Academic journal article Social Justice

Impunity and the Inner History of Life

Academic journal article Social Justice

Impunity and the Inner History of Life

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

THIS IS A REFLECTION BASED ON A MEDICAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL, AND SOCIAL PRACTICE with a universe of around 3,000 people who had been the victims of persecution, torture, executions, disappearances, and exile in Chile. Our experience was initiated in 1973, in the wake of the military coup, and continued over the 17 following years of state terrorism. Afterwards, in the "period of transition to democracy," the study has focused on the consequences of the absence of truth and justice for individuals and, of course, for society as a whole.

Over this long period of more than 25 years, we physicians, appalled at the sight of tortured bodies -- a yet unknown expression of brutal human aggression -- tried to systematize the kind of disorders found and have outlined this phenomenon within the context of our clinical practice. Many questions had to be answered. We were facing a violent action executed deliberately and consciously by another human being. Hence, from the first moment standing before the tortured person, this torn body, we perceived in our minds, in our imaginations, the presence of the torturer who, at the same time, due to impunity, was and remained absent.

The concepts of health and disease were transferred from the inner self of a human being to the outer world: power, society, and the persons responsible. The need to obtain a diagnosis, essential in medical practice, led us to seek the origins, the etiology of this human trauma.

At the time, we had no therapeutic guidelines to confront such disorders, let alone a nosology enabling us to understand the symptoms and the syndromes. Only years later, when the concepts of human rights began to take shape in statements and conventions about torture, forced disappearances, and other such crimes, did we realize that the universe of people we were treating had been the victims of crimes against humanity and had also been affected by another human decision, i.e., impunity. The medical outlook that for centuries had addressed the sick body, the inner mind, now had to consider both the victims and the perpetrators, as well as the structures and institutions of society and the cultural world, under the arbitrariness of dictatorship.

In this process, we used two approaches. The first one, the phenomenological-existential, allows us to get acquainted with the inner self of the persons treated and to understand the conditions of their existence. We included contributions from psychoanalysis, especially those applied during World War II, which also helped us in the interpretation of some clinical phenomena.

In the second approach, the multidisciplinary-systemic, we incorporated psychologists, social workers, educators, teachers, jurists, and sociologists into the medical practice. This allowed us a global assessment of the trauma. During the dictatorship -- particularly at the onset -- our work was always done clandestinely. Furthermore, a relation of "shared experience" was established between our patients and ourselves since we were living under the same context of aggression and of expectations, especially to see the end of the dictatorship. To paraphrase Humberto Giannini (1997), we were sharing a sense of undergoing the same thing and actually co-belonging to the mature force of feeling. One by one, we tried to circumscribe practices, concepts, and reflections that would enable us to better understand psychic trauma, "one of the main features of modernity in this century" (Barrois, 1988).

2. General Framework of Violence and Impunity in Latin America

The worst genocide known in history started in American lands 500 years ago. The violence of the conquistadores, driven by their lust for power and riches, resulted in torture and death. Millions of men, women, and children of the indigenous peoples found their death in the process. Father Bartolome de las Casas (1972), who opposed the violent actions of the conquistadores, described the most brutal forms of destroying a human being: beheadings, mutilations of arms, hands, and even of testicles, the murder of children by striking their heads against rocks, and women murdered by opening their bellies with knives and spears. …

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