A Cautionary Tale

The New York Times ran a chilling story last Sunday about about a young Argentinian woman who was, unbeknown to her, raised by the military officer who tortured and killed her parents. It is yet another heart-breaking piece of what was known as Argentina’s “dirty war”: the kidnapping (or “disappearing”)  and murder of thousands of suspected leftist terrorists, mostly Argentine citizens, by the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 until 1983. Estimates of the number of people killed range from 9,000 to 30,000.

The military men who carried out these crimes were thought to have taken around 500 babies from mothers in the clandestine detention centers and given them to military and security officials to raise as their own. The children grew up utterly ignorant of their true identities and of the circumstances of their early lives. (To say nothing of the fate of their biological parents.) But through the relentless work of their grandmothers and a human rights group, along with advancements in forensic technology and genetic testing, these children–now in their 30s–are being identified and reunited with their biological families. The Times’ article chronicled one such story, that of Victoria Montenegro. Her father, an army colonel, finally confessed to her in 2000 at a restaurant over dinner that he had headed the operation in which her biological parents were tortured and killed, and that he had taken her for his own child in May 1976, when she was four months old.  You can read about his subsequent imprisonment and Montenegro’s struggle to embrace her true identity in the full article at the following link:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/world/americas/argentinas-daughter-of-dirty-war-raised-by-man-who-killed-her-parents.html?ref=argentina

The story is a horrifying reminder of what governments have done to their own citizens in the name of security. But to reach that point, they required the complicity of the country’s institutions, as well as its populace. I covered Argentina in the 1980s, after the generals had been sent back to the barracks and replaced by a civilian government. Stories and documents about the “dirty war” were just beginning to emerge. I profiled one such case,  in which a young plastics expert was taken from his job at a government research center by security officers–never to return. I was able to trace his progress through a series of torture centers, one of which was located in a huge police garage in a residential area of western Buenos Aires. Small homes lined the street opposite the garage.   When Iinterviewed the denizens of those houses, all of who had been resident during the time the garage was used for torture, they all–to a man and woman–denied knowing anything about what was transpiring in the building across the street. Yet one survivor of the center told me: “I could hear kids playing in the street. How could they not hear my screams?”

Sadly, much of the country turned a blind eye to the kidnapping and killing of their neighbors–a condition necessary to allow the generals to carry out their unspeakable deeds. It would be hyperbolic to draw a parallel between what happened in Argentina and the recent killing in Yemen by U.S. drones of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen accused of being a terrorist organizer.  But the almost universal silence and lack of questioning about our government’s decision to assassinate one of its own citizens is disturbing. The U.S. obviously isn’t Argentina of the 1970s; we are still a functioning democracy with institutions to protect our rights and freedoms. But those institutions are only as strong as the demands of its citizens. The complicity of Argentina’s people during its “dirty war,” whether by omission or commission, should be a cautionary tale to us in the U.S.