Commentary: A frank discussion about terrorism is missed in Berenson article

Accused American terrorist Lori Berenson, right, hears testimony from Pacifico Castrellon, left, at the Lurigancho men's prison outside Lima, Peru, April 11, 2001.
Accused American terrorist Lori Berenson, right, hears testimony from Pacifico Castrellon, left, at the Lurigancho men's prison outside Lima, Peru, April 11, 2001. MCT

This week’s New York Times Sunday magazine features a story about Lori Berenson, an American citizen who was arrested in Peru in 1995 on terrorism charges. It rambles on for some 8300 words describing in detail what she is wearing and how she is living since she was released from prison last year.

While evoking sympathy for Berenson, the article completely misses an opportunity for some much needed national introspection. Instead of a puff piece, the country would have been better served by a serious discussion of terrorism.

In the article, I am accurately quoted when I described those, like former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who vehemently asserted Berenson was completely innocent and that she remained in jail simply because the U.S. Government did not do enough on her behalf. I said that for me, such people display “a colonial, somewhat-racist mentality that these countries are always wrong, and all we have to do is apply pressure on any underdeveloped country and it will deem an American prisoner innocent.”

For those who may think that harsh, I offer the article itself as proof. The members of the MRTA are described as militants, not terrorists, and much is made of how Peruvian politicians exploited the case for political purposes as if that were proof of innocence.

Berenson is said to have been convicted of “abetting a terrorist plot that never took place” again as if conspiracy to commit a crime was not a crime.

Ironically, the article much later admits that the terrorist plot in question, which was designed to take a large number of hostages, did take place. It happened not at the Peruvian congress, which Berenson visited while posing as a journalist, but a year after her arrest at the Japanese ambassador’s residence.

One would think a journalist would be sensitive to people using that profession as a cover story. And yet the article simply says Berenson had “journalist’s credentials and assignment from two American publications.” Berenson had never written anything that had appeared in print and good luck trying to find the two publications — “Third World Viewpoint” and “Modern Times.”

While the article notes that when arguing for her parole Berenson “apologized if her presence in Peru contributed to violence” it does not mention that Berenson twice last year, in writing, appealed for the commutation of her sentence by apologizing for the “crime of terrorist collaboration.” Instead, almost 6000 words in, it quotes her as saying “It might not have been intentional, but the bottom line is: I did collaborate with them (the MRTA).”

Now that she has at last admitted her guilt to at least being an accidental terrorist, one would think that her experience could be considered in a less racist and neo-colonial way. But the article goes on in great detail about Berenson’s personal life and mentions the 70,000 Peruvians, who died because of terrorism, only in the context of explaining why Berenson’s story evoked such strong reactions in Peru — a country with a population one-tenth the size of the United States.

When terrorist acts were committed against the United States on 9/11, the constitution and supposed American values were quickly thrown overboard as the Bush administration was given carte blanche. Just this week the Supreme Court heard a case in which former Attorney General Ashcroft argued that he was above the law, and therefore not in any way liable for the gross violation of the rights of a man held under the pretext of being a material witness, because it was necessary to combat terrorism.

The article made much of the fact that the former Peruvian president, Alberto Fujimori, was in jail because of excesses committed in his war on terrorism. Meanwhile people like Ashcroft, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld collect seven-figure advances for their books and six-figure fees for their speeches.

The article’s writer is a novelist, not a reporter, so perhaps it was unavoidable that it would focus on Berenson’s earrings and the color of her slacks while glossing over what she did and her responsibility for it.

And forget about having any wider discussion about how societies react to terrorist threats and the excesses committed by their leaders when given the opportunity to exploit their people’s fear. Since we live in a democracy, that would implicate all of us and we would rather not think about that.


Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State's School of International Affairs.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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