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Terror On Trial
Thinking about Shining Path, and those like them.


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EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the April 10, 2006, issue of National Review.

Every so often, the world relearns the difficulty of trying a certain kind of monster in court. Nuremberg stands as the eternal example; some people still think they should have been lined up and shot. In The Hague the other day, Milosevic dropped dead, frustrating his prosecutors, and others. Saddam Hussein, of course, continues his judicial theater. Although the judge in the case–currently Raouf Abdel-Rahman–sometimes gets the upper hand. On March 15, Saddam boasted, “I am the head of state.” Judge Abdel-Rahman corrected, “You used to be a head of state. You are a defendant now.”

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A half a world away, Abimael Guzmán is also a defendant. In the roster of 20th-century monsters, he has a place. The difference between Guzmán and Saddam Hussein–and the Nazis and Milosevic and the Rwandan butchers and many others–is that Guzmán never gained power. But in his country, Peru, he managed to kill at least 40,000 people, depending on how you do the accounting. He also wreaked $30 billion in material damage, and left a legacy of fear. Not bad for twelve years’ work, accomplished by a former philosophy professor at a provincial university.

You may have forgotten Guzmán and his movement, Shining Path, but I will inflict some reminding. Abimael Guzmán Reynoso was born in 1934, and his university was in Ayacucho, high up in the Andes. He was a leader in the China-favoring faction of the Peruvian Communist party. In 1970, he christened his movement the “Shining Path of José Carlos Mariátegui,” after the founder of that party.

Guzmán thought of himself as the heir to Marx, Lenin, and Mao. He had no use for the contemporary Soviets, viewing them as soft. The Cubans and the Nicaraguans–the Castroites and the Sandinistas–were laughable pipsqueaks to him. He reviled Deng Xiaoping, for his departures from Mao. The Communists he really admired were the Khmer Rouge, and he shared their totalizing philosophy. Guzmán was openly genocidalist. At its peak, his movement had 10,000 fighters, and these included adolescents. They killed with particular ease and glee.

Guzmán’s plan was to control the countryside and then strangle the cities, conquering all of Peru through “a river of blood.” The plan was launched in earnest on May 17, 1980, when his forces attacked a polling place in tiny Chuschi. This was deeply significant. Peru was just emerging from more than ten years of dictatorship; democracy was in bud. At Chuschi, Shining Path burned the ballot boxes. They could not tolerate any democratic flowering, because that was not the future they had in mind for Peru.

If you discern a similarity to the current insurgency in Iraq, you are not undiscerning. Indeed, to review the campaign of Shining Path in the 1980s and ’90s is to be struck by many similarities to today’s Iraq.

Shining Path took care to kill all the politicians it could–and all the government officials, and all the voters, and anyone at all who dared participate in the democracy. People refused to run for office, for fear that they or their families would be killed . . .

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