A Meditation on Terrorism and Kidnapping as Legitimate Methods of Protest

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“A state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”. From 1964-1985, Brazil was under the control of a military dictatorship that significantly curbed the civil rights of its the citizens. The regime lasted 21 years, during which it implemented extensive torture and extrajudicial killings in order to suppress so-called “subversives.” The vast majority of these acts were directed towards civilians (Inter-American Court). In an effort to counteract the widespread suppression, violent, stateless, left-wing actors launched paramilitary organizations and liberation movements founded on acts of terror and intimidation. It is important to note at this time that terrorism is a loosely defined term; it is often used pejoratively to discredit movements and groups that oppose larger, more influential belligerents, rather than being used to definitively, rigorously, and precisely determine which groups are terrorists and which are not. For the sake of this essay, we will define terrorism as “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims” (Oxford Dictionary). Of particular consequence is the fact that “unlawful” should not necessarily be associated with “immorality” or “evil.” Laws should not be the prototypical definition of base morality; laws are created by states and morality comes from our own innate and conditioned responses to the world around us. However, both “violence” and “intimidation” are open to interpretation and debate. With this in mind, this essay will examine the diplomatic kidnappings perpetrated by the Brazilian urban guerrilla groups of the late 60s and early 70s, the morality of these acts, as well as the portrayal of guerrillas through the movie, Four Days in September.

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Movimento Revolucionário 8 de Outubro was named in honor of the 8th of October, 1967 — the day Che Guevara was killed. On the 9th of September, 1969, MR-8, in coordination with Ação Libertadora Nacional (ALN), kidnapped the United States ambassador to Brazil, Charles Burke Elbrick. This diplomatic abduction was purposefully designed to place international pressure on the Brazilian government to cooperate with MR-8. In the words of the rebels themselves, “if we had selected the Turkish ambassador, nobody would have paid attention”. The revolutionaries requested that the Brazilian government release 15 political prisoners and publish their manifesto in all major news outlets in exchange for the safe return of Elbrick. The exile of the prisoners to Mexico was of incredible importance to the guerrillas; of even greater consequence, however, was the release of the guerrillas’ manifesto across Brazil.

Garrastazu Médici’s presidency (and the short-lived junta that preceded), lasting from 1969 to 1974, was marked by particularly cruel abuses of human rights (directed towards anyone even vaguely linked to the organized left) and widespread suppression of the press. Thus, the act of kidnapping Elbrick allowed MR-8 and ALN to spread their message of resistance in a state where free speech was often a criminal act. All demands were met by the Brazilian government and Elbrick was released in good condition except for a gash on his head that occurred during the abduction when one of the guerrillas pistol whipped him. Additionally, Elbrick was given a copy of a book by Ho Chi Minh with the inscription, “to our first political prisoner, with the expression of our respect for his calm behavior in action”.

Following the abduction of Elbrick was a notable increase in counter-terrorist activities conducted by the military regime. In fact, just months afterwards, Sérgio Paranhos Fleury, a notorious police chief and torturer — drawing on the accounts of imprisoned and tortured Dominican friars — orchestrated the controversial assassination of Carlos Marighella, the founder and leader of ALN. Nevertheless, the kidnapping of Charles Elbrick was seen as a success, spurring on many similar attempts in Brazil, Latin America, and the rest of the world which were met with varied success. In 1970, Count von Spreti, the West German envoy to Guatemala, was kidnapped and summarily executed upon the failure of the Guatemalan government to comply with the demands of the terrorists. In the wake of von Spreti’s murder, the U.S. consul to Porto Alegre, Curtis C. Cutter, managed to evade abduction by running down one of the guerrillas with his car, escaping with only a shoulder wound. Only two months after von Spreti’s death, Ehrenfried von Holleben, the West German ambassador to Brazil, was kidnapped by urban guerrillas; a security guard stationed in Holleben’s car was fatally wounded. The guerrillas secured the release of 40 political prisoners who were granted asylum in Algeria.

In December of 1970, Giovanni Enrico Bucher, the Swiss ambassador to Brazil, was kidnapped by Vanguarda Popular Revolucionária (VPR) and ALN; again, a security agent was murdered in the abduction. The guerrillas, led by Carlos Lamarca, demanded the release of 70 political prisoners in exchange for Bucher’s life. Due to issues with negotiations over 13 of the 70 prisoners, this became the longest-lived kidnapping of a diplomat in Brazilian history, lasting nearly a month and a half. In the end, the guerrillas lost the 13 disputed prisoners, exchanging them for less controversial choices.

The resolution to the Bucher kidnapping was the last of Brazil’s successful diplomatic abductions under the military regime, all of which occurred during the so-called “Years of Lead” under Médici and duristas (hardliners). All in all, 125 political prisoners were released as a result of these Brazilian “diplonappings.” The success of the guerrillas during this time can be attributed to the Brazil’s concern for its image in the eyes of the international community. In fact, upon hearing of Elbrick’s capture, the triumvirate (the intermediate heads of state between Costa e Silva and Médici) had already decided to concede to MR-8 and ALN’s demands. This was not due to pressure from the United States (although the US was adamant that Brazil do everything in its power to get Elbrick back), but because the leaders saw this as a great public relations opportunity.

Amid rumors and reports of torture, the triumvirate sought to show the world that Brazil was not a humanitarian nightmare, but instead cared about people — the guerrillas were the real problem with Brazil; this treatment of the situation echoed the demagogic Brazilian practice of para inglês ver (for the English to see). Although Brazil may have initially succeeded on the PR front, it also encouraged copycats and led to an environment that allowed “diplonapping” to thrive for over a year. The Machiavellian nature of terrorism is seen by many as an indefensible moral evil. However, the diplonapping conducted by the guerrillas — in particular, the abduction of Charles Elbrick — was absolutely justifiable. The sheer magnitude of suppression during the dictatorship is unthinkable. In December, 1968, the regime passed into law Institutional Act 5, “the strictest instance of government repression and the culmination of a series of decrees mandating surveillance, censorship, and centralized authority during the military regime”.

The act, which was in response to a feeling that Rio de Janeiro was becoming unmanageable — particularly after the March of the One Hundred Thousand. “The draconian laws and close monitoring of campuses that followed this institutional act largely ended widespread campus protest” and non-violent demonstrators “found their activities so restricted that any public demonstrations halted for the next few years”. This effectively forced those who wished to demonstrate into violent means of protest. Many of those directly involved in the kidnapping of Charles Elbrick were students. In a way, the regime actually brought about the intense guerrilla conflicts that plagued Brazil until the mid-seventies. Without an outlet for pacifist protest, students (and civilians in general) had to resort to violent forms of protest. Just as, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “a riot is the language of the unheard,” so were the guerrilla movements of the 60s and 70s. This isn’t to justify heinous acts of terror in Brazil and beyond, but it is to say that there were many factors that led to an environment that all but demanded violent intervention from Brazilian citizens.

However, by all accounts, the diplonappings that took place from 1969-1971 were quite tame compared to most acts we associate with “terrorism.” In particular, we can examine the abduction of Charles Elbrick, which resulted in no casualties and led to the release of 15 prisoners who were subjected to the brutal torture of the dictatorship. The pervasive use of torture and continual human rights abuses alone justifies the actions of the guerrilla groups which targeted military and political persons and entities. Similarly, the disregard most of the Western world felt towards the plight of the Brazilian people further justifies the actions taken by left wing militant groups. The gross imperialism that the US exerted on Brazilian affairs warranted a reaction — and the reaction, was quite reasonable when compared to the United States’ part in orchestrating the coup and legitimizing an undemocratic, abusive regime. T

he movie, Four Days in September, tries to deal with the moral ambiguity of guerrilla groups during the dictatorship, but falls flat in a muddled attempt to fairly understand both sides. The movie focuses mainly on Fernando Gabeira (who authored the book which the movie is loosely based on) and his role in MR-8 and the kidnapping of Charles Burke Elbrick. The film presents the guerrillas as irrational and ill-informed, often portraying them as disillusioned with communist thought that they do not comprehend. One character, Jonas, is particularly cruel, but the development of his character never reveals a reason for this cruelty. Instead, we, the audience, are supposed to assume that Jonas is callous, inhumane, and vengeful because the far left wing ideology that he subscribes to has poisoned his mind. There is no real attempt to demonstrate the ills of the dictatorship or why these people are willing to risk life and limb to fight it. Furthermore, the police interrogator and torturer, Henrique, is developed far more than most of the guerrillas. He is shown to have internal conflicts over torture and there is a real attempt to humanize his actions (which, quite frankly, falls flat due to the horrific nature of his deeds).

The film seems tainted by a distinct bias against the guerrillas and the left wing and almost glorifies the years under military rule and the cold war politics that led the US to topple left-leaning Latin American regimes. The movie ends with Gabeira and his love interest being captured by the police. They are imprisoned and severely tortured until they are granted asylum in Algeria in exchange for the safe return of Ambassador von Holleben. The movie closes with an oppressive atmosphere, with the sense that the military had crushed the spirit of the revolution and that the guerrillas’ efforts were futile, if not self-destructive, in the face of such a domineering power. The abductions perpetrated by guerrilla groups from 1969 to 1971, rather than being fruitless, hollow attempts to intimidate the military dictatorship, were beacons of light and showed the power of humanity to unite against that which is wrong. Although ultimately unsuccessful in their plight to overthrow the regime, the guerrillas were an important representation of resistance to oppression. The pacifist argument against the use of violence only goes so far; for Brazil, the unique suppression of all peaceful forms of protest forced citizens into submission or violence.

In most circumstances, the advocation of violence is ill-informed, but, for Brazil, it would be wrong to blame revolutionaries for resorting to their last option of resistance. This is not to say that all the people involved in these kidnappings were blameless individuals or that they had the best of intentions in mind, but to assume the opposite is just as wrong. The Brazilian guerrillas, with their abduction of Elbrick, set a precedent that led to similar abductions across the globe. Many of these were unjustifiable considering the circumstances within which the perpetrators resided. Such is the case with the Front de Libération du Québec, a Quebec separatist terrorist cell, that, in October 1970, kidnapped James Cross and Pierre Laporte (Laporte was later found strangled to death) in exchange for similar demands to the Brazilian guerrillas.

The difference between these events? The right and ability to peacefully protest was alive and well in Canada at the time. The reason terrorists kidnapped Cross and Laporte was to make a statement, rather than as an act of resistance in a tightly controlled, oppressive state. These distinctions make a world of difference in our view of Brazilian guerrillas, who are often called terrorists, despite being forced into that role by the ruthless and dehumanizing military dictatorship.

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