40 Years Later: Storytelling, Memory, and Justice

September 11, 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the U.S.-backed coup in Chile that transformed Latin America's oldest democracy into its most brutal dictatorship. Among the thousands of atrocities committed by the military forces led by the usurper Augusto Pinochet was the abduction and murder of Charles Horman, a young American journalist living in Chile who learned about the U.S. role in the coup.

In 1982, the story of Charles Horman's disappearance and the exhaustive efforts by his wife Joyce and his father Ed to find him, was immortalized in the Oscar-winning film, Missing. There is a moment in the film in which the US Ambassador to Chile says to Ed Horman, "Let's level with each other, sir. If you hadn't been personally involved in this unfortunate incident, you'd be sitting at home complacent and more or less oblivious to all of this."

Knowing their stories, seeing the deep love for Charlie that drives them and binds them together as allies in seeking justice makes us, the film's audience, personally involved. It is their journey that gives the film its moral force, placing it among a collective body of art that jolts us out of complacency in the face of atrocity.

Storytelling is crucial to the fight for justice in every realm, in no way more so than in knocking those of us outside a conflict out of our oblivion and lack of empathy. Dehumanization of the "other"--as is well documented--is a factor in setting the stage for atrocities to occur. It is harder to kill or displace others it they are seen as human.

Stories are the connective tissue that binds us all together as humans and allows us to know the "other:" to be able to see each other as we see ourselves. Through storytelling, we discover who we are, and declare ourselves as beings with individual desires, thoughts, feelings, and circumstances. It allows us to be awake to new ways of creating our lives, and collectively our societies. Stories let us conquer our fears, reconcile our pasts, and reframe the conversation. And they allow us to name the thing that happened: the tragedy, the atrocity, or the hurt.

As a tool of social justice, storytelling is of course not without its risks. There are dangers of protecting identity, mapped out and dealt with by organizations such as WITNESS or Videre. There are the risks of propaganda and manipulation. And in today's world of interconnectedness and rapid-fire spread of content, there is the danger of inaccuracy, lack of verification, or artistic license that misleads as much as it may inspire.

But to tell or listen to a story creates a bond of recognition between teller and listener: "I too have seen this. I too have suffered. I know you had a name, a way of dressing, a favorite food, a naughty secret, or a man or woman you loved and held. As do I. " When we can empathize, we can act more justly to shape the policies that affect individual lives. Facts, statistics, and generalizations are not enough, and often obscure the real human cost of our policies and decisions.

And so storytelling becomes an essential element in mobilizing public opinion and collective action both during and after a crime against humanity, and in the discourse on accountability in the aftermath of atrocity. These instruments of culture are an invitation to fight repression and preserve a link to the past and a hope for the future. One can see these tools at use in the South African truth and reconciliation commissions. At the monuments at Gesozi, Plaza Mayor, or Dachau, and so many like them that ask us to say "never again." In documentaries like The Act of Killing, The Devil Came on Horseback, or Nanking. And in the work of organizations like the Shoah Foundation, Three Generations, or the Aegis Trust.

These storytellers write a love letter to humanity with every stroke of the pen, keyboard, or paintbrush. With today's technological interconnectedness, we are able to create an environment of support for truthful storytelling and cultural interventions in society and memory, crucial to an informed populace that can fight repression and activate for justice. In the face of history repeating over and over again, in Srebrenica, Rwanda, Egypt, and at this very moment in Syria, we must.

For inspiration, we return to the story of Joyce and Charles. Joyce has fought since the day of the coup 40 years ago, founding the Charles Horman Truth Foundation in honor of Charlie and all the victims. Through the project, she tells the story of her family, her journey, and everything she has lost and gained in the time--a story that reflects the experience of families whose lives are altered irrevocably due to violent events beyond their control, and one that is all too common in the 20th and 21st centuries.

On September 9th, the CHTF commemorates the 40th anniversary of the coup by mounting a tribute to universal jurisdiction, to the work of human rights defenders such as Baltasar Garzón, Juan Guzman, and Peter Weiss, among others. It will also be a monument to the triumph of memory, and the role of the story, in moving toward justice, reconciliation, and healing for the past four decades, as well as a tribute to the international network of non-governmental actors, institutional actors, activists, artists, and survivors, who have all been bound together by a common cause, and a common narrative thread. It is a testament to their humanity, and to their love of it.