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 skinAnd 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