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Epitaph for another da­­­­­y

Ariel Dorfman reflects on two fateful September mornings, 28 years apart.

That 11 September, that lethal Tuesday morning, I awoke with dread to the sound of planes flying above my house. When, an hour later, I saw smoke billowing from the centre of the city, I knew that life had changed for me, for my country, for ever.

It was 11 September 1973, the country was Chile, and the armed forces had just bombed the presidential palace in Santiago as the first stage of a coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. By the end of the day, Allende was dead and the land where we had sought a peaceful revolution had been turned into a slaughterhouse. It would be almost two decades, most of which I spent in exile, before we defeated the dictatorship and recovered our freedom.

Twenty-eight years after that fateful day in 1973, on another 11 September, also on a Tuesday morning, it was the turn of other planes and another city that was equally mine to be attacked from on high. It was another sort of terror that rained down, but again my heart filled with dread, and again I confirmed that nothing would ever be the same - not for me, not for the world. It was not the history of one homeland that would be affected, not one people that would endure the consequences of fury and hatred, but the entire planet.

For the past ten years, I have puzzled about this juxtaposition of dates. I cannot get it out of my head that there is some sort of meaning hidden behind or inside the coincidence. It is possible that my obsession with making sense of these analogous events is a result of having been a resident of both countries at the precise time of each onslaught, the circumstance that those two assaulted cities constitute the twin cornerstones of my hybrid identity. Because I grew up as a child learning English in New York and spent my adolescence and young adulthood falling in love with Spanish in Santiago, because I am as much American as I am Latin American, I can't help taking that parallel destruction of the innocent lives of my com­patriots personally, hoping that lessons may arise out of the pain and smouldering confusion. Chile and the United States offer, in effect, contrasting models of how to react to a collective trauma.

Every nation that has been subjected to great harm is faced by a series of fundamental questions that probe its deepest values. How to pursue justice for the dead and reparation for the living? Can the balance of a broken world be restored by giving in to the understandable thirst for revenge against our enemies? Are we not in danger of becoming like them, in danger of turning into their perverse shadow, do we not risk being governed by our rage?

If 9/11 can be understood as a test, it seems to me, alas, that the United States failed it. The fear generated by a small band of terrorists led to a series of actions that far exceeded the damage occasioned by the original ordeal. Two unnecessary wars that have not yet ended, a colossal waste of resources that could have been used to save our environment and educate our children, hundreds of thousands dead and mutilated, millions displaced, a disgraceful erosion of civil rights in America and the use of torture and rendition abroad that ended up giving carte blanche to other regimes to flout human rights. And, last but not least, the bolstering of an already bloated national security state that thrives on a culture of mendacity, spying and trepidation.

Chile also could have responded to violence with more violence. If ever there was a justifi­cation for taking up arms against a tyrannical overlord, our struggle met every criterion. Yet the Chilean people and the leaders of the res­istance - with a few sad exceptions - decided to oust General Pinochet through active non-violence, taking over the country that had been stolen from us, inch by inch, organisation by organisation, until we ultimately bested him in a plebiscite that he should have won but could not. The result has not been perfect. The dictatorship continues to contaminate Chilean society several decades after it lost power. But, all in all, as an example of how to create a lasting peace out of loss and untold suffering, Chile has shown a determination to make sure that there will never again be another 11 September of death and destruction.

What is magical about that decision to fight malevolence through peaceful means is that Chileans were echoing unawares another 11 September, back in 1906, when Mohandas Gandhi convinced thousands of his fellow Indians at the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg to vow non-violent resistance to an unjust and discriminatory pre-apartheid ordinance. That strategy of satyagraha led, in time, to India's independence and to many other attempts at achieving peace and justice around the world, including America's civil rights movement.

One hundred and five years after the Mahat­ma's memorable call to imagine a way out of the trap of rage, 38 years after those planes woke me in the morning to tell me that I would never again be able to escape terror, ten years after the New York of my childhood dreams was decimated by fire, I would hope that the right epitaph for all those 11 Septembers would be the everlasting words of Gandhi: "Violence will prevail over violence, only when someone can prove to me that darkness can be dispelled by darkness."

Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean-American writer. His most recent book is "Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile" (Houghton Mifflin, £16.35)

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11

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Why did the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win this year's Nobel Peace Prize?

Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

It is a fitting that in a tumultuous year for global peacemaking, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the little-known Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition made up of the union federation UGTT, the employers’ institute, the Tunisian human rights league and the order of lawyers . Over the past few years, the Quartet has been quietly shepherded in democracy to the country that lit the fuse of the Arab Spring. In part thanks to the efforts of this broad cross-section of civil society, Tunisia has stayed the course in transitioning from an authoritarian past to a democratic future, even in the face of terrorist violence and as other revolutions in the region have faltered.

The award comes at a time of escalating sectarian conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Islamic State’s campaign of terror has uprooted Iraqis and Syrians alike, driving desperate refugees into small boats to battle the waves of the Mediterranean. They join others fleeing to Europe from political and economic crises in Africa and Asia, forming a stream of humanity symbolising failures in leadership in three continents.

Among all this, it is not hard to identify why the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the world’s most coveted peace prize to the Tunisian Quartet.

First,Tunisia deserves to be celebrated for its momentous achievements in consolidating democracy. Unlike other countries in the region, it has trodden a path that is slow but solid, adopting a comprehensive and consensus-building approach to decision-making.

In this it provides a rare and extremely important example, not only for the region but also for the world. Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

Civil society steps up

Second, the role of civil society is fundamental for bringing about sustainable peace. Political leadership is important, but the scale of the challenge in transitional societies means that we cannot simply leave things to political leaders to sort out.

At local level especially, peace feels a lot more real when it comes with tangible improvements to quality of life. Citizens want to see the economy motoring again and to have confidence in the state’s institutions. They want to know that they can sleep soundly and safely, without fear of violence, persecution or poverty. Governments often lack the capacity and credibility to deliver these dividends alone. Civil society must step up to the plate – particularly the associations of trade, justice and human rights of which the Quartet is formed.

And third, the Quartet’s work relies heavily on forming constructive relationships across the political spectrum – from secularists to fundamentalists. It has walked a fine line, keeping disparate groups with diverging interests invested in an inclusive national process of dialogue. It has, in the words of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, laid the “groundwork for a national fraternity”.

Politicians are often the most cynical of creatures, yet the Quartet has managed to build a sense of collective endeavour among them. It has encouraged them to put the country’s best interest ahead of personal or sectarian interests, making this the guiding principle for decision-making.

Other bright spots

The transition in Tunisia is a work in progress and there will be more setbacks and successes. The country was left reeling from two terrorist attacks earlier this year, when 22 people were killed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and another 39 people died during an attack on a tourist resort in Sousse. But the message today is clear – Tunisia has made remarkable progress since 2010, despite the odds. This is in large part due to a credible and engaged civil society, a remarkable achievement in a new democracy. The country has forged a path of inclusive national dialogue from which many lessons can be learned.

Elsewhere this year, Myanmar goes to the polls in November – the country’s first free national ballot since 1990. Colombia is closer to lasting peace than ever, ending half a century of war that has taken 220,00 lives and uprooted six million people.

The US restored diplomatic relationships with Cuba, and also struck a landmark agreement with Iran over its nuclear programmes. And the UN has adopted the sustainable development goals, explicitly recognising peaceful and inclusive societies as a development priority for the first time. Behind every step forward there is an individual or institution worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, but only one can win and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is a worthy laureate.

Laura Payne is a Research Fellow and Director of RISING Global Peace Forum, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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