Chile: Resist Europe’s Police-State Response to Terrorism

EspañolA working definition for an act of terrorism is a strategic act of violence with underlying political motivations. But in the case of a recent spate of small-scale bombings in Santiago and nearby — especially the September 8 attack that left 14 injured within a subway station in the Chilean capital — the underlying motivations have been far from obvious. None have claimed responsibility, although suspicion has fallen on subversive Marxist collectives, whose members have been among the first arrested.

Rodrigo Peñailillo (wikimedia)
Interior Minister Rodrigo Peñailillo only picked up bad ideas in Spain. (wikimedia)

For Chile’s political class, the motivations of attackers have only been relevant as a means of tarnishing the opposing party by accusing them of links to those responsible. Their priority has been to appease a tense public, whipped into outright fear by the press, by being seen to “do something.” As political scientist Ethan Bueno de Mesquita wrote in a 2007 paper, voters “force the government, through electoral incentives, to overspend on observable counterterror.”

In this line came the heavily publicized visit of Interior Minister Rodrigo Peñailillo to Spain at the beginning of the month, on a fact-finding mission with the mother country’s intelligence agencies. “We want to be connected with European governments,” he said, “so that Chile’s own subversive groups can be brought to justice.”

But, it’s worth asking, what exactly will be transmitted across this connection? Does the experience of the Old World in facing down jihadis and separatists really have many positive lessons for the challenges of the New?

Shades of Franco

Example one: Spain itself. The “11-M” bombings of Madrid commuter trains on March 11, 2004, were horrific, killing 191 and wounding 1,800 people. The governing Popular Party initially pointed the finger at Basque separatist group ETA.

With three days to go before elections, the government wanted to downplay the theory of Islamists taking revenge on Spain for her participation in the Iraq War. In doing so, they showed that reactions to terrorist attacks are every bit as political as the dubious motives behind them.

However, the authors of 11-M were in fact a jihadi cell with al-Qaeda links. As detailed in a new book by Fernando Reinares of Spain’s Elcano Royal Institute, they had long been resident in the country and planning the attack prior to the invasion of Iraq.

Causes aside, the results were clear: a ramping up of Spain’s security and surveillance apparatus to levels that would have almost done the Franco regime proud. Dormant legislation that allowed terrorism suspects to be detained pretrial for up to four years was reactivated. The lines between national police, the armed Civil Guard, and spooks were blurred with the creation of a joint National Antiterrorism Center.

Suspects were deported on the basis of shreds of evidence that would be insufficient in court, with scant regard for their fate abroad. A damaging strategy of monitoring mosques also emerged from the Interior Ministry itself.

Ten years on, the 2014 Human Rights Watch report found manifold allegations of mistreatment of incommunicado terrorism suspects. In October, the European Court of Human Rights upheld a ruling deeming illegal Spain’s retroactive lengthening of prison sentences for terrorism convicts. Of 31 prisoners released as a result, 24 were members of ETA and not Islamist organizations.

Britons, Never Slaves

In the United Kingdom, a similar story prevailed, after her own jihadi bombings of public transport in London on July 7, 2005. Pretrial detention was expanded to four weeks, and the use of control orders significantly extended. Suspects were subject to routine deportation, with feeble “diplomatic assurances” the only thing protecting them from torture the second they stepped off the plane. A multi-billion pound border force arose, only to bungle through its first few years of existence. Speech deemed to “glorify” terrorism became punishable by jail.

Nowadays, the creeping of the state’s coercive power has become so normalized that the public shrug at fresh assaults on civil liberties; restrictions are never repealed but only expanded. April 2014 saw the use of secret court hearings on “national security” grounds extended. When Special Branch officers entered the offices of UK paper the Guardian and forced staff to take drills and hammers to hard drives containing leaked information on state surveillance, few raised so much as an eyebrow.

Undercover police now infiltrate organizations such as environmentalist pressure groups in greater numbers than ever before. There have been several cases of agents forming relationships and fathering children with activists, perhaps offering a strong contender for a libertarian’s worst nightmare: the state tricking you into bed.

The Conservative-led government has promised, if re-elected in 2015, to repeal the Human Rights Act, the United Kingdom’s only codified protection of citizen’s liberties outside of the European Convention on Human Rights — from which they may also withdraw the country. In a perverse discourse, the government talks of thereby boosting individual freedom while removing the few remaining checks against state tyranny that remain. Britons, goes the cry, shall never, never be slaves — unless they decide to walk right into it.

Sleepless in Santiago

In the United Kingdom as in Spain, the wave of anti-terror activity began with governing socialist parties, arguably under more pressure than conservatives to prove their tough-talk credentials. Likewise, the socialist government of Michelle Bachelet is now feeling the heat. For a time, it seemed as though the president would resist: she appealed for calm in the wake of the attacks, and qualified the attacks as “isolated.”

But the interior minister’s return from Spain has seen those in power largely meet in the middle with their conservative counterparts. They are offering greater surveillance, expanded use of prosecution-immune undercover police, pretrial detention, and a wider definition of terrorism.

Out are plans to decommission Chile’s antiterrorism law, a clunky relic of the Pinochet era which can be brought down like a tonne of bricks on suspected delinquents; it will instead be largely rolled into the national Penal Code. Chilean conservatives are pushing for secret agents to be used in the same role as police, but with none of the oversight, and even further restrictions on civil liberties.

Away from the media-fueled hysteria of the capital, Chileans have every reason to be scared. The antiterrorism law has been used on several occasions in recent years to investigate and put away activists from Chile’s million-strong Mapuche indigenous group, incurring the ire of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Vague assurances that new laws aren’t designed with “social conflicts” in mind provide scant comfort. As Europe shows, the state, when given a hammer, tends to see every problem as a nail.

And if European states — building on a hard-won tradition of rights and transparency — have struggled to get the balance right, Chile’s recent emergence from two decades of dictatorship, heavy traces of which remain on the statute book, should set many alarm bells ringing. Many of her neighbors need little further encouragement to bolster their own state-security apparatus.

Even the most ardent libertarian is likely concede that the state has a role in protecting its citizens from violent death and injury. But the response has to be proportional and measured, not the knee-jerk reactions which have infringed liberties and damaged democratic discourse in Europe.

“There’s no space for terrorism in a democratic system,” Peñailillo said on his jaunt across the pond. So, what goes: the terrorism, or the democracy? Chile’s choice lies before it.

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