“Not just a book but a bit of a project” was the understatement that Daniel Rothenberg brought to his reading at Changing Hands Bookstore on April 25.

In the long effort to ferret out what had occurred during a horrific time in Guatemala’s history, Rothenberg had served as an assistant to the chief commissioner on a truth commission—in Guatemala, it was officially titled the “Commission for Historical Clarification.”

Rothenberg is a Professor at the ASU Law School, as well as the Executive Director of the Center for Law & Global Affairs.

I wrote about Rothenberg’s new book “Memory of Silence” in the June issue of Arizona Attorney Magazine. As I pointed out, the book is a welcome version of what had been a 12-volume commission report, all in Spanish. That longer report is available online here.

In his talk at the Tempe bookstore, Professor Rothenberg described the “iconic elements” of Guatemala’s state repression:

  1. Hundreds of massacres, typically in rural areas.
  2. The display of mutilated bodies as a deterrent to dissent.
  3. The use of civil patrols, which often pitted neighbors against neighbors.

That last element—forcing civilians to become a part of the terror apparatus—was one of the most striking findings. And it is an element that is used time and again by despotic regimes.

Daniel Rothenberg at Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Ariz., April 25, 2012

Rothenberg went on to describe recent efforts to bring some of the worst offenders to justice. Those efforts include a prosecution of Efrain Rios Montt, who now faces a second genocide trial.

I am pleased to report that Professor Rothenberg will be on a panel at the upcoming Convention of the State Bar of Arizona. It will be titled “Lawyers in the Aftermath of War and Human Rights Abuses.” The panel is sponsored by the Bar’s World Peace Through Law Section. Convention registration is available here.

Here is my column from the June magazine:

Lawyers without borders is the shorthand I used this month as we were developing this issue, specifically the part that features the global journeys of Arizona attorneys. What took them overseas, we wondered? And what experiences awaited them?

To my surprise, attorneys and the service they perform abroad arose again in April, when I attended a moving bookstore presentation. The writer was Daniel Rothenberg, a law professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. His newly released book is Memory of Silence: The Guatemalan Truth Commission Report.

Rothenberg had worked as the assistant to the lead commissioner charged with examining the large-scale atrocities in that country. The result was a 12-volume report, in Spanish. He has written a compelling book that, happily, is more concise than the report’s 4,400 pages. Ultimately, he said, the Commission found that the horrors inflicted by the state were “so severe and so focused on the indigenous population that they met the legal standard of genocide.”

Packed house at Changing Hands Bookstore, April 25, 2012

The best estimate is that more than 200,000 were killed—mostly civilians—and 50,000 more were “disappeared.” There were thousands of extrajudicial executions, torture, rape and forced displacement.

Listeners at Changing Hands Bookstore leaned forward in their seats as Rothenberg described death on a large scale in a poor country: “Massacres like this are intimate and physically difficult and protracted. They forced civilians to become part of the terror apparatus, to become implicated.”

As the packed room listened to the remarkable narratives of so many survivors, I was reminded of words written by another great writer, Philip Gourevitch. In his breathtaking book detailing the genocide in Rwanda in which Hutu people sought to eradicate the entire Tutsi population, the New Yorker writer explained that a story of atrocities is unbreakably linked to a story of power and the narratives that feed it:

Power largely consists in the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality, even if you have to kill a lot of them to make that happen. … Hutu Power leaders understood this perfectly. If you could swing the people who would swing the machetes, technological underdevelopment was no obstacle to genocide. The people were the weapon, and that meant everybody. … This arrangement eliminated any questions of accountability that might arise. If everybody is implicated, then implication becomes meaningless. Implication in what?

Congratulations to Professor Rothenberg on his work in Guatemala and on his book.