Seeing federal agents in Portland in what appeared to be a typical kidnapping of dissidents in a Banana Republic and not a lawful arrest in a country with democratic institutions, brought back memories that I have tried to leave behind.
I came to North America fleeing the horrors of what some have called the Argentinean ´Dirty War´ of the 1970s. Here, I finished graduate school, became an educator, and started a family. But for many years, seeing a police uniform, a knock at the door, hearing the screeching of a car, meant fear.
A fear that I brought from a country where the military had set up task forces that, according to Amnesty International, kidnapped dissidents, transported them to clandestine centers of detention, applied torture as a systematic tool, and extrajudicially executed about 30,000 ´desaparecidos.´
Is it possible that it could happen in America?
In a recent night in Portland, as protester Mark Pettibone has described, he was calmly walking back home when he was suddenly approached by a well-organized group of people in camouflage who did not identify themselves and threw him in an unmarked van. He was blindfolded with his own hat, and taken to an undetermined place that was later established to be a federal detention facility.
The most concerning aspect of what happened in Portland to this American citizen is that this flagrant violation of his constitutional rights does not seem to be product of individual excesses of some rogue officers, but part of an institutional decision. This appears to be substantiated by statements from other protesters who also reported similar incidents in other parts of the country, and a video that went viral and shows federal agents in unmarked vans with the same modus operandi.
The United States is not Argentina of the 1970s, and despite all the misguided policy decisions and arrogant political behavior of President Donald Trump and some of his allies, we still have to a considerable degree an independent judiciary, separation of powers, and a media that asks appropriately ´inconvenient´ questions. In other words, the constitutional and political practices expected in a liberal democracy as envisioned by the philosophers of the Enlightenment.
But having said that, it is also important to remember that, in the past two decades, we had a deterioration of some of our key civil rights protections. Department of Justice officials wrote memos rationalizing the use of torture, the Central Intelligence Agency used extraordinary rendition to kidnap suspected enemies of the State, we set up Black Sites far from the reach of our judiciary, and a president authorized the execution without judicial review of a U.S. citizen. Regardless of the utilitarian validity of these measures during the most challenging days of the War on Terror campaign, they unequivocally undermined the values of liberty and individual freedoms that Jefferson and Madison envisioned and that are part of the essential foundation of our nation.
When I see these officers (who are obviously following orders approved at the highest levels of the U.S. government) engage in methods similar to the Argentine military of the 1970s, I ask myself what is happening to America. How could we have reached a point in history in which state agencies are moving away from their constitutionally sworn duties towards becoming the Pretorian Guard of the man in the White House? The kidnapping of a U.S. citizen in a street of a major city of this nation, even for a minute, could be the opening salvo of the end of the American Experiment.