His work affected the lives of many millions and other understatements

I remember being 21, a senior in college, sitting in a South American History class that was part of my Spanish minor. We were studying Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean military dictator who came to power (with US help, naturally) in 1973. In his 17-year rule, he murdered thousands and imprisoned, tortured, and “disappeared” tens of thousands of his own people.

He was, objectively, an evil human being. He did unspeakable things, for no other real reason than his own gain. Eventually his misdeeds caught up with him, sort of. He was indicted for several crimes ranging from murder to money laundering. Oddly, it was the revelation of tax fraud, not the known torture and murder of political opponents, that finally eroded the loyalty of his most ardent conservative supporters. He was an old man when he was placed under house arrest and was in the middle his trial when he suffered a heart attack and died in 2006. He had been stripped of power and some respect, but you couldn’t really say he paid for his crimes. Certainly those who were deeply traumatized or who lost loved ones never got justice.

I remember leafing through my textbook and being stopped in my tracks by a photo of Augusto playing with an adoring baby, tossing him in the air, both of them laughing. In that photo, he had a soul…I think? Or at least he could be in the company of something with a soul and survive its light. He had a wife, five children, grandchildren. So perhaps he even knew what it was to love? Somebody loved him. Someone wept bitterly as his heart constricted and closed off for good. Someone misses him.

“I am profoundly sad and heartbroken to report that my husband passed away this morning. He was a loving husband to me, to his [children], and a loyal friend to many. He was also a patriot, profoundly grateful to live in a country that gave him so much opportunity to work hard, to rise — and to give back. During a career that stretched over more than five decades, his work…affected the lives of many millions. And so even as we mourn his death, we celebrate his life…”

On the facing page in my textbook was a photo of Pinochet holding a gun to a man’s head, smiling. I don’t remember now if it was an actual assassination or just big guys with guns kidding around. Because killing is always theater when you control the levers of death.

We make squishy moral distinctions between the man who pulls the trigger and the man who orders the pulling of the trigger and the man who by neglect and ignorance and greed leaves innocents to die in war or famine and the man who dedicates his life to manipulating whole populations into being afraid of anything different so that they feel okay about leaving innocents to die in war or famine. We don’t say it outright, but we have a hierarchy of barbarism: it’s unseemly, but slightly better, to be the guy who turns a blind eye to the serial sexual assault that he knows is happening than it is to be the jowly wrinkled pervert who, with expensive whiskey and red meat on his breath, gropes women and demands their bodies, their dignity, their agency, their silence.

But I’m gonna push back: How are they that different, really? If you’re not actively working to stop it, you’re clearing a path for it.

What do we do with these men who are so steeped in a grotesque version of what it is to be a man, who have visited such pain on the world, whose entire legacy is just that they brought out the absolute worst in everything and everyone around them?

We are, each of us, capable of heroic goodness— I have seen it and I believe it. And we are also capable of being consumed by so much suffocating darkness. The thing is, the vast majority of us will never have the millions of dollars, the business empires, the influential connections, the immunity from accountability that comes with insane power and privilege. We still have access to plenty of tools that allow us to run from our emptiness for our entire lives — that’s easy enough — but we don’t have the ability to lay waste to thousands of lives as a result, and we don’t know what it’s like to make huge choices, confident that whatever the outcome, we’ll never, ever have to answer for any of them.

If you lived your whole life in a Kevlar bubble of wealth and yes-men and dominion and entitlement — would it change how you operate in the world, how you talk to people, your sense of what was owed to you? I know the probable answer for myself, and it is unsettling.

We can breathe a sigh of relief when one monstrous man is finally gone. That’s normal. I know rhe reactions, in 2006 and now: Good riddance. May you burn in hell. The world is better off without you. And that is probably all true and deserved. I don’t judge this reaction; I get it. I also feel like it lets ourselves off the hook a little too easily.

We’re still faced every day with just ourselves, with how we’re going to treat the people we have power over, with how we’re going to deal with our pressing insecurity, our loneliness, our fear, our self-loathing, our intense need to be loved. The scale of consequence is vastly different, sure, but the root is the same.

Because what do we do with the tiny kernel of ourselves that is not so different? With that piece of ourselves that would lie, or willingly believe a lie, or knowingly perpetuate a million lies if it meant we could say we “won”? That bifurcated heart that kisses babies and pulls triggers and smiles at both?