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An Iconoclastic Icon
Ingrid Betancourt said no to slavery, even at the risk of death.
8 July 2008

Public opinion, government officials, ordinary citizens, and her friends and family—all are moved by, and rejoice in, Ingrid Betancourt’s liberation from the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Bravo to the woman who survived and stood fast in her tropical gulag; to her family, who moved heaven and earth to secure her release; to the organizations that fought against forgetfulness; and to the politicians who worked tirelessly to free her. Such joy aside, however, I fear that the thunderous worldwide applause may smother, with flowers and compliments, a troublesome and insistent truth—one that the hostage pondered ceaselessly during her six-year ordeal and has sought to deliver to us since her arrival on the Bogota tarmac. This truth alone gives absolute meaning to her liberation.

From the outset, Betancourt has congratulated the Colombian army and President Álvaro Uribe for the military operation that saved her. She praised not only its impeccable success but also—as she deliberately pointed out—its daring, for any military operation risked going awry for some unforeseen reason and leading to the execution of the hostages, as has sometimes happened in earlier attempts. Unlike her family members—who, she is careful to emphasize, have always so feared losing her that they distrusted and criticized Uribe’s adventurism and militarism—Betancourt congratulates the Colombian president. To be sure, Operation Checkmate could well have ended in bloodshed; but Betancourt had long wished for it, ready to face death if necessary. This had become a matter of principle for her. Better, she said, “a second of freedom,” even deadly freedom, than an eternity of slavery. She had attempted five escapes, and in retribution the guerilla fighters had chained her up by the neck. “I always avoided imagining my wife’s living conditions,” her husband said. “Now I know she lived like a dog.”

Betancourt’s choice, which she has proclaimed loud and clear since her first breaths of free air, is the result of mature reflection: rather the possibility of a bloody outcome than the life of a dog. She does not tell us that anything is better than death; she says rather that freedom is worth any price. From the depths of her hell, she confided this long-held conviction in a message to her mother: “I no longer eat; I have no appetite . . . I no longer want anything and I believe that is the only good thing that has happened to me. It is better this way: to want nothing more in order to be free.” This stoic from the heart of the jungle was already affirming a passion stronger than death, more commanding than life—her unconditional passion for freedom. Hence her unshakable choice, which she opposes to the pacifism that she professed before her descent into the abyss: yes to liberation by military means, with its risks and perils; yes to the president who courageously confronts the possibility of a failure that would bring down upon him worldwide condemnation and the definitive anathema of right-thinking people everywhere.

Public opinion will soon forget the current praise of the forceful liberation of hostages, as well as the heretical defense of the risks and responsibilities assumed by liberators and liberated alike. Who remembers the Jews at Auschwitz who prayed that their camp be bombed? Who still dares to mention that the zeks of the Soviet gulag hoped, along with Solzhenitsyn, that the West would liberate them from Stalin by military force, even at the price of an atomic attack and certain death? Such a wish appears surrealistic in retrospect. And yet, only the possibility of using a nuclear device as a last resort to defend freedom gives deterrence any meaning. Without such a possibility, what is the point of the terrible arsenals that one swears in advance never to use? Ingrid Betancourt’s physical, moral, and intellectual courage reminds us of what is fundamentally at stake in a civilization: the refusal of slavery.

The catechism of al-Qaida, like that of all forms of totalitarian barbarism of the twentieth century, proclaims: “Viva death! You love life, but we love death, so we (fascists, communists, fundamentalists) will be the strongest.” Many among us acquiesce and say: Better voluntary slavery than death. But Ingrid Betancourt looked death in the face, suffered slavery in the flesh, and then said, No! And she drew the implacable and violent conclusion. It is up to us not to hide from the reality of her hard truth.

André Glucksmann is a French philosopher and author of many books, including The Master Thinkers and Mai 68 expliqué à Nicolas Sarkozy, coauthored with his son Raphaël. Translated by Ralph C. Hancock.

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