The 1970s student generation now in power assumed that Pinochet was a synonym for infamy. They had to think againby Michael Ignatieff / December 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
It is a saga worthy of a novelist like Gabriel Garc?a Marquez: the sick tyrant in the autumn of his years, checking into a London clinic only to find himself under arrest in his hospital bed; and the families of his victims crying for justice beneath his window. There is much to savour in this story, for the tyrant made the kind of human mistake we usually find in novels. He was not satisfied to have held power and done bloody deeds; he was not content with escaping the judgement of his people and the revenge of his enemies. All of this might have been enough for another man. What he wanted was historical vindication. He felt cruelly misjudged; he could not bear the forced anonymity of his travels. Even though Margaret Thatcher gave him tea, he knew he was loathed. This he could not bear. So in September, he called in the interviewer from the New Yorker and, in the course of holding forth, appealed to history to absolve him. Even more characteristic was the picture which duly appeared, showing him in a pose of almost majestic effrontery. To pose for such a picture was to make a mistake compounded of blinding vanity and wounded pride. The dateline of the photograph was a London clinic. As a military man, he should have known better than to reveal his hiding place.
But a novelist would also savour the next phase: how, having made such a mistake, he would then, even from a hospital bed, fight with such tenacity to escape the furies of vengeance. Such lack of resignation, such ferocious grip on life, would seem admirable in anyone else. A memorable battle ensued between a wounded predator and an entire generation which, as Peter Mandelson put it, would find it “gut wrenching” that he should escape justice.
The generation which had been students when he was in power was now in power itself. Here was another irony for a novelist to savour: this generation assumed that his name was a synonym for infamy, only to discover that Pinochet meant nothing to the generation just behind. These were the 20 and 30-year olds who learned about politics from those admirers of strong and ruthless men: Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan. So Pinochet’s arrest was a rude reckoning with the passage of time, a generation in power’s first coming to…