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When rumors of the secret arrests started spreading, few were alarmed. Maybe unidentified security forces were grabbing young people off the streets and shoving them into unmarked cars—who could say. But they must have had a good reason. Those arrested must have been terrorists, or at least radical leftist troublemakers. The government said it was legal.
And anyway, those arrested wouldn’t be gone forever, people figured. It wasn’t like a person could just disappear.
Indeed, the arrests didn’t come out of nowhere. For years, Argentina had been in the throes of civil unrest. Government-backed conservative paramilitary death squads hunted critics of the authoritarian populist president, Isabel Perón. Militant leftists responded by assassinating politicians, police, and the editor of a major newspaper. When the military overthrew Perón in 1976 and launched what it called its “National Reorganization Process,” many Argentinians believed the junta would end the chaos. They didn’t mind if the new leaders had to use a little violence to do so.
What happened was mass murder. Between 1976 and 1983, somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 Argentinians, as well as a smaller number of foreigners, were kidnapped, tortured, and killed by government agents.
Many of those hustled off the streets and into Ford Falcons at gunpoint were taken to secret government prisons. Many were known as pozos, or holes—such as as the Pozo de Banfield, a two-story concrete building across from an apartment complex, bakeries, and a supermarket. “Those who survived would later recall mostly sounds and sensations — a blasting radio that didn’t quite conceal the screams of people being tortured, a thirst so overwhelming it drove one woman to drink urine, the ominous boot steps of guards on the stairs,” the journalist Bridget Huber has written.
The few actual leftist revolutionaries were effectively wiped out in the first year of the campaign. Most of those killed by the regime were students, labor unionists, writers, journalists, and other ordinary citizens who had asked too many questions about where their children and neighbors had gone. Officials lied and made jokes; they told distraught parents their children must be on vacation. The leader of the junta, Gen. Jorge Videla said: “The disappeared are just that: disappeared. They are neither alive nor dead. They are disappeared.”
The junta called it la guerra sucia, the Dirty War, to give it a patina of military legitimacy. But it wasn’t a war. It was one-sided terrorism by a state against its citizens, aimed at crushing political opposition and dissent.
Porteños to Portlanders
We are not in a Dirty War in America. Most of us aren’t, anyway—those whose citizenship status is secure enough to keep us out of a COVID-infested concentration camp, for instance. Regular old non-secret police still murder Black people with relative impunity and seize assets from the poor using forfeiture laws like stick-up kids in summer. But they still have to leave a paper trail, and we can protest them, film them, and demand new laws to hold them accountable. The only people who the U.S. government can throw down a hole without a trace are those we deem terrorists—Islamists, almost exclusively since September 2001; for them, even if they are U.S. citizens, no rights apply.
On those frameworks, a broader fascist campaign of suppression can easily be built. And this president and much of his party are salivating at the chance to carry one out, if given the chance.
The starkest warnings are coming from Portland, Oregon, where unidentified men in military-style uniforms keep pulling over in unmarked rental cars to snatch people off the street.
Investigative journalist Ken Klippenstein identified some of these security forces as agents of U.S. Customs and Border Protection—operating sixty miles from the coast and 250 miles from the closest international border. Since then, administration officials have confirmed that the Justice Department’s U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group has also been there—supposedly, as NPR dutifully summarized, “to protect federal property during the protests against racism and police brutality.”
It’s a bullshit explanation on its face. The only threat to federal property in Portland demonstrated by Trump’s semi-legal acting director of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, has been spray paint. CBP’s only previous expertise in crowd control has been in making situations worse.
In a wildly fascistic move, Wolf told Fox News that his agents are “proactively” arresting people on the suspicion that they might commit some future crime.
Mark Pettibone, a recent Reed College master’s student, was grabbed off the street in Portland by armed men wearing forest camouflage on July 15. He told Oregon Public Radio he was tossed into the van, with “my beanie pulled over my face so I couldn’t see and they held my hands over my head.” It was only after being driven in circles around downtown Portland, dragged into a building, and having his belongings searched that Pettibone was read his Miranda rights. He asked for a lawyer and was released immediately. He was not given any citation or record of an arrest.
Pettibone, in other words, was not “disappeared.” But his case is a warning that we will probably not know if people are. Because the agents are operating in secret, accountable only to an opaque regime, it is impossible to know how many people they have even taken so far, or if all of them have been released.
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum is seeking a federal restraining order that would stop federal agents from detaining protesters without probable cause. But the surviving members of the Argentinian junta could tell her, atrocities can easily be carried out under legal cover.
On the pretense of stopping a supposed national crime wave—an apparent uptick Trump blames not on the collapse of the U.S. economy he has overseen but, in his administration’s typical Alice in Wonderland logic, on his possible future successor—U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr has approved the deployment of federal agents to cities across the country.
It is not at all clear what, if anything, the federal agents are going to do. Several mayors have said they will welcome FBI, DEA, and Homeland Security investigators to help solve crimes so long as they do not replicate CBP’s tactics in Portland (and, presumably, the U.S. Park Police’s attacks on protesters in Washington.)
But as Klippenstein reported yesterday, CBP has already been helping police repress protests, since the original demonstrations over the police murder of George Floyd began in Minneapolis. Black Lives Matter and other activists fear the real aim of the new push is to quash dissent, and are suing the Justice Department to stop it. A public defender in Chicago told Spencer Ackerman she expects federal agents to focus on Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, in terms that would have resonated in Buenos Aires forty years ago: “We’re concerned we’ll have clients arrested and we won’t know what law enforcement agency is doing the arrest, we won’t know where they’ll be detained, or if they’ll be given access to a phone to call.”
Is this all an elaborate troll job on the part of Trump and Barr? The ramping up of something more sinister? Both? We might not know for some time. What is clear is that Trump’s primary intention is to bolster his own power by influencing an election he is currently on track to lose. He said as much last week, deceitfully commenting on the homicide rate in Chicago (which for the moment at least remains below its mid-1990s peak):
This is worse than Afghanistan, by far. This is worse than anything anyone has ever seen. All run by the same liberal Democrats. And you know what? If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell. And we’re not going to let it go to hell.
As in the Dirty War, Trump and Barr are trying to legitimize actions against U.S. citizens by using military-style jargon. They’re calling their urban crackdown “Operation Legend,” named officially for a four-year-old shot to death this summer in Kansas City.
They have also described it as a “surge”—a term borrowed from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. National security reporters including Ackerma and scholars of U.S. imperialism such as Stuart Schrader immediately spotted the theme: Trump and Barr are explicitly drawing on America’s long experience in counterinsurgency—strategies to destabilize and disarm armed rebellions, generally during U.S. military occupations overseas.
As if on cue, John Yoo, the legal architect of George W. Bush’s torture regime, has emerged as one of Trump’s newest advisors, helping craft legal-sounding justifications for Trump to expand his powers to dictatorial proportions.
In June, Trump issued an executive order promising to prosecute anyone who so much as incites vandalism of a statue as having given “material support to terrorism.” He identified its targets as “rioter, arsonists, and left-wing extremists” who believe in “Marxism”—an ideology, the order said, that calls for “the destruction of the United States system of government.”
It is as if Trump (or Stephen Miller or whoever wrote the E.O.) is reading from an old manual from Operation Condor, the decades-long covert effort by dictatorial South American regimes—of which the Argentine junta was a part—to root out dissent (invariably described as “Marxist terrorist activities”) through counterinsurgency and state repression.
Condor was supported by the U.S. government, much of its framework developed at the U.S. Army School of the Americas. In that sense, our old Dirty Wars might be coming home.
Más o menos
I reached out to Federico Finchelstein, a historian and author of The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War to ask how much what is happening in the United States today reminds him of his childhood in Argentina.
In the book, he identifies the main elements of fascism: “extreme and exclusivist nationalism, racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, mass politics, the rejection of the legacy of the Enlightenment, ‘proletarian imperialism’ and anti-imperialism, political violence, state terrorism, dictatorship, and the sublimation of war.”
Trump and his most vociferous supporters embody many, if not all, of those traits. Breitbart, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and the Federalist’s Ben Domenech are accordingly cheering on the authoritarian repression of the protesters in Portland and screaming for more.
Finchelstein said the administration’s “repression of citizens as if it was a war” is, so far, the most worrying sign.
But, he said, “The key distinction is that these are methods of dictatorial governments, and Trump is using it within a democracy.”
If our surviving free institutions refuse to play along, they could halt whatever Trump and Barr are planning. The courts could stand with the people. Even the federal agents themselves could refuse to carry out the orders:
In Argentina, it was the full force of the military—not just what we’d elsewhere call “state security elements loyal to the regime” like CBP and ICE—that signed on to and often directly carried out the repression. Here, notably, the U.S. military seems to have balked and pushed back on efforts by Trump and lawmakers like Tom Cotton to confront and gun down protesters in the streets.
But, I asked, doesn’t the democratic character of our society depend on whether a free and fair election is held this fall—if it can proceed democratically and fairly, and if Trump respects its results? What happens if the democratic institutions that have failed us for the past four years just keep failing?
“This is why [Trump] is a wannabe fascist,” Finchelstein said. “We could be there. But it depends on the rest of us.”
Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the life of Gen. Smedley Butler and the making and breaking of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.