A school of thought argues against examining historic traumas too closely. Dwelling on past injustice, the argument goes, can keep a society from healing past divisions and focusing on a more peaceful future. New developments in Argentina, however, challenge that theory — and show that injustice leaves lasting scars not only on immediate victims, but on society's institutions.
On June 14, Argentina's Supreme Court overturned two amnesty laws that protected the military perpetrators of thousands of kidnappings, tortures and murders three decades earlier, during Argentina's Dirty War against leftist guerrillas.
In a country where the capital is known for its writers and often is likened to Paris, right-wing military squads kidnapped and murdered from 13,000 to 30,000 civilians, the great majority of whom were not linked to the guerrillas. Thousands were tortured and flung into the sea. Often their small children were kidnapped, as well, and given to military families to raise.
When Argentina's dictatorship collapsed after a thunderous defeat in the Falkland Islands, Raúl Alfonsín, the first elected president after the Dirty War ended, made efforts to stitch democracy together. He became the first elected leader outside of Germany to convict ex-military leaders of wartime atrocities. He made Argentina the first country in Latin America to document those abuses with a Truth Commission.
But the military twice threatened to depose Alfonsín in coups. To preserve his government, he agreed to two amnesty laws shielding low-level soldiers from prosecution for wartime abuses. Alfonsín's successor, Carlos Menem, then promptly pardoned all the military chiefs the amnesty exempted.
But no matter how many years passed, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo continued to march in Buenos Aires' main public space, demanding an accounting for their missing children. They symbolized what tens of thousands of Argentines already knew: When murder is not followed by justice, time's passage has no effect. The Supreme Court acknowledged that reality finally last month.
One day after the court's ruling, another group demanded still more accountability. The call came from none other than Argentina's military leaders — who want the court to also revoke the pardons of the 400 officers who masterminded abuses.
"The legacy of what happened in the 1970s can only be put to rest by the justice system," army commanding Gen. Roberto Bendini told Inter Press news service. Former army commanding Gen. Martin Balza agreed. Revoking the pardons, he said, "is the only step that is still lacking in order to eliminate impunity once and for all."
In Argentina, as in other cultures maimed by injustice, time hasn't erased memory. Even those Argentines who did not lose loved ones by now have internalized their country's history — one in which the state could victimize its citizens and wrongdoers go free.
One by one, Argentina's government, Supreme Court and military have all recognized the institutional damage wrought by ignoring state crimes. Argentina should be encouraged to prosecute and punish the perpetrators. Other countries should take note: As in Mississippi, where the man who orchestrated the slaying of three civil rights workers in 1964 was only recently convicted, the shadow of unpunished abuse does not easily fade over time.