When Argentines Fell Silent: Pope Francis Was Not Alone in Failing to Confront a Government Gone Rogue

FILE - In this Aug. 7, 2009 file photo, Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio gives a Mass outside the San Cayetano church whe
FILE - In this Aug. 7, 2009 file photo, Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio gives a Mass outside the San Cayetano church where an Argentine flag hangs behind in Buenos Aires, Argentina. On Wednesday, March 13, 2013, Bergoglio was elected pope, the first ever from the Americas and the first from outside Europe in more than a millennium. He chose the name Pope Francis. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

The selection of an Argentine cardinal as pope has focused attention on a painful and controversial chapter in that country's history. Understanding that history clarifies the dilemma he faced during Argentina's "dirty war." It also raises difficult questions, and not just about Argentina's past.

In 1973, after years of failing to resolve the country's economic problems, a military government allowed elections. The return of democracy did not bring stability, however, as Argentina went through four presidents in less than three years. The last was Isabel Perón, who took over when her husband died. A former nightclub dancer with at best a high school education, she was not exactly up to the job.

The clearest indication of her incompetence was mounting violence. Two leftist guerrilla groups were assassinating police and military officers, kidnapping businessmen for ransom and attacking army bases. Right-wing death squads were killing suspected leftists and the country seemed to be sliding into total chaos.

Promising to deal with the security threat, the armed forces seized power again in 1976 to the surprise of no one and the regret of few. The junta's brutal efforts to restore order changed the word "disappeared" from a verb to a noun as thousands of Argentines began to vanish after being detained by security forces. Many were tortured and murdered. Some were drugged and thrown out of airplanes over the ocean.

What the government was doing was obvious to all; there were hundreds of detention centers, many in plain sight in residential neighborhoods. Yet the overwhelming majority of Argentines remained silent. Only a few brave human rights activists and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children had been taken, dared to publicly and loudly protest.

Many Argentines justified their silence by claiming to have been unaware of what was going on, including those who lived near one such prison. But as one survivor pointed out, if he could hear their children playing soccer on the street outside his cell, they could hear him screaming as he was being tortured.

Others who clearly did know what was happening are accused of having done little to stop the abuse, including Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. It was a dilemma faced by many, including religious figures of various denominations and faiths.

According to Tex Harris, the American diplomat in charge of human rights at the time, they usually chose to avoid speaking out and instead tried to work behind the scenes. They hoped they could use their contacts to obtain the release of those detained. It rarely worked, however, and it was a tactic chosen, perhaps, because it did not put at risk those raising the issue.

While some priests blessed the activities of the government, others dedicated themselves to working with the poor, which made them immediately suspect. Two Jesuits in the latter category were held and tortured for five months. They were freed after Father Bergoglio interceded quietly on their behalf. But it was he who had kicked them out of their religious order months before, which, in effect, stripped them of what little protection being a priest might afford.

Who is responsible for what and who should be punished are debates that continue in Argentina today. Even the number who died is not free of controversy. The media almost invariably use a figure of 30,000, but that was a back-of-the-napkin estimate. Serious efforts to list the victims have come up with one-third to one-half as many.

The military's defenders say the country was saved from Communism and terrorism. The other side points to the thousands tortured and murdered. Hundreds of children were born to women who were being held and some of them are still discovering that the people who raised them are not their parents, but their parents' killers.

Imagine a country so traumatized by terrorism that nearly everyone remains silent as the government tortured people, killed its own citizens without a shred of due process and operated a secret gulag of prisons to hold those detained. That was Argentina in the late 1970s. While the scale may differ substantially, is this not also a description of the United States since 9/11?

Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State University (dcj10@sia.psu.edu). His 28-year Foreign Service career included postings as a junior officer in Buenos Aires from 1973 to 1975 and as desk officer for Argentina in the State Department from 1983 to 1985. This article originally appeared in the 'Pittsburgh Post Gazette'.