Chilean President Michelle Bachelet Jeria celbrated on Sunday the 20th anniversary of the end of the Pinochet military dictatorship, which was installed by a coup on September 11, 1973. The "9/11" date has a different political meaning in Chile than in the US. (Chile celebra 20 años sin Pinochet por Manueal Délano El País [Spain] 06.10.2008.)

It was on October 5, 1988, that Chilean voters overwhelmingly rejected a nationwide referendum posed by the dictatorship to authorize its continuation for eight more years. That rejection marked the beginning of the transition to democracy. As part of the deal for the military to leave power, the Chilean parliament agreed to an amnesty for the perpetrators of the various crimes of the dictatorship. The amnesty was later overturned. But the long delay in the democractic government having the legal ability to prosecute criminals from the Pinochet regime no doubt impeded the process of understanding the experience of the dictatorship in terms of the restored democracy.

Délano’s article is a reminder that the poltics of memory are an important part of the legitimation of democracy as much if not more so than for dictatorships. Even though the establishment of official narratives sponsored by the government and conventional-wisdom narratives among civil society inevitably stand in some tension to the impetus of the scientific/professional writing of history.

In her address Sunday, Bachelet said, "aunque a algunos no les guste, no puedo dejar de pensar que no es lo mismo ser padres de la democracia que hijos de la dictadura; que no es lo mismo haber llorado porque Pinochet se iba que porque la democracia llegaba" (and even if some of us don’t like it, I can’t help but think that it is not the same to be parents of democracy as to be children of dictatorship; that it is not the same to have cried because Pinochet left as to have cried because democracy arrived).

In that statement, she is calling attention to the fact that the Pinochet dictatorship wasn’t simply an affliction of natural causes like a plague, but could endure as long as it did only because some significant portions of Chilean society supported it. Even dictatorships have to have some social basis.

The history of democracy and the ending of the various military dictatorships that were so prevalent in Latin America in the 1970s are important stories in themselves. A particularly moving part of that process from Argentina is fictionally depicted in the movie Cautivo: the process of identifying the now-adult children who were kidnapped as babies from "disaparicidos", those who disappeared because they were seen by the Argentine junta considered them enemies of the state. Many of them were placed with families connected the junta and raised by them, creating an incredibly poignant dilemma. Cristina Fernández’ government in Argentina has set it as a priority to intensify the efforts to deal with the crimes of the junta.

The United States has something to learn from this in relation to our current administration. I’m not suggesting that the Cheney-Bush government has been a dictatorship. But it has severely damaged the Constitutional order to the point that I see our government currently as a semi-democracy in which the overwhelming power and significance of the Executive in the federal government severely limits the process of democracy. When the President and Vice President overtly claim the right to break the law and violate the Constitution – and the Congress lets them get away with it and in the case of torture and telecom immunity retroactively indemnify it – we can’t honestly claim that Constitutional democracy and the rule of law are securely in operation.

There needs to be a formal, official, legal reckoning with the various crimes of the Cheney-Bush administration. As Cass Sunstein pointed out at the Netroots Nation convention in Austin this past August, one of the urgent tasks of a new Obama administration will be to dig into the cesspool of secret Executive orders and legal rulings to find out the extent of the problem. Sunstein himself was at best ambiguous about the need to proceed against the perpetrators legally, however.

Failure to do so would be a terrible mistake. Dick Cheney these past nearly-eight years has demonstrated that with an authoritarian Republican Party, a politicized Justice Department and a national security state that has enormous ability to promote a politics of fear, the Constitution, the rule of law and democratic practices can be overridden. Neither this administration or the segregationist governments of the pre-1970 Deep South formally abolished their allegiance to the American Constitution, though the "Unitary Executive" doctrine does so in part. But then the German Weimar Republic constitituion was never formally abandoned either.

There needs to be a real accounting, a legal accounting, of this administration’s major misdeeds. Not just Congressional censure resolutions, not just pious speeches by political leaders, not just a "truth commission", not just a continuation of the journalistic and historical documentation already underway, though all of these would be good in themselves. The major crimes committed by this administration need to be legally investigated and prosecuted, even if Congressional amnesties and Presidential pardons mean that a new Obama administration has to rely on international law rather than American domestic law to proceed legally in some cases.

Our massive national security state in itself is a challenge for democracy even with the best-intentioned of elected officials. As this administration has shown over and over, reliance on the good will of our politicians is not good enough. Not by a long shot. The rule of law has to be take seriously. Which means that those who blatantly violate it as this administration has repeatedly should be held legally accountable.