Infernal Machine   /   March 25, 2014

Where the Disappeared Reappear

In what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and compelling books in political philosophy in the last century, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt argues that politics is a world of "appearances.” Far from a cynical commentary on the hypocrisy of politicians, Arendt’s claim entails both a realistic acknowledgement that the only way we can do political business is by relying on appearances, and a more value-laden argument for the classical republican virtue of publicity. "For us," she writes, "appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves—constitutes reality," by which she means a political reality. To be a political being, to have a political existence, is to be a being that appears before others in public.

Therefore, perhaps the greatest form of political violence (as distinguished from broader forms of violence), is to be forcibly removed from the world of appearances, or to be “disappeared.” We have been seeing the shock of the “disappeared” in the recent media preoccupation, border-lining on hysteria, over the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.  Escaping the headlines, but as significant, there are now reports of people being “disappeared” in the Crimea, a form of political violence consistent with the overall program Russia is pursuing in the Crimea. Indeed, in its most essential aspects, the Crimea is being won by Russia through the forceable management of appearances.

To be “disappeared”—a perverse if starkly accurate use of the passive voice—is not just to be kidnapped or killed. We know of political hostages and martyrs that are absent in body but are still very present as public figures in memory and imagination. To be “disappeared” is something qualitatively different. It is to be removed from the political world in such a way that no public memory or imagination is allowed. The political violence of being “disappeared” is not just against a particular person, but against the whole of the political society in which that person had his or her public being. A regime that engages in disappearances is a regime that so terrorizes its citizens that no memorial, no recognition, no acknowledgement of an absence is allowed.

As we think about what is happening in the Crimea, we might turn our attention southward. As much as any people in the past fifty years, the people of Guatemala have suffered from the violent state management of appearances. During the 1980s especially, the National Police in Guatemala City—supported by the United States with materials and training—would regularly pull people off streets and sidewalks in broad daylight and force them into the back of vehicles to make them disappear forever. Bystanders would see these kidnappings, but would typically do nothing—for if they did, they were sure to be “disappeared” too. Indeed, the act of “disappearing” was a public act, but it was a form of terror. It was a means by which the Guatemalan state maintained ruthless control over its citizens. During the course of Guatemala’s long “civil war” (a misnomer, I think), some 40,000-50,000 persons were “disappeared.”

Several weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting people in Guatemala City who are today, some twenty years after peace accords were signed between the Guatemalan state and guerrillas, attempting to make the “disappeared” reappear. I plan on writing more about these people in future posts, but here I want to focus on the remarkable work being done at the National Police Historical Archive, quite possibly the most active political site in all of Guatemala.

Making the disappeared reappear: a photo box at the National Police Historical Archive. (Photo by Ned O'Gorman)

When the United Nations brokered a peace agreement in the 1990s, the National Police were told to turn over all their records to human rights investigators. The National Police denied having any records at all. Indeed, for nearly a decade after the peace talks the Guatemalan people, and the people who cared about them, lived as if no records existed. The archival history of the National Police, too, had been “disappeared.” It was as if the dictator's violence against people in Guatemala—unlike that perpetrated by the Nazis against their victims—had been so thoroughly perfected  that not even a written trace of the "disappeared" could be found. If the state’s power is in part derived from “data,” the perfect way to make state power invisible is to make data disappear. (As I discussed in an earlier post, a less perfect but still effectual way to make state power invisible is to consider it mere data, or “meta-data.”) And so the Guatemalan people lived with the double horror of having their friends and loved ones “disappeared” so thoroughly that not even a record of the disappearance could be found.

This was the case until 2005, when the Human Rights Ombudsman office in Guatemala City received a phone call from citizens worried that explosives were being kept in an apparently abandoned old police building. There were in fact no explosives to be found, but there was plenty that was politically explosive. The Ombudsman found millions of police records, stacked  floor to ceiling in decaying piles. The records, it turns out, dated back all the way to 1882, and included thousands upon thousands of ID cards, photographs, logs, notes, and case records, including records on the “disappeared.” The Ombudsman took immediate custody of the building and began what would become a massive archival project, the stakes of which are not just historical but political: the Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional, as it is called today, is not bringing the dead back to life, but it is resurrecting thousands of people politically as it is making them reappear as public figures.  You can see them at the Digital Archive of the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive.