BOOKS

Tale in a brutal tradition

BARBARA AMIEL June 15 1981
BOOKS

Tale in a brutal tradition

BARBARA AMIEL June 15 1981

Tale in a brutal tradition

BOOKS

BARBARA AMIEL

PRISONER WITHOUT A NAME, CELL WITHOUT A NUMBER by Jacobo Timerman (Random House, $1J25)

Argentina, April, 1977. Jacobo Timerman, editor of the Buenos Aires newspaper La Opinión, is kidnapped from his home. The kidnapping is standard 20th-century issue: 20 or so civilians with guns, a blindfolded, handcuffed victim thrown on the floor of his car and taken to a secret location. Then standard issue loses its familiarity: the civilians are acting under orders from an Argentine army unit. The provincial chief of police who first interrogates Timerman “reclassifies” the kidnapping as an arrest. The president of Argentina attempts to save Timerman from his own army by having him tried by a war council. What in fact saves Timerman’s life from the neo-Nazi army unit holding him is their discovery that he is a Zionist: a means of obtaining details of the worldwide Jewish conspiracy. After 30 months of detention, including three months of horrible torture, Timerman is released and deported to Israel thanks to a worldwide protest.

Why Argentina turned into the lunatic of the Western world is a subject for future historians. Writers such as Jorge Borges and V.S. Naipaul have speculated that Argentina, one of the richest and most equitable—in terms of distribution of wealth—of all Latin American countries, lacked institutions of its own to cement the body politic. In their essays, Argentina is a country inhabited by people on, as it were, transit visas, collecting riches on the way to somewhere else. But if understanding why Argentina is enveloped in black madness is difficult, understanding what it has become is quite simple. It is as if every hideous fringe group of postwar North America—the Symbionese Liberation Army, Black Panthers, Minutemen and the Western Guard—had each become a significant political armed force hell-bent on capturing the nation. Today a military junta rules over a country in which political parties are officially banned. Still, left-wing Peronists assassinate right-wing party members, businessmen pay protection money to Trotskyites and fascists. Virtually every political institution in the country, from the army to major political parties, has its rival factions, complete with its own death squads.

In this nightmare a handful of moderate democrats—some marginally on the right such as a few Catholic priests, and some marginally on the left such as publisher-editor Timerman—speak out uncompromisingly against all the lunatics, left-wing, right-wing, secular, religious, civilian and military. But speaking out is all they can do; moderates have no death squads or bombs. As a result, Timerman ended up in the netherworld of electric shocks and beatings. An astonishingly brave man, he remained a puzzle to his extreme rightwing captors. They could not understand how the same man whose newspaper published lists of left-wing guerrillas denouncing them as fascists could the very next day publish a similar list of right-wing murderers and their victims. In the end they solved the riddle through their deep-seated anti-Semitism: Timerman was an agent of Zionism bent on world domination who protested the evidence of left-wing terrorism merely to confuse.

Timerman’s story, well-written, both horrifying and hvpnotic in its revelations of Argentine anarchy, illustrates the central dilemma facing the West. It reinforces what is by now undeniable: no possible political system of the extreme left or right can offer human beings any degree of stability, prosperity and justice. Only our Western liberal democracy, informed by many strands of thought including the best ideals of socialism, religion, free enterprise and the heritage of Western liberalism and conservatism, can do so. Outside this system—at present—there is nothing but darkness and the gnashing of teeth. But knowing this is no answer to the question of how a moderate society, with its inherent belief in all the ideals that make it what it is, can defend itself against a concentrated onslaught of militant fanatics. Decorous courts, parliamentary debate or indeed Timerman’s editorials cannot stop bombs.

Timerman’s book provides no answer to this dilemma. But he differs from his North American liberal contemporaries in one significant aspect. He is not afraid to put Castro’s Cuba, Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, Mussolini’s Italy or contemporary China together in a league where they all belong—societies of murderers. The importance of the Argentina he shows us lies in its illustration of the fate awaiting us should we lose faith in the superiority of our Western institutions and call on eit her the Western Guard to defend us from the Students for a Democratic Society or the SDS to defend us from the Western Guard.

“I know there ought to be a message or a conclusion,” writes Timerman. “But that would be a way of putting a concluding period on a typical story of this century, my story, and I have no concluding period. ... I know too that the Argentine nation will not cease to weep for its dead, because throughout its often brutal history, it has remained loyal to its tragedies. I know that it will succeed in overcoming the paranoids of every extreme, the cowards of every sector. And it will learn how to be happy.” And we can learn how to stay happy by strengthening and reinforcing our traditional institutions and ideals of liberal democracy, rejecting all temptations of quick violent cures for society’s ills. If this is Western chauvinism, so be it.