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October 24, 2014
Thursday, April 3, 2014

Cannibals and the law of the jungle

If Tuesday’s editorial deplored the silence of the political class over the wave of lynchings, we could hardly make the same reproach today — indeed the debate is so profuse that its full coverage would exceed this editorial space. Instead we would like to develop the themes arising out of one single reaction. Various commentators have sought to counter the lynching mentality with the argument: “You don’t show a cannibal he’s wrong by eating him” (whereby some four decades ago Jorge Luis Borges brilliantly demolished the “dirty war” logic). Well-meaning but also invalid. Trying to snatch somebody’s hand-bag cannot be equated with cannibalism by any stretch of the imagination whereas kicking and beating people to a pulp can — there is thus no proportion between crime and punishment (an absolutely fundamental legal principle). Right here we are starting to lose a sense of proportion and since loss of that sense was a key aspect of the “dirty war” and since the Borges phrase evokes that tragic era, referring to that period as a touchstone for analysis seems valid.

If today we risk confronting a real crime problem (from which members of this newsroom have not been exempt) with a paranoid overreaction drifting into savagery, there was terrorism all around the world of four decades ago. Rather than see how Britain, Germany or Italy handled the problem, we shall just look at regional neighbours. Brazil had urban (and rural) guerrillas, including the current president — its toll was 362 dead or missing and some 1,500 tortured (again including Dilma Rousseff). The Augusto Pinochet military dictatorship in Chile imagined itself to have a far more serious problem than Brazil because it considered the entire previous regime to be subversive and hence to be extirpated at root — the result was 3,225 dead or missing. But against a guerrilla threat whose combat units could be counted in dozens rather than hundreds, almost 9,000 people went missing alone in Argentina even according to the most conservative estimate (CONADEP), quite apart from the thousands of known dead. What made Argentina’s “dirty war” so notorious worldwide was not having a terrorist problem or dealing with it but the entirely disproportionate reaction — today’s paranoia risks moving down that road.

Comparing events on that scale with a couple of youths being beaten to death today and several others injured might also seem to be lacking a sense of proportion but oaks and acorns — one thing leads to another.

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