Sunday, February 17, 2008

Something Rotten


The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?
by Francisco Goldman

I often think of that line from Shakespeare's Hamlet - "Something is rotten in Denmark" when I read about pervasive political oppression and corruption. It is easy to read The Art of Political Murder and get all incensed about what is rotten in Guatemala. If we stop and think, though, we realize that such problems are not limited to Guatemala. There is something rotten within all of us - all who commit atrocities against their fellow human beings and those of us who allow it to happen. Human rights abuses pervade the globe. We who live in the United States have it much better than people in so many other countries, because we can speak out against injustice and corruption without fear of getting murdered for it. Sadly, though, our country has a history of propping up corrupt governments like the military dictatorship that ruled Guatemala by terror for more than 35 years. Evidently, there was a period of our history where we would support and render aid to just about any government, no matter how hideous, as long as they were not Communist.

I read Francisco Goldman's novel The Long Night of White Chickens many years ago - it is a fictionalized version of a person's "disappearance" - the euphemism used in Guatemala when someone who has spoken out for fair treatment and free speech is abducted, tortured, and/or killed. Goldman has been a journalist for many years, writing for publications like The New Yorker and Harper's. The Art of Political Murder is his first non-fiction book. It is the story of the murder of Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi in 1998 and the investigation and trials that followed.

Bishop Gerardi had been a longtime activist for human rights and had founded his archdiocese's Office of Human Rights. Just after a report was published by this same Office of Human Rights, a report that recounted in detail many persons' experiences with being harassed and tortured by the Guatemalan government, Bishop Gerardi was assassinated in his own garage. The report also included people's stories about friends and family members being murdered - usually in some horrifically brutal way. It was similar to the reports published by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, intended to bring out the truth and begin the long process of healing for Guatemala. Tragically, the report's release triggered a new round of "extrajudicial executions," the repurcussions of which are still felt in Guatemala today.

Bishop Gerardi's killing is appalling, but equally (or more) frightening is the number of high-level government officials who colluded in the murder, and the reign of terror that continued during the investigation. Investigators and prosecuting attorneys received death threats and many had to go into exile. By the time the case went to trial, it was on its third prosecutor. The judges on the case were also harrassed and threatened. Key witnesses would turn up dead - often murdered in strange ways reconfigured to look like accidents. The brazenness of the actions is incredible.

It is disheartening to think that this kind of stuff still goes on in our world, when we are supposed to be so much more civilized and humane than we were even a century ago. The Art of Political Murder is in many ways a discouraging book to read, but Goldman ends on a positive note. By the end of the book, three military officers have been convicted of complicity in the the bishop's murder, paving the way for other intelligence workers and political officials to be investigated for their part in the slaying. This was a first for Guatemala, and her people find hope in this one small step toward justice. I hope many people will read this, even though it is not an uplifting book. It is important to know that these things still happen, and to pray for guidance as to how people of faith might work to stop them.

Reverent Reader

6 Comments:

At 2/17/08, 9:26 PM , Blogger Roy said...

Leslie,

thank you for lifting up this book and for bearing witness to this small acts of truth-telling. I think it is precisely by these small acts that each of us constructs a moral life.

 
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