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My Turn: Argentina’s dirty history

The selection of Pope Francis has focused attention on a period of Argentine history that is little known here in the United States. Argentina’s Dirty War, an episode from 1976 to 1983, shocked the conscience of the world. In the aftermath of a military coup, the military junta and its hired killers disappeared at least 10,000 people. Some estimates put the number at 30,000.

It is disturbing that we in the United States are so unaware of the Dirty War. It was grossly under-reported here and rationalized by apologists in the United States. Considering the depravity, that is hard to understand. The story is very well told in A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture, an important book written in 1998 by Marguerite Feitlowitz, who is now a professor of literature at Bennington College in Vermont. Feitlowitz describes an utterly surreal society where in the name of the fight against subversion, the Argentine military kidnapped, tortured and executed thousands. As she writes, “The Dirty War regime eviscerated the best-educated generation in the history of Argentina. . . . Intellectual professions became categories of guilt.”

Students, artists, intellectuals, leftists, labor activists, Jews and young people generally were singled out as enemies of the regime. Anyone considered suspicious could be put on a list and taken away. No proof of anything was required. This happened only three decades ago.

I was interested in how Argentine lawyers and judges responded to the Dirty War. The truth is that the society was so terrorized it made it impossible for a legal system to function. Fear overwhelmed daily life. Unmarked Ford Falcons cruised the streets, and squads of goons jumped out, cornered targeted people and took them away from their homes to be tortured, murdered and disappeared. Bystanders and observers would typically not make a peep. The Argentine military had a long list.

Death flights

It was a rational and self-interested calculation for Argentine lawyers and judges to lie low during the Dirty War. The risk of going out on any limb was great. Anyone thought critical of the process could be placed on a hit list. The rule of law was not strong enough to protect practically anyone from being disappeared.

Cases addressing crimes committed by the Argentine military are only now being prosecuted. There has been a long, torturous road just to get to the point where crimes could possibly be prosecuted. The history of the pursuit of justice for Dirty War victims is a worthy topic in itself.

The horror was extreme. Feitlowitz describes the many death flights in which members of the Argentine military would drug captives, load them onto helicopters, strip them and toss them out of the helicopters far out in the ocean. Argentine naval officers rotated death flight duty. We know this because of public confessions made in 1995 by Naval Captain Adolfo Scilingo. Following Scilingo, a half dozen other naval officers also confessed.

To give a sense of the mindset, Scilingo said officers considered the flights “a form of communion,” “a supreme act we did for the country.” Scilingo himself shoved 30 individuals to their deaths on two flights. His victims included a 65-year-old man, a 16-year-old boy and two pregnant women in their early 20s.

Feitlowitz performs a valuable service by telling many untold stories of those tortured and disappeared. These lost stories need to be told. Witnessing and telling the stories is a first step toward accountability.

During the Dirty War, secret concentration camps dotted the country. Part of the surrealism described by Feitlowitz was the co-existence of torture very close to the domain of normal life. To give an example: The Argentine military ran torture cells in the basement of the renovated mall, Galerias Pacifico, which was located in the heart of Buenos Aires. Acoustics apparently blotted out sound. They had shopping next to torture.

Orwellian linguistics

A major focus of Feitlowitz’s book is the bizarre use of language by the junta (which explains the title). The junta twisted language to create a world of self-justification. Every torture, murder and disappearance could be legitimated since it was part of the war on subversion. It was beyond Orwellian. Awful acts could be clothed in the regime’s language of honor and duty to the nation.

In their secret concentration camps, the torturers talked compulsively to their victims. Feitlowitz describes the torturers’ rap this way:

“ ‘You don’t exist. You’re no one. We are God.’ How can one torture a person who doesn’t exist? Be God in a realm of no ones? How can a human being not exist? Be no one in a realm of gods? Through language. Through the reality created by and reflected in words. In the clandestine camps there developed an extensive argot in which benign domestic nouns, medical terms, saints, and fairy-tale characters were appropriated as terms pertaining to physical torture. Comforting past associations were translated into pain, degradation and sometimes death.”

Nazi influence was very much a part of this story. Pictures of Hitler hung in torture chambers, and the torturers sometimes played Hitler speeches while torturing. While Argentina had the largest concentration of Jews in Latin America, Argentine society, particularly the Church and the military, was a bastion of anti-Semitism. After World War II, Argentina accepted Nazi refugees including Martin Bormann, Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann. Former Nazis integrated into the Argentine security service.

In this connection, I want to mention another important book, Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number, by Jacobo Timerman. Timerman, who was Jewish and the publisher of a leading Argentine newspaper, La Opinion, was disappeared, tortured and, as almost never happened, released. The junta stripped him of citizenship and expelled him from the country. Timerman wrote about the weird anti-Semitism in Argentina, and he analyzes it, too.

Side stories

A sad aspect of this sordid story is the weak response of mainstream Jewish organizations to the Dirty War. With some notable exceptions (Rabbi Marshall Meyer and Rabbi Morton Rosenthal), the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations, the major Jewish community organization, was largely silent and acquiescent.

There are many tangential themes that deserve attention. The role of the United States, the baby trafficking, the brave role of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, to name a few.

Not too many books deserve the word “heroic.” Feitlowitz’s does. The Dirty War was a worst-case scenario of what can happen when civil liberties are sacrificed in the name of security and combating subversion. Feitlowitz deserves credit for unearthing so many stories and for trying to get to the bottom of this atrocity. One is left wondering how a literate, relatively well-educated people could have gone down such a self-destructive, cruel road.

(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot is a federal administrative law judge. This column reflects only his views, not those of his employer, the Social Security Administration.)

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