sets of disclosure with their corresponding practical and symbolic senses. In such a situation, an individual finds himself constantly in a foreign land. Unsure of the identity of agents and, hence, ignorant of the practical and symbolic meanings that mark public space, he experiences the public blindness that characterized the events of Uchuraccay. What is missing is what I called the "light" of public space. This light, which is the actualization of the visible, comes from the shared authority of the agents. This because the shared disclosure that characterizes public space involves shared authorization. It is premised on the voluntary, negotiated agreement of the agents on permissible projects, both individual and collective. The public presence of these agents manifests their "I can" as it voluntarily binds itself over time to such disclosure. Without this, there is no public disclosure of a multiply determined public space. Whatever is disclosed is essentially private. It is subject to the whim of whomever presently commands the greatest violence.

Memory and sight

In the confined spaces of the ancient democracies, public actors met face to face, where they argued for their positions before the voting public. As Hannah Arendt writes, for the ancients, "the life of a free man needed the presence of others. Freedom itself needed, therefore, a place where people could come together-the agora, the market-place, or the polis, the political space proper" (OR, 31). Only there could the voting public hear the arguments for the contending positions. In our modern mass democracies, this space has been provided by the press and, more recently, by the internet. The mere presence of the press, however, is insufficient to provide the light for this space. Without the conditions for disclosure, the press is as blind as any of the participants. Such blindness points to the absence of authority. It is a function of the lack of shared disclosure based on voluntary agreement. According to Amnesty International, this was the state of Peru at the beginning of the insurgency. The soil from which it grew was the "chronic social exclusion and racial, ethnic and gender discrimination" that characterized Peru. Along with the Report, it finds that the "negative stereotypes" attributed to the natives "were ... used by all the actors in the internal conflict, both State officials and armed opposition groups, to justify the violence" against them.[viii] In fact, none of the participants grasped the others. All were caught in a web of misunderstanding.

The only way to break free from this is to engage in shared disclosure. To do this, one must break down the exclusions, both social and economic, that prevent people from participating in public action. The stereotypes that divide society and prevent its agents from recognizing each other must also be dismantled. Beyond this, the work of remembering is required. Every project has its roots in the past. It projects it forward to fashion its goals. When, for example, I intend to build a house, I rely on my accumulated experience not just for the knowledge of the means of how to reach my goal. The goal itself is informed by such experience. Given that projects are the ways we disclose, shared disclosure requires a sharing of our experience. The first work of healing a divided society is, thus, the restoration of a common memory, a shared history whose events all can agree on. The painstaking labors of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have accomplished this for Peru. Only time will tell if this first step will bear fruit, that is, whether its inhabitants will act out of this restored memory to heal Peru's social and racial divisions. The goal of such work is nothing less than generating the public visibility that is the antidote to the tragedy that engulfed this country. To engage in it is to give Oedipus back his eyes. It is to make whole the journalists whose blind corpses were emblematic of the events of Uchuraccay.


[i] The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 9 vols., was released on August 28, 2003. All citations in this paper are taken from volume V, Chapter 2, section, 2.4, "El Caso Uchuraccay," which is cited throughout as TRC. All translations from the Spanish are my own. The full report can be accessed at: http://www.cverdad.org.pe/ifinal/index.php.

[ii] The photographs were part of an exhibition commemorating the release of The Truth and Reconciliation Report. According to my guide, the natives removed journalists eyes so that their spirits could not come back to haunt them.

[iii] For an excellent brief account of this period, see the Library of Congress Country Report on Peru at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/petoc.html#pe0005.

[iv] Hannah Arendt: On Revolution (London: Penguin Books, 1990), cited throughout as OR.

[v] For a more extended treatment of this argument, see Mensch, "Public Space," Continental Philosophy Review, 40:1, March, 2007, 31-47.

[vi] To make this concrete, we can think of the founding covenant as a national constitution. The promise is to abide by its provisions, i.e., to embody in our political conduct the rules that it specifies. Authority rests in reaffirming this promise, that is, in our consulting the agreement when questions arise and guiding ourselves accordingly. In most nation states, the constitutional courts embody this authority. In their sessions, they preserve the authority of the original constituting assemblies. They decide whether a law and the action it authorizes agree with the constitution. Doing so, they reaffirm the state's commitment to it and hence generate its identity over time.

[vii] See Jacques Lacan, "Function and Field of Speech and Language," in Écrits, A Selection (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1977), p. 55.

[viii] Peru: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission - A First Step Towards a Country without Injustice (AMR 46/003/2004: August 25, 2004), pp. 30-31. Available at http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR46/003/2004/en/4beb9e93-d5e6-11dd-bb24-1fb85fe8fa05/amr460032004en.pdf. The 1992 Library of Congress Country Report on Peru remarks, "The word indio, as applied to native highland people of Quechua and Aymara origin, carries strong negative meanings and stereotypes among non-native Peruvians.... The ingrained attitudes and stereotypes held by the mistikuna (the Quechua term for mestizo people) toward the runakuna (native people--the Quechua term for themselves) in most highland towns have led to a variety of discriminatory behaviors, from mocking references to ‘brute' or ‘savage' to obliging native Americans to step aside, sit in the back of vehicles, and in general humble themselves in the presence of persons of higher status.... The regions and departments with the largest populations of native peoples are construed to be the most backward, being the poorest, least educated, and less developed." All of this manifests "the perpetuation of colonial values with respect to autochthonous peoples." See the entry for "Indigenous Peoples" at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/petoc.html#pe0005. 

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