On the State Uses of Memories of Terror: Deterring Political Participation in Democratic Argentina

Guillermina Seri, University of Florida

Terrorism is broadly understood as the purposeful act or threat of violence by non-state actors to create fear and/or compliant behavior in a victim and/or audience of the act or threat. Terrorism's analogue, terror, has also been used by states. However, the dimensions of state terror are still relatively negleted in the literature on the subject. The academic and analytical avoidance of state terror seems to be linked to the problematic dimensions of the modern state that terror brings to light, as well as to the special difficulties its analaysis poses. from the Nazi genocide to the Stalinist purges to the more recent authoritarian regimes in Latin America between the 60s and the 80s, it is possible to see how in certain circumstances the state develops policies of annihilation to target a part of its own civilian population. The purpose of this paper is to begin to explore the need of modern states for internal pacification with state produced genocide, ethic cleansing, and mass execution. Moreover, this paper examines some of the discursive uses of the memories of terror by democratic governments to deter people from engaging in political participation, as well as to explore the reasons for their differential effectiveness through time. State terror appears as a problematic conjunction that challenges the semantic stability of the two apparently antithetical notions involved.

The generalization of fear, the emergence of a permanent state of threat among the population and their consequent political docility are some of the main effects of policies of state terror. Yet, the effects of those policies may reach far beyond the concrete victims and spectators involved. Indeed, even under democratic rule the memories of state terror may be used discursively by the state as a form of threatening a part of its population in order to achieve similar effects than terrorist policies but without apparently doing any violence to the people. In order to do this I will present and contrast the following two cases from Argentina: the government of Carlos Menem's successful deterrence of schooll teacher mobilization during 1992 through the use of a threatening appeal to memories of the "disappeared", with the 2001 fall of Fernando De la Rua's government accelerated by the Argentine public's paradoxical reaction before the declaration of the state of siege.

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Updated 05/20/2006