Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Human Rights Lessons: The Letelier-Moffitt Monument and an International Terrorist Attack

On September 21, 1976, former and now deceased Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet brought international terrorism to the U.S. capital. As part of a plot to eliminate opponents of the military regime which took power in a bloody U.S.-backed coup on September 11, 1973, Pinochet’s crosshairs targeted Orlando Letelier, Chile’s one-time ambassador to the US under President Salvador Allende from 1970-1973. Working in exile after the coup at the Institute for Policy Studies, Letelier, with recently married colleagues Ronni and Michael Moffitt, shared a car ride to work that fateful September day in DC. When the automobile made its routine route to Sheridan Circle via Massachusetts Ave., it exploded. Mr. Moffitt was thrown from the car, but Letelier and Mrs. Moffitt were less fortunate, and were pronounced dead within an hour of the attack.

More than 30 years later, I sat on the sidewalk next to the explosion site to sketch the modest monument memorializing the tragic event. A few people passed me, staring, perhaps wondering (or perhaps knowing) what the monument marked. I, meanwhile, wondered how it came to be--who was responsible for memorializing, in 1981, this place of tragedy and terror. I later learned that the creation of the memorial was connected to the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award, which was established in the immediate aftermath of the attack. After the annual conferment of this important award, ceremony attendees would assemble in homage at Sheridan Circle. Peter Kornbluh, now a senior analyst at the National Security Archive and then a GWU graduate student who helped spearhead the award and memorial initiatives, recently explained that after the first few awards ceremonies there was a need among the victims’ families and friends for something at the site much more concrete: an approximately three-foot high monument with a granite base, crowned by a bronze plaque with the profiles of Letelier and Moffitt that matched the commemorative coin handed out with the award. The inscription reads “Justice, Peace, Dignity,” followed by the victims’ names, birthdates, and Sept. 21, 1976.

It is curious though that although peace has since returned to Chile, justice and dignity are still watchwords for many victims—and their allies—of Pinochet’s terror. In fact, in Chile, many of these actors and the organizations they have formed turn to memorialization to achieve a justice and dignity that has been far from forthcoming despite two official truth commissions (Rettig, 1991 and Valech, 2004), modest economic reparations, and a few nominal convictions of Pinochet’s perpetrators. A 2007 conference report, Memorialization and Democracy: State Policy and Civic Action, suggests memorialization is second in import only to economic reparations for victims of state sponsored violence. As such, Chile in the post-dictatorship era has seen almost unparalleled activity in memorialization and commemoration events, with many, if not all, formulated under the language of human rights.

But back in the US human rights language isn’t normally associated with memorial making—though, importantly, the Letelier-Moffitt monument is. It was fascinating for me to learn of the relationship between the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award and accompanying monument. This is undoubtedly an indicator of the vibrant human rights movement which was ignited on exactly the same day Pinochet took power in Chile in 1973. As Edward Cleary writes in the opening pages of Mobilizing for Human Rights in Latin America (2007), “The watershed event in the contemporary human rights period for most observers of Latin America from the United States and Europe was the bloody coup that occurred on the ‘other September 11th.’” Thus, while Pinochet flexed his power, so too did the families and friends of Letelier and Moffitt. By establishing a human rights award in conjunction with a human rights memorial, these activists responded with powerful practical and symbolic tools to reproach Pinochet’s crimes against humanity, insisting on the political meanings of this sacralized ground. In fact, in a delayed way, the memorialization efforts in DC in 1981 can be considered a precursor to the many human rights memorials that stand today in Chile. And this is of no small significance because, according to the “Memorialization and Democracy” report, Chile “has made exciting progress in reconstructing the memory of gross human rights abuses” and “serves as an example for other countries.”

Yet like Chile today and DC yesterday, marking sites of tragedy and terror is hardly a seamless process. In DC, Kornbluh and company met opposition from the political right, including conservative pundits who labeled the monument “communist.” Moreover, between its construction and inauguration, the monument was defaced with red paint on more than a couple of occasions by, it is suspected, Pinochet’s embassy officials. This forced Kornbluh, after many hours cleaning and much elbow grease, to buy a tarp and chain to protect the monument. As for Chile, memorializing sites of tragedy and terror, of detention and torture, comes with an impossibly long list of complications that include, but are not limited to, state stonewalling, schisms among human rights organizations, and site specific contingencies. Yet, a closer reading of these complications reveals more than the controversies that they provoke: an engagement by civil society to confront directly—and publicly!—the atrocities of the past. In Chile, alone, there are close to 150 permanent human rights memorials, with 12 of those deemed National Historic Monuments.

Today the Letelier-Moffitt monument no longer generates the controversy it once did; nor, do I suspect, does it receive more than modest attention beyond the insiders who know the story of Orlander Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. Kornbluh, though, would like to see an addendum added (next) to the monument that specifically cites the terrorist attack to better inform those passerbies wondering what it marks. Because as much as it memorializes Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, so too does it begin to shed light on the influence of an international human rights movement sparked by Chile’s military coup--and, of course, how this movement has turned towards memorializing sites of tragedy, torture, and terror in an effort to achieve justice and dignity.

~ Zachary McKiernan

Image credits: Peter Kornbluh (monument), Zachary McKiernan (sketch)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Diggin' the census

From the early 1900s on, the interest in genealogy has been fairly widespread in Norway. Lately though, there has been an explosive increase in interest. This can be contributed to two main factors. One is the series “Who do you think you are?” (Norwegian version). The other factor is the release of the digitized version of the 1910 census, now available online.

Researching family history might be easier for Norwegians than for Americans. Unique to Norway is the amount of resources available to genealogists. There is a plethora of sources easily accessible online. Genealogy is also very popular in neighboring Sweden and Denmark, but the genealogist’s situation there is different. Swedes have to pay for material Norwegians can access online for free. The Danish situation is quite similar to the Norwegian, but they lack our unique and extremely useful tool, the bygdebok, which will be addressed later. In other European countries (for example, Germany) there are few sources online. Parish records, for instance, can only be obtained through archives, and for a fee.

The National Archives of Norway are responsible for digitizing sources and making them available for researchers and the general public. The work of digitization and transcription is however divided between the different regional state archives and universities. Available online, and free of charge are: the censuses of 1801, 1865, 1875 (not completed), 1900 and 1910. Most parish registers are scanned and available online, and the work is still in progress. The parish registers contain births, christenings, confirmations (confirmation was mandatory before getting married), marriages, and burials (millions of pages). Also available are sources like probate records and real estate records, at least 14 million pages. In addition to work done by the state archives and universities, a lot of material is scanned and transcribed by genealogists and local history societies. This gives the Norwegian hobby genealogist access to an enormous amount of information online.

But how to proceed? All the public records can be accessed through the Digital archive’s homepage (i.e. the National Archives of Norway in collaboration with the universities). The Digital archive’s homepage contains several links that can be helpful to the new genealogist. There are links to a Forum for contact with the Digital Archives, the Users Forum, and “Ask the National Archives”. There’s also a link to an online course (interactive and free) in gothic handwriting. The reason for learning to read gothic handwriting is that only the censuses are transcribed; the other sources are scanned documents, i.e. primary sources.

But all the easily accessible resources online don’t fully explain why genealogy is so popular in Norway. There are two other important factors to consider: Knowing with certainty where your great grandparents come from (as most Norwegians do), does make it easier to start tracing the family history. Not knowing when your great grandparents were born, only where, the common tool to use would be the bygdebok (literally village book).

The bygdebok is a genre unique to Norway, and in my view of great importance to the popularity of genealogy in Norway. This kind of local history has been addressed by some of Norway’s finest historians, and has been seen as a legitimate pursuit among historians. In Denmark, by contrast, local history has been regarded with a certain amount of skepticism, has had little prestige in the past, and was by some seen as contributing to separatism, and therefore not encouraged. The Norwegian bygdebok can be described as a form of total history. In these bygdebøker the local history is recorded, usually starting with a description of the archeological finds in the area. As a rule the names of owners and families living on each farm hundreds of years back are provided. It would be fair to say that these books cover most of Norway. Some of the bygdebøker are available online, otherwise the ones you need can be sent to your local library free of charge. The bygdebøker are widely used by genealogists, although in the genealogist community it’s expected that every genealogist also checks the primary sources. If not, she can risk getting the nickname “bygdebokavskriver” (avskriver = copier).

The general interest in genealogy has led to international actors with different agendas popping up online. If you need to boost your genealogical pride, you can hitch your ahnentafel to GENI (a collaborative genealogy platform) as I did on a winter night. According to GENI I’m related to many significant Norwegian profiles, all the way back to the legendary king Nor who established Norway. However, the ancestors you find on GENI must be taken with more than a grain of salt, though it must be said that there are several capable moderators continually cleaning up the lineages. As for now, I take pride in the surprising (and well documented) discovery of an ancestry of well respected boat builders and well educated men and women living in a small valley in Vestlandet (the western part of Norway) stretching back hundreds of years. Finding these previously unknown ancestors has made me curious for more information. Several of the boat builders kept a “diary”, records of incidents in the family, and of the boats they built and sold. This book is published (three books bound into one), and two days ago I got it in the mail. It was interesting reading, and reading it has only spurred me on...

There are ongoing projects, many collaborative efforts between professionals and amateurs, to make even more material available to the public. In the future I expect the databases will get more user-friendly and better coordinated with each other. There’s a certain urgency about identifying the pictures in the museum’s databases before it’s too late, and also for people to share old photographs they possess with the public. There is in all the projects mentioned here an underlying thought of a common inheritance--an inheritance we work together to preserve, which is for everyone to use and enjoy.

Bottom line, in Norway genealogy can easily become an obsession, and for most people the hobby has challenges enough for more than a lifetime.

~ Anett Ytre-Eide

Guest blogger Anett Ytre-Eide earned a Master of Philosophy in Culture and Ideas Studies from the University of Oslo in autumn 2010. She is interested in living history, phenomenology and "thinking with her feet", and is a new genealogy enthusiast. The conductor of the military band in the c. late 1890s photo above is her second great grandfather Samuel.