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Painter in his studio, Picture by Gerard Dou

Tonight, in this city without altar
I hope the dead souls can see my eyes
and turn my watchful gaze into the flicker of a candle flame
Not the sacrificial spirit money for the ancestors
not the raging blaze that illuminates the cold night
but memory's nakedness
is like a bone that will not decay

                                              Liu Xiaobo 15 Years of Darkness, translated by Jeffrey Yang

The past is a predator

                                    Old Argentine proverb

    From 1976 to 1983 the nation of Argentina was ruled by a junta of high ranking military officers who had seized power from the inept and corrupt government of Isabel Peron, widow of Juan Peron. Yes, the same one in 'Evita'. Many in Argentina applauded at the time, including a respected Jewish Newspaper editor named Jacob Timerman who wanted some order in a society increasingly riven by murderous deep political divisions; argentina was already facing down a violent left wing guerrilla threat from an organization that can legitimately be described as terrorist. The response from this new military government was to authorize a policy of kidnap, torture and murder of anyone who participated in, sympathized with or even was unlucky enough to know anyone suspected of left-leaning activities against the state. This included Mr Timerman.

He survived, but most of the people they took - without any legal justification at all, of course - were never seen again, and thus a new word entered the lexicon, first in Argentina and then the world: The Desaparecido, the disappeared one. The word has most emphatically not disappeared from the discussion of the depths that a police state, or military state, can sink to.

The war against left wing terrorism came to be known as La Guerra Sucia, the dirty war. It is estimated that by the time the war came to an end in 1983 with the replacement of the Junta by a civilian elected government, up to 30,000 people had been disappeared.

Not that anything like that could ever happen here . . .

    This installment of 'My Favorite Authors' will be a little grim, I'm afraid. Last year a revised edition of 'A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture' was published. This is a magisterial and deeply, deeply troubling work by Marguerite Feitlowitz, who is a writer and professor at Bennington; the book was first published in 1998. In it she writes about this episode of Argentine history, specifically the years between 1976 and 1983, but also of the years beyond when Argentine society had to come to grips with what it did, in the name of preserving society and defeating the 'terrorists'. She spent years researching this work, interviewing hundreds of people and the result is an alternatively horrifying and deeply moving description of the rents that torture makes in people and society.

The book is really three things: A recitation of the horrors of a dirty war ('horrors' almost too weak a word for it); a tribute to people like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who had the courage to stand up to the regime. . .just about the only ones who did at first . . and a way that the very language itself can be tortured by dictators, like people, and made to serve the ends of the torturers. Hence the title of the book.

Professor Feitlowitz even goes so far as to include a chapter that gives a glossary of the relevant terror terms. Somehow these words themselves give reality to the sickening list or cruelties practiced in the name of purifying society; collectively they form a real 'Devil's Dictionary'. I have already mentioned desaparecido;also covered are terms like the picana, which is a hand held electric device similar to a cattle prod; you use it to give intensely painful electric shocks to people (it is actually similar to a taser); parrilla which is traditionally a grill upon which meat is cooked. It came to be applied to the metal rack they stretched people on while handling the picana. The term for a barbecue iself is Asado, which was used in testimony to indicate a mass burning of the bodies of the victims who had been tortured to death. Prisoners were not killed; they were 'transferred', often by being drugged and then pushed out of airplanes flying over the Atlantic ocean. And a particularly sadistic form of torture in which the victim's head is held under water fouled with raw sewage until just prior to suffocation was known as the submarino, which is also the common term for a children's treat of a small chocolate bar melting in a glass of warm milk, still on the menu in most Argentine cafes.

Indeed the language seems to have been internalized by Argentine society itself, and reappears in idiomatic speech from time to time. Here is a passage from the book I find particularly striking:


The repression lives on in such aberrations of the language, in the scars it left on the language. When a people's very words have been wounded, the society cannot fully recover until the language has been healed. Words mark the paths of our experience, separate what we can name from ineffable terror and chaos. At once public and intimate, language is a boundary between our vulnerable inner selves and the outside world. When, like skin, the language is bruised, punctured, or mutilated, that boundary breaks down. We have then no defense, no way to protect ourselves. What we know, we no longer know; names born of the truth of shared experience ring false. On a mal dans sa peau - we are uneasy in our own skin
And here are the faces of the disappeared:


    The book has its chapters organized around different people, different ones who bear the story. In one chapter we meet a man named Mario Villani, a physicist and scientist at the National Nuclear Research Agency; he was taken early and held in five different prison camps over four years; horrible death camps with names like 'La Perla (the pearl) or Olympia with a sign on the torture chambers that said 'Welcome Centurians'. He survived and had the courage to testify when the time came to do so and contributed to the official report of the terror: 'Nunca Mas' (never again). He speaks from a notebook filled with details as to who was where. He also tells a tale of being forced by the guards to repair their torture devices and deliberately putting in a weaker capacitor so the shock and the pain inflicted would be less. In a truly stirring chapter called 'The Land Mourneth' we meet Sergio Tomasella, a poor farmer from the obscure north of the country who was also imprisoned and tortured, along with his wife, for forming the Agrarian Leagues and trying to improve the lives of his fellow farmers (in fairness there were some sympathetic priests, proponents of 'liberation theology' who tried to help). As another example, Feitlowitz talks with Matilde Mellibovski, one of the founding members of the 'Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo' whose daughter was abducted and murdered by the military, for being a member of the wrong party and trying to teach the wrong ideas of political economy. I can understand how she gets people to talk: The author displays an empathy I wish on every interviewing journalist I have ever seen. "It's such an intimate thing, to lose a child", she blurts out. "Now you've said something really profound" says Matilde "You'll come often and we'll talk." Feitlowitz doesn't gloss over the indifference of the majority of Argentine society either, the ones who pretended not to notice when the abductions took place, even though they sometimes happened in public places; people just look down and in a few minutes no one was there, and they went on to their jobs or social occasions. I personally know Argentines who now live and work in the U.S. They all agree on that point; some rationalize the dirty war as regrettable but necessary, one woman I know doesn't - because she had to give up becoming a nun and teaching in a catholic school because it was becoming too dangerous.

The chapter in the book that deals with the aftermath of the dirty war is the longest and is both dismaying and heartening. Remember, this was exclusively a dark chapter confined to Argentina; The U.S. and Henry Kissinger helped a little bit (and lied about it afterwards), and set up a 'School for the Americas' to train South American officers in counterinsurgency, but it was Argentines who carried it out, against other Argentines. Hence "The Scilingo Effect", named after an ex-Navy officer who came forward to confess to a journalist that he, among others had been picked for the actual killing of the prisoners and had done it twice. He had personally pushed drugged, chained people into the sea from the open door of an airplane, you see. Two of them were young pregnant women, and one was a boy of 16. It ate away at his conscience until he talked; because the Navy had sensed this presence of a conscience he was denied promotion and left the Navy. He was followed by some (a few) others. There is a passage in the book where one of the mothers of the desaparecidos confronts the soldier who tortured her daughter, on national radio. And it must be a truly psychotic experience to survive the death camps of the military, and then a few years later, meet your tormentors on the street, in a cafe, or on a bus. Eventually, Martin Balza, the Army Chief of Staff went on national TV in 1995 and came the closest any army has ever come to an apology for its past actions. That action may have had nothing to do with Scilingo, but maybe the country's response did; they agreed the military had to change, that the culture within the military had to change. And change it did; even so many dirty warriors remained in the Army and Navy and had long military careers. Now let me make one subtle but very important point here: When I joined the army, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the united States. Not the nation, the constitution. So when you swear to support the constitution, you have to follow its rules, even if you don't particularly like them. Prior to the dirty war, soldiers took an oath to defend the nation, which is a little more like 'anything goes, if it is to save the nation'. This is a subtle difference, but after General Balza's speech, Argentine soldiers started taking an oath to defend the constitution again. It puts one in the mind of what Hitler did after seizing power in Germany. He made the army start swearing an oath that they would 'render unconditional obedience to the German nation and its leader'.

                  *                 *               *                *               *

The end of the leaders of the junta, the men with the most blood on their hands, was a profoundly unsatisfactory one. Emilio Massera, the Naval Commander, who turned his Navy Mechanics School (ESMA) into concentration camp and a veritable Dante's Inferno of horrors was convicted in 1985, pardoned in 1990 and re-tried in 1998 for suppressing the identity of minors, a diplomatic way of saying he sold off the infant offspring of his prisoners to well connected familes. He had a stroke in 2005 and died in 2010. You can read his obituary in 'The Economist' here.

   Orlando Agosti, the Air Force Commander received four and a half years for 8 documented cases of torture; as his sentence was completed before President Carlos Menem pardoned the dirty warriors, he was never tried again. Jorge Videla, the leader and arguably the man most responsible is still alive, he lives in a civilian prison serving two life sentences (there is a passage in 'Hitch-22', Christopher Hitchen's autobiography in which Hitch decribes meeting him, choking back his bile, and thinking he looked '"like a cretin imitating a toothbrush") Don't think this was a Nuremberg style thing in which justice finally won out; during the same timeframe the Argentine congress passed two laws, referred to as 'Due Obedience' and 'Full Stop'; the latter putting a limit as to when charges could be filed against the officers and soldiers who had tortured so fiercely, and the former exonerating all the lower officers and NCOs - the ones whose hand had often held the picana and pushed the prisoners off the plane into the Ocean below - on the grounds that they were following orders and could thus not be held responsible for their actions. Never mind Nuremberg.

        Now we get to the real heart of the issue, at least for me: I'll be honest and say that the inspiration of this diary is the coming election, and the refusal of a large segment of our population to repudiate those who would exploit them for personal gain or moral self-gratitude. And, somewhat in parallel with our largest denomination evangelical churches today, most of the Catholic Church during the repression took its usual stance of courage and universal respect for human rights - and looked the other way. The Papal Nuncio played tennis with Admiral Massera, and the church offered absolution to the murderers for saving the country from 'subversion', another of their words used as weapons). Here in North America, the other side uses words as its own weapons, and I am continually dismayed at how they are allowed to get away with it...the health care bill becomes 'Obamacare' or the 'Government takeover of health care' or the 'job-killing health care bill'. The estate tax is relabeled a 'death tax. And during the last administration, which was truly the most sinister the country ever had, and which for the first time practiced torture on a large scale. . .another sinister parallel . . torture became 'enhanced interrogation techniques' just like illegal surveillance became 'warrentless surveillance', and any attempt to call out the administration on their lies was 'revisionist thinking'.  We still have our own 'ESMA'; it is called Guantanamo Bay; remember we tried to shut it down but couldn't because where then would we put the 'terrorists?' Admiral Massera would have nodded knowingly.

Which also gets me to my last point: the aspect of the Obama administration that I personally find the most troubling. When they came to power, no one wanted to pursue investigations, hold hearings, or go after those who did the torturing in the previous administration. You could make a legal case for the Vice President and the Secretary of Defense to be tried as war criminals; you could certainly look into the CIA, or indeed the higher up ranks in the military who turned their heads after the Abu Ghraib pictures came out. Instead there was this attempt to bury the past, under the name of reconciliation and moving forward.

But I don't think it works. Any society with even a vestige of civilization to it, that sanctions torture and outrage for however noble - or ignoble - a purpose will come to be haunted by it. The way Argentina has and is continuously confornting its grisly past. After torture, neither the torturer or the tortured ever become normal again. Which is something to think about, reading accounts of ESMA, or Olympia, or Guantanimo Bay, or Abu Ghraib or 'black site' prisons.

The past is a predator


The modern ESMA, Site for the Memory of and promotion and defense of human rights

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Oct 30, 2012 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (20+ / 0-)

    An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head. -- Eric Hoffer

    by MichiganChet on Tue Oct 30, 2012 at 05:00:08 PM PDT

  •  The monstrosity of torture becomes ingrained in... (6+ / 0-)

    ...culture and society.  

    I hope it can be "desaparecida."

    A very enlighting diary.  

    Daily Kos an oasis of truth. Truth that leads to action.

    by Shockwave on Tue Oct 30, 2012 at 05:16:55 PM PDT

  •  Great diary, Chet (6+ / 0-)

    I hope it wasn't as difficult to write as it was to read, and I'm with Judith Butler on the need to make reading about difficult subjects difficult.

    Thank you.

    -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent, and we are all Wisconsin.

    by Dave in Northridge on Tue Oct 30, 2012 at 05:20:34 PM PDT

    •  The tough part is the reading (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Because it can get upsetting after awhile. . . I did need to go over the book again to make the diary accurate and vivid and there is a threshold that I, as a person can reach. And several times I had to put the book down for a bit. I think it is different for everyone. But it had to be done. As far as writing the diary, no, this was something I felt I had to say. I am very upset over the tone and direction politics is taking in the country. . .I am watching the Frontline episode about how Citizens United has already corrupted American Democracy. . .and I see us heading in a place we really don't want to go. So this is my attempt against the tide.
         I have no doubt that should the Republican Junta take over here, I could probably be disappeared or at least silenced, and I don't want either

      An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head. -- Eric Hoffer

      by MichiganChet on Tue Oct 30, 2012 at 07:54:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  never silenced - we will be at your back (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        No one gets out alive

        as we need to be at president obama's back.

        we live in perilous times - and we must be vigilent!

        guantanamo is a distraction - it should have been closed - president obama tried - the congress undercut him.  we are facing a greater enemy than we realize - it is us that comprises that enemy,

        this is greater than one person - it will take a nation to repair the damage done over the last decades - and it will be up to ALL of us to do so.  

  •  Cool article. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht, Shockwave, MichiganChet

    A minor correction:
    Isabela was Perón's third wife. Eva, Perón's second wife, was the subject of the musical. She died in 1952 and was canonized by the Perón regime.

  •  Thanks. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht, Shockwave, MichiganChet

    Here's the link to the book on

    Please feel free to HR me for my informative and argumentative nature. 'To know what is right and to do it are two different things.' - Chushingura, a tale of The Forty-Seven Ronin

    by rbird on Tue Oct 30, 2012 at 05:27:38 PM PDT

  •  I read Jacobo Timmerman's book (8+ / 0-)

    "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell without a Number" when I was a teenager and I have to say it was one of the most profoundly influential books I have ever encountered. It was devastating. The people who were complicit in his incarceration were people he met socially, persons he knew well.  What happened in Argentina was so wrong, such an inversion of values, such evil!

    I know without question that Timmerman informed my revulsion to "extreme rendition" (desaparecidos), "enhanced interrogation" the twisting of words, the evil of those complicit and acquiescent in the kidnapping and torture of the persons who wound up not just in Guantanamo, but in other "black sites." What I see is my beloved America, the land of the Rule of Law,of  fairness, of moral rectitude and principles, becoming a fascist repressive evil like Argentina became.  I see the racism, the religion, the militarization of the police as only part of the beginning.  

    Like I said, profoundly influential.  Great diary.

    We so need to prosecute for crimes against humanity and as a nation, we need to join the world and submit to international tribunals of justice.

    •  Mine too, that's why I mentioned him in the intro (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Shockwave, bluedust

      Even though the reality was that he supported the junta in the beginning. I mention this not to detract from his heroism, merely to illustrate how even smart well meaning people deluded themselves. Being under terrorist attack can do that

      An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head. -- Eric Hoffer

      by MichiganChet on Tue Oct 30, 2012 at 07:57:33 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  If memory serves, he underestimated (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        No one gets out alive, devis1

        rising anti-semitism as well.   In that, as you point out, the Church leaders were complicit, just as they had been during WWII.  In addition, (or perhaps as a consequence of) during the first part of the last century, Argentina experienced an influx of ideologically fascist and/or conservative European immigrants, as did Paraguay, Uruguay, and Brazil. Not to put too fine a point on it, but fascism always seems to carry an element of racism and anti-semitism, or "othering" of a segment of the population.  When I see that, it raises a big red flag.

  •  When you go for a walk in Buenos Aires, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    you can find little brass plaques on the sidewalk, each one marking the place from which someone (who has now been identified) was disappeared. This is also part of the memory. A small step that keeps this episode in plain view.

    I would add only that the helicopters most frequently dumped people in the river, Rio de la Plata, which at BA is a very wide inlet and a boundary of the city.

    Please read and enjoy my novella, Tulum, available in soft cover and eBook formats.

    by davidseth on Wed Oct 31, 2012 at 05:48:49 AM PDT

    •  There is a chapter in the book (0+ / 0-)

      In which the author discusses how common around the city the sites of the dirty war are. It gives them a sort of haunted feel.

      They did all kinds of horrible stuff during that period, true

      An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head. -- Eric Hoffer

      by MichiganChet on Thu Nov 01, 2012 at 07:54:31 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I really appreciate (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    that you took the time to write this- I remember people who felt so hopeless in ARgentina consoling themselves with the fact that they would maintain their own historical archive [memory] so that it would not be forgotten. These friends were the most affected and troubled by the easy acceptance of torture here . . .

  •  The banality of evil (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Those who allow evil, and support it, even if only passively -


    Don't they all just look so normal?

    This IS who and what so many people are.

    Oh, how they will twist and spin to deny this, to themselves especially.

    Until we face it, it will continue.

    And, perhaps, grow.

    The Fail will continue until actual torches and pitchforks are set in motion. -

    by No one gets out alive on Wed Oct 31, 2012 at 08:44:21 AM PDT

  •  Living in Argentina opened our eyes to lots of (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    devis1, bluedust

    things, including the history of the nation itself. It will be along time before the stories of all the desparacidos comes to light, if they ever do. I'm glad an author is making an attempt.

    There is still a great fear of the military in Argentina. I'm not sure if it is misplaced or not. I would think an equal fear of religion would accompany it but it doesn't. Most people still claim to be Catholic even though few of them ever go to church. And, in order to be elected President, you must be Catholic. Definitely a democracy that needs some work.

  •  Michigan Chet, thank you. The disappeared reminds (0+ / 0-)

    me of the holocaust across the seas. It also reminds me of the soul of humans, from an old radio show "evil lurks, The Shadow".

  •  This is my review... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MichiganChet, bluedust

    ...from 13 years ago

    This is an incredibly researched work. Marguerite Feitlowitz has interviewed and probed into Argentina's past with an ear toward the language used and its effect upon the victims of the Dirty War. As a person who has studied and written about this time, I was fascinated to read her approach. The language used by the torturers of Argentina was sinister and telling; she has solved the puzzle of their words and let the world understand their aims and goals. It is a brilliant book, and important for anyone who is interested in 1) Human rights; 2) Latin American history; 3) Human nature; 4) The politics of a nation's memory.
    I lived in South America and studied the Dirty Wars in Argentina and Chile. So this book was excellent on the subject!

    Twitter: @michaelhag

    by MichaelPH on Wed Oct 31, 2012 at 02:11:39 PM PDT

    •  I appreciate the complement & agreement (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      MichaelPH, bluedust

      Particularly coming from someone with expertise

      An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head. -- Eric Hoffer

      by MichiganChet on Wed Oct 31, 2012 at 02:19:46 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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