In December 1976 the Argentine military dictatorship announced that twenty-two political prisoners had been killed while attempting to escape. Human rights organizations subsequently proved that in fact, they were helpless victims of a firing squad. Although the army has in recent years acknowledged that this presumed skirmish in a remote town in the north of Argentina was a fabrication, it persistently refuses to disclose who took part in the executions. One of the participants in this massacre, according to an Argentine human rights group, was a young captain named Ricardo Brinzoni. Twenty-five years later Gen. Ricardo Brinzoni is chief of staff of the army. Recently, Brinzoni named a lawyer, Juan Enrique Torres Bande, as the army’s legal representative. The Jewish community brought forward proof that this lawyer is a top leader of Argentina’s largest Nazi party.
This year, General Brinzoni has tried to have the government enlist the army’s assistance in repressing social protests, almost twenty years after the return of democracy did away with that role for the armed forces. To advance this policy he has been attempting to show that the army has been democratized. He has sent feelers out to victims of the dictatorship and families of the disappeared seeking their good will.
One of his first such attempts was an invitation to me to speak to a conference for army officers. Tactically, I was an ideal candidate: a reasonably prestigious journalist, director of a human rights organization, Jewish and, most important, the son of Jacobo Timerman, the best-known victim of the dictatorship.
I declined his invitation because, before aspiring to a dialogue, the military men responsible for the atrocities committed, particularly the commander in chief of the army, must stop refusing to submit to the justice system. I wrote my letter of rejection (see below) speaking as a Jew, to repudiate his anti-Semitic connections. His reply, which came as no surprise to me, illegally defined the army as a Christian institution and quoted part of Portia’s speech from The Merchant of Venice, a reproach to the arrogant and vengeful Shylock. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has since expressed its “profound displeasure” with this reply, pointing out that in Shakespeare’s play “the Jewish character personifies greed and inhuman feelings.”
General Brinzoni, a violator of human rights and an anti-Semite, seeks to repeat the past. Unfortunately, he can rely on the protection of President Eduardo Duhalde.
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Buenos Aires, May 8, 2002
To: Gen. Ricardo Brinzoni
Commander in Chief of the Army
I have received your courteous invitation to address the XI Institutional Communications Course to be held in the Army High Command. I must confess that the simple fact of receiving a letter from the army caused a deep shudder to go through me. The last time that the institution you now head got in touch with my family was in 1977 in a letter addressed to my mother, which justified the confinement of her husband on the grounds that the army believed he was “engaged in subversion.”
There is little that you do not know or that I can add about the suffering and injustice inflicted on my father from the night a group of people broke into our home identifying themselves as members of the army and proceeded to abduct him. I expect that my father’s ordeal was similar to that undergone by thousands of people abducted illegally. My father was tortured, subjected to mock firing squads, humiliated and forced to witness the rape and torture of other prisoners. On top of this, because he was Jewish, he had to endure torture sessions accompanied by Nazi hymns and mockery while they used an electric prod on his circumcised penis. In other words, atrocities typical of anti-Semitic beasts. For hours, former Colonel Ramón Camps, together with other army officers, interrogated him about “sinister Zionist plots to take over Argentina” in a room where the only “decoration” was a portrait of Adolf Hitler.
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However, I can illuminate an aspect of this case that you probably do not know about: my mother’s suffering. The humiliation of a woman trying to find her husband in the labyrinths of death. I remember a day when she was allowed a meeting with Colonel Ruiz Palacios. Confronted by her tears, he insolently told her, “Argentine women don’t cry.” From the army officer’s point of view, if my mother was crying it was because she was Jewish. It is true, my mother cried a lot, and also fought a lot. She left nothing undone that was in her power to do but never felt that her acts reflected a bravery she did not have. She lived in terror. At night she would wake up with nightmares and her shrieks were gut-wrenching. Regrettably, my mother was never able to overcome this. After those times a deep melancholy took hold of her, a sadness that never left her until her untimely death.
General, you invite me to address members of the army. You place me in a difficult situation. I cannot accept and am unable to do so because to turn up I would first have to forgive the afflictions that the army caused my parents. Besides, my participation in such an event could even induce the perpetrators to feel that my presence cleanses their guilt and could cause potential assassins to believe that such crimes will be forgotten over time. I am frightened by the idea that my presence could, even partially, convert me into an accomplice of future violations of human rights.
I cannot forgive in the name of my parents. Who is authorized to speak up for the victims? Not even God can do this. As the Jewish Law states: Sins against God will be pardoned on the Day of Atonement. Sins against our neighbors will only be pardoned on the Day of Atonement when our neighbors have pardoned them first.
Your considerate invitation could also induce me to think that it shows that the army has repented for the suffering inflicted on my parents. However, the sage Moshe Maimonides teaches us that we can only know true repentance if the penitent finds himself in the same position he was in when he sinned and then abstains from repeating it.
The issue of pardon is always difficult, and I don’t want you to see a desire for vengeance in my response. Nor is it the result of an incorrect superficiality. Nothing could be further from my way of thinking. I simply do not want to commit a sin of generosity that is not mine to extend. Or a magnanimity that I have no right to show. The rabbis tell us that “he who is merciful to the cruel will feel indifference for the innocent.” You must understand that I cannot act in ways that would be disrespectful to my parents.
Nor on the political plane is it possible for me to be indifferent to the events that my parents experienced. I share the statements by the Bosnian diplomat Sven Alkalaj on the issue of reconciliation: “It cannot be stressed enough that the punishment of the guilty and some measure of justice are absolutely necessary for forgiveness or reconciliation even to be considered. If genocide goes unpunished, it will set a precedent for tomorrow’s genocide. Without justice, there can never be reconciliation and real peace.”
Pardon is a decision that belongs only to the injured party, but my parents cannot have any opinion, because both have died without anybody from the institution that you command having approached them expressing repentance.
As you can appreciate, I have assigned great importance to your letter. My obligation to reject your invitation has served the purpose of letting you know some of my reflections that I have found over the years in the search for answers on such a difficult subject.
The pardon dilemma appears constantly in the biblical texts and in the interpretations by our sages, our prophets and our teachers.
So I have asked my teachers if there is any way to seek forgiveness from a dead person. Thank God there is. And I am more than prepared to help the army receive the pardon of my parents should they wish to ask for it. According to the Halakha (Jewish Law), the offender must state his request for pardon in front of the grave of the offended person.
If you, in the army’s name, wish to act in such a way, it will be my moral duty to accompany you and invite you to fraternally read the psalms of praise that we Jews recite in front of the graves of our loved ones.
/s/ Héctor Timerman
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Buenos Aires, May 21, 2002
Head of the Army High Command
I read your reply to my invitation carefully and with sadness, and wish to reply to it privately to express my deepest feelings.
The Institutional Communications Course [to which you were invited to speak] has been offered by the army for a number of years to the heads of the press and public relations departments of every unit. This year fifteen colonels from all over the country have been requested to attend as well.
This is not a propaganda exercise but rather an educational one that is necessary so that in each regiment, each brigade, the army can fulfill the demands of citizens who “want to know what it is all about”–in other words, to improve and make public our way of life and our activities.
Journalists and communications and advertising professionals who have spoken at these events in the past are far from being obsequious collaborators with the army and ignoring or justifying illegal activities. I regret that you have decided not to join them.
I am sorry to hear that the invitation to speak at the course has reawakened the pain you hold in your heart, which does not allow conciliatory feelings.
The army has publicly acknowledged its responsibilities for the violent and sorrowful past that affected us all. For some time now I myself have tried to contribute sincerely and honestly to reconciliation among all Argentines.
Your father’s painful case is one among many regrettable events of that past. The pain, the love, the experience, are not transferable, but believe me that I understand you, you and each family that mourns a loved one.
As the head of this institution, but especially as a human being, let me air a few ideas.
We Christians forgive unreservedly, no matter what the offense was, and independently of the sincerity of the penitent. I am convinced that forgiveness and truth are essential steps to a definite reconciliation. Our religions, which hold so many teachings in common, should allow ecumenical encounters at which we could shake hands.
I suggest that you meditate on the following words by Shakespeare, which I believe are from The Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strained;/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
Again, at your service and with my profoundest respects,
/s/ Gen. Ricardo Brinzoni