Those who control the past, control the future: who controls the present controls the past.
—Big Brother's party slogan, "1984," by George Orwell
Justice is not easily secured anywhere in the world. But in Argentina today it is off limits to even mention in public the victims of the country's left-wing terrorism in the 1970s, let alone make an effort to win them or their surviving kin a day in court.
Try it and you are likely to be tarred by the Argentine left as a fascist friend of the former military government. The politically correct know that those who were brutalized by the guerrillas that Juan Perón once called "marvelous youth" are supposed to be erased from the national memory.
Thirty-five-year-old Argentine lawyer and human-rights advocate Victoria Villarruel is refusing to cooperate. She has founded Argentina's Center for the Legal Study of Terrorism and its Victims with a mission of documenting the thousands of terrorist crimes committed from 1969 to 1979. She believes that shedding light on this dark decade can help secure a more just future for all Argentines.
Everyone knows the story of how the Argentine military took over the government in 1976 and proceeded to crush subversive movements ruthlessly. Its abuses of power are legion, and in 1983 it finally stepped aside in the midst of hyperinflation and economic chaos.
But Argentina lived another tragedy prior to, and for some time after, the military seized power. It was a wave of carnage and destruction brought on by bands of Castro-inspired guerrillas who sought to take power by terrorizing the nation. Their actions provoked chaos on a national scale that led to the military coup.
Yet because of the military government's ignominious demise, terrorists and their sympathizers have succeeded in rewriting this history, describing only the crimes of their uniformed enemy. Some current or former members of the Kirchner government, others who are in Congress, and others who work in the media were well-known members of subversive organizations.
In an interview in Buenos Aires in November, Ms. Villarruel told me that even opposition politicians don't speak up for the terrorists' victims because it has become "taboo" to do so. The state, she said, treats them "as if they were never born."
One result is that a generation of Argentines has grown up with no awareness of the full story of that time of terror. Ms. Villarruel's view is that "truth and justice" demand that the victims be recognized.
Her 2009 book, "They Called Themselves Young Idealists," is a step toward this goal. In it she documents with photographs and press clips the devastation that the terrorists wrought on their own people. "Vanquish or die," the slogan of the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP), is graffiti scrawled on a truck in one photo. Included in the book are pictures of some of the thousands of victims: babies, teenagers, diplomats, businessmen, judges, policemen. Some were kidnapped and murdered. Others were killed or maimed merely because they were standing nearby when a bomb went off. Minors were recruited for revolutionary armies. All were considered fair game by the rebels who sought to remake their world through violence.
In the November interview, Ms. Villarruel described the work of her center on terrorism, poring over newspaper records and talking to family members and witnesses wherever they are available. Many, she said, remain fearful of retribution.
She told me that the Center has been able to name 13,074 victims of the terrorists. These are preliminary totals. Ms. Villarruel is so concerned about the accuracy of the work that she is having the list independently audited twice. She expects the final tallies to be ready around the middle of this year.
It is interesting to note that the number of court cases filed against the military government charging abuses of power totals less than 9,000. Meanwhile the Kirchner government's justification for writing off the victims of left-wing terrorism is a claim that they were victims of ordinary crimes and that their perpetrators are now exempted from liability by the statute of limitations. But Ms. Villarruel says that her research demonstrates the victims were civilians attacked by guerrilla movements in a merciless quest for power. If true, there would be no statute of limitations according to the 1949 Geneva Convention, ratified by Argentina.
Ms. Villarruel writes that in studying the 1970s terrorism, she never "understood the reasons that a group, attributing to themselves popular representation, decided to assassinate its own people, alleging a supposed just cause and political necessity." It is equally difficult to understand why Argentines have allowed those villains to control that past and enjoy legal impunity.