Civilization and Barbarism

A story twice told

One year ago today, I was in Santiago, Chile, delivering the last of a series of eight lectures at the Universidad de los Andes on “The Moral Foundations of a Free Society.” I was speaking to a group of 50 college-age students, most of whom were from Latin-American countries extending from the Rio Grande to Patagonia. It was the eleventh consecutive year that I’d been to Santiago to deliver my freedom lectures.

I love my Latin-American students. They’re smart, thoughtful, and they care deeply about freedom. The Brazilian students in particular have demonstrated a positive and principled commitment to promoting a free, flourishing, and peaceful society that makes me smile for their future. By contrast, my heart breaks every year when I hear the heart-wrenching stories from my Venezuelan students, who can hardly hold back their tears as they explain how their country has descended into poverty and violence via Chavismo socialism.

It’s fitting that I deliver these lectures in Santiago, which is viewed by many young Latin Americans as a kind of free-market “city upon a hill.” Santiago is a dynamic and stunningly beautiful city set at the foot of the Andes mountains. Architecturally, the city strikes the eye as a cross between San Diego and a Spanish provincial city. Santiago is the heart of the Chilean economic miracle and its the poster child for free-market reforms in Latin America.

With its burgeoning wealth and sense of optimism, the city has been a shining example of what is possible when people are left free to create, produce, and trade. My students come to Santiago to see a model of how to move a country from poverty to wealth and from authoritarian rule to freedom.

But last year was different—very different. When I landed in Santiago and went to my hotel in the heart of the city, I knew immediately that something had changed. The city’s stores, restaurants, and office buildings were boarded up and defaced with anarchist and communist graffiti.

Beginning about 6 months before last year’s return visit, Chile was hit with violent street protests and demonstrations that led to serious loss of life (at least 28 people), physical injury (2,500+ people, including over 2,000 police officers), and high levels of property destruction and looting (several billion dollars in losses and damages). At one point, the government declared a temporary state of emergency and briefly put the military in control.

As a result of these coordinated protests, 300,000 Chileans (primarily low-skilled workers) were unemployed. As usual, these kinds of protests, which are said to be in the name of the poor, almost always hurt the poor exclusively.

And not only did Santiago look different, but the vibe on the street was also different. The city seemed to have suffered a kind of psychic wound from the riots. I saw, heard, and felt a kind of reluctance and reticence on the street. Instead of enjoying Santiago’s thriving outdoor culture, everyone seemed to be hurrying home as quickly as possible. The best citizens seemed, to be in a state of hiding.

And Then Came Chaos

At the end of my week of lectures, I got into an Uber and headed for the airport to return home. My driver, for reasons I do not understand, did not take the most direct, fastest, and safest route.

Instead, he drove through the heart of the city and through the area of Santiago known to have hosted the most violent street protests. Traffic was backed up and moving at a snail’s pace. I was growing increasingly concerned that I would be late for my flight. Off in the distance, we could see smoke billowing up in the sky. We both assumed it was some kind of fire.

After about 45 minutes and only having moved a couple of miles, we got closer to a major intersection, where a traffic bottleneck had formed. Off in the distance, I could see little plumes of smoke waltzing in the air just above the street lights, people standing on cars waving their arms, and I could hear loud “pops.” As we inched closer to the intersection it became obvious that some kind of serious altercation was taking place, but we had a truck in front of us, so we couldn’t really see what was happening.

And then we finally got within about 25 yards of the intersection and realized that we were driving into the middle of a violent street protest and had nowhere to go but forward into the breach.

As we approached the intersection, it was clear that we were now at Ground Zero of a violent, anarcho-Communist street riot with no way to escape. (Their ideology was clear from their placards and the graffiti in the immediate area.) My driver was visibly and audibly worried. He was worried for our physical safety, and he was worried that his car, which represented his livelihood, would be damaged.

At the intersection, some 20 masked and armed vandals had put spiked chains and barbed wire down on the road, thereby preventing cars from either moving forward through the intersection or turning left.

Five masked thugs wielding bats and large rocks then surrounded our car and started pounding and rocking it. They also had big red fire extinguishers that they were spraying cars with and threatening to throw through car windows. They screamed at us in a way reminiscent of a scene from the film “The Killing Fields” as the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. The driver pleaded with them to let us through, which only made them angrier.

Even though these thugs were wearing bandanas and masks over their faces, you could clearly see their eyes—and the eyes are the entry point to the soul.

At the crucial moment, as they were banging the car and car windows, one of them pressed his face up on my passenger side window. His face was no more than a few inches from mine. In that single moment, I saw the deranged eyes of a rabid jackal setting on its prey. I have never in my life seen this kind of ideological non compos mentis. It was sheer savagery.

The rioters forced us to turn down a small side street, which was unnerving given that we didn’t know where it would take us or to whom. As we turned onto the side street about 15 police in full riot gear with tear gas rifles made a charge. The vandals then responded by hurling large rocks. Panicked civilians, including women with young children, ran in every direction. It was total chaos. This was a full-on riot and my driver and I were in the middle of it.

My greatest concern at this point was that the anarcho-communist thugs would see that I was wearing a U.S. Army t-shirt (in honor of one of my sons), which almost certainly would have meant, at the very least, a good beating.

I can tell you that what I saw at that moment was terrorism. In the car directly beside us, there was a young family with two small children. The parents were absolutely terrified and trying to show the vandals that they had small children in the vehicle. I’ve never seen such innocent fear. The terrorists had zero concern.

For just a few minutes and in the light of day, I was in the heart of darkness.

Eventually, we got through the chaos and I got to the airport with no time to spare. My driver was badly shaken by the experience, and I was relieved to get on a plane back to the United States.

It’s now a year later and to my great horror many American cities now look like Santiago did on the day I left it. We’ve had our riots. Many innocent civilians have been murdered or badly injured on our streets. Property damage has been extensive. Entire districts of our major cities are now boarded up and defiled with graffiti.

Civilization is a fragile thing. It must be nurtured and protected. The forces of savagery are closer—much closer—than you think.