The grisly executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the shooting death of Michael Brown, the relentless march of the Ebola epidemic across West Africa—the news from abroad and here at home has been abysmal lately. But squeezed in among these horrifying events is a rare story of hope. After decades of searching, the president of one of Argentina’s leading human rights group said that she had located the grandson taken from her daughter while she was a prisoner of the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976-83. It’s an astonishing tale—and one that holds a serious lesson for us all as we mark another anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Estela Barnes de Carlotto, of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, told a press conference in Buenos Aires last month that a 36-year-old man had been identified as her missing grandson through genetic testing. The man had voluntarily provided a DNA sample to be compared with a national data base; he had apparently harbored doubts about his identity. The results proved with “99.9%” certainty that he was the son of Mrs. Carlotto’s daughter, Laura, a university student activist who was executed in August 1978, two months after giving birth while being held in a government-run torture center.

Laura Carlotto was one of tens of thousands of Argentines arrested and killed by the military dictators during the country’s “Dirty War.” No one knows the true number; estimates range from 10,000 to 30,000. The ruling junta began its campaign in response to left-wing guerrillas who were setting off bombs, kidnapping and generally terrorizing the country. But the line between terrorist and dissident quickly blurred, as the arrogant, strutting generals used the excuse of protecting the homeland to quash all opposition. Anyone with the slightest leftist (read: democratic) bent was fair game: union organizers, university professors, journalists.

The stories I heard as a reporter covering the aftermath of the Dirty War were unfathomable. One young man, a university student, slept overnight at a friend’s house and returned home to find that his entire family—parents, siblings, grandmother—had been taken away. The junta’s henchmen had come looking for him; unable to make that arrest, they grabbed his extended family instead. (None of whom ever returned.)

Another man told of being awakened before dawn to a banging on his door. Soldiers had surrounded the apartment building; they burst into his home when the man went to check on the noise. Dressed in full military gear with grenades hanging from their belts, the soldiers forced the family from their beds at gunpoint and lined them up in the living room. An officer said they had come for the oldest daughter, the one who worked as a social worker in the slums of Buenos Aires. She was wanted for questioning. Nothing serious, the officer promised, she’ll be back soon.

The daughter began crying and clung to her father, begging him not to let them take her. What could he do? Soldiers were standing in his living room, pointing submachine guns at his wife and other four children. Don’t worry, the man said softly to his daughter, they only want to ask you a few questions. (This was early in the Dirty War, before people became aware of the magnitude of the disappearances.) You’ll be home in time for breakfast. Here, he said, here’s some money for bus fare so you can come home when they’re done talking to you. And with that, the man gently pried his daughter out of his arms and handed her to the officer.

He never saw her again.

(Years later, he would learn that she was taken on that night to a secret detention center in the basement of the Navy School of Mechanics, an imposing colonnaded building on a major Buenos Aires thoroughfare. There she was tortured and, ultimately, killed. Many of the thousands of murdered victims were hastily buried in unmarked grave; others were flown over the Atlantic Ocean and pushed out of airplanes or helicopters to the waters below.)

Relatives of the “disappeared,” as they became known, tried frantically to find their missing loved ones. Working through the courts, some even obtained writs of habeas corpus—to no avail; the generals ignored the rule of law with impunity. Out of desperation, a group of mothers began demonstrating every Thursday afternoon in the Plaza de Mayo, the main square in downtown Buenos Aires, opposite the presidential palace. Wearing white kerchiefs tied under their chins, the women held up poster-sized photographs of their missing offspring and demanded to know their fate. (And would continue to do so for over 30 years, even after the country’s return to democracy.) The military junta dismissed their protests, branding them as “las locas” –the crazy women; some of the mothers themselves were “disappeared.”

The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Estela Barnes de Carlotto’s organization, grew out of these demonstrations. These were mothers who demanded to know what had become of the children of their “disappeared” pregnant daughters and daughters-in-law. The generals were thought to have taken around 500 babies born in the clandestine detention centers and given them to military and security officials to raise as their own. The children grew up utterly ignorant of their true identities. (To say nothing of the fate of their biological parents.) After the country’s return to democratic rule in 1983, the grandmothers, working with geneticists, established a national DNA database to allow people to determine if they were related to any of the “disappeared.” The group has thus far helped to identify 114 of the illegally adopted children. In 2012, military leaders were finally convicted of carrying out a systematic plan to steal babies from the pregnant prisoners, who were later killed.

Beyond the obvious joy for Estela Carlotto in finding her grandson, why should we care about this blot on Argentina’s history? Because it’s a horrifying reminder of what governments—including our own– have done in the name of security. And those actions required the complicity of the country’s populace, as well as its institutions. Yes, many of the hundreds of clandestine detention centers across Argentina were secreted away in official buildings such as the Navy Mechanics School. But others hid in plain sight in residential neighborhoods. One such center was located in a huge police garage in western Buenos Aires; small homes lined the street opposite the building. When I interviewed the denizens of those houses, they all—to a man and woman—denied knowing anything about what transpired just across the road. Yet one survivor of the center told me: “I could hear kids playing soccer in the street from my cell, so how could they not hear my screams when I was being tortured?”

Equally telling was a sentiment that many of the residents echoed: If the government arrested people, they must have done something wrong. It was an understandable reaction to living in a place that was traumatized by terrorists. Remember how our collective trauma felt after the terror attacks on Sept. 11? Remember how our government used that trauma as an excuse to kidnap suspected foreign terrorists, spirit them off to “black holes” (overseas detention centers) and torture them—all in the name of making us safe? Remember how, after journalists uncovered these nefarious practices, the government assured us that it was all perfectly legal?

Torture is never legal, not under U.S. law nor under any of the international conventions to which we are signatories. Nor is it ever justified. We should never forget that we are a country of laws. For once that happens, our leaders are unleashed to act with impunity not only against foreigners, but against its citizens as well.

We only have to look to Argentina to be forewarned.


Originally published by Thought Catalog at

It’s telling that the barbarian who beheaded the American journalist James Foley kept his face hidden behind his black headdress.

In what was essentially a gruesome snuff film posted online on Tuesday, the masked man stood over a kneeling Foley in a desert landscape. He said the execution was in retaliation for American airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a terrorist group that’s a major combatant in Syria’s civil war and of late has captured significant swaths of Iraq. In his cowardice–the essence of any act of terror–Foley’s butcher hid behind the anonymity of his keffiyeh—a stark contrast to the courage represented by reporters like Foley.

Foley was a freelance journalist covering the Syrian civil war for GlobalPost and Agence France-Presse when he was abducted on Nov. 22, 2012 by ISIS militants. His family fought endlessly for his release. (On Wednesday, it was reported that the Pentagon launched a commando raid—unsuccessfully–earlier this summer against the terrorists in northern Syria to free Foley and other hostages.) The family’s desperation was understandable. Mainstream Islamic organizations here and abroad have condemned ISIS’s extremism; President Obama accused its militants of having “rampaged across cities and villages, killing unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence.” Foley, sadly, became just another one of its victims.

Reporting on war has always been a dangerous job. And the death of one journalist clearly can’t compare with the deprivation, destruction and wholesale slaughter the people of Iraq and Syria have suffered. But the point is that Foley chose to be in Syria, that he committed himself, regardless of the risk, to turning our eyes to the hardships of its citizens. And it’s a job that daily becomes more deadly. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) estimates that the number of journalists killed in the last ten years has jumped 30%, compared with the previous decade. Part of this can be explained by the changing nature of war. Most armed conflicts nowadays are civil wars in developing countries: undisciplined armies battling even more undisciplined insurgents. By the CPJ’s calculations, Syria has become the most dangerous country for reporters; at least 70 have been killed covering the war—which has raged for over three years–and more than 80 kidnapped.

So why should you care if journalists are themselves becoming targets? Because democracy only works with an informed electorate. Without the free flow of information, we risk being reduced to a mob mentality. And that includes information from the rest of the world. The increasing globalization of our society means that what used to be an isolated event—say, the conflict in Ukraine—now affects everything from the New York Stock Exchange index to the cost of our gasoline at the pump.  Knowledge matters.

Collecting and disseminating information: that’s all Foley was trying to do. And he paid for it with his life. As the CPJ said in a statement: “Foley went to Syria to show the plight of the Syrian people, to bear witness to their fight, and in so doing to fight for press freedom.”

As a former foreign correspondent who worked in war zones in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, I take this all very seriously. And personally: my first husband, Dial Torgerson, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, was killed in 1983 while covering the wars in Central America. He and a young freelance photographer, Richard Cross, were driving on a road that straddled the Honduran-Nicaraguan border when their car went over an anti-tank mine. The explosion was tremendous. The force of it shot the car into the air, then split the body in half; the motor, blown out of the chassis, was found a football-field away. Dial and Richard were killed instantly.

I never discovered the identity of their murderers. That they were murdered, however, is indisputable: dozens of vehicles passed along the same desolate stretch of road on that day without setting off the explosives. That’s because the mines were command-detonated; someone with a clear view of the cars had to pull a trigger or push a button. Like Foley’s assassins, they hid behind anonymity in their cowardice. Like Foley’s assassins, they intended to silence their critics through fear and intimidation.

Like Foley’s assassins, they did not succeed–and none of them ever will.

Originally published by Thought Catalog at

Of the myriad bills that Congress didn’t pass this year and issues it didn’t address—thereby earning it the dubious distinction of being the least productive in the legislative body’s history—leaving fully one-quarter of our 169 embassies without ambassadors stands out as a huge failing.

Consider where the vacancies are: until last Tuesday, there was no U.S. ambassador in either Honduras or Guatemala—both countries from which tens of thousands of children have washed up on the Texas border. (The Senate did confirm the nominee to Honduras; the ambassador-designate to Guatemala has yet to have a vote.) In Africa, 13 of our embassies are without top envoys. They include such critical countries as Niger, which the Obama administration sees as vital to fighting terrorism in the Sahel region. (That’s where Boko Haram, the Islamic militant group that kidnapped 200 schoolgirls in neighboring Nigeria last April, operates.) Even the ambassador-designate to Russia –Russia!—may not get voted on before the congressional August recess.

The reason for the vacancies is the usual partisan food fight between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, which controls the confirmation process for all ambassadors. That, and the perception that President Obama is allocating an inordinate number of the top embassy positions to political benefactors instead of career diplomats. (One example: Colleen Bell, a producer of the soap opera, “The Bold and the Beautiful,” who contributed or raised $800,000 for the Obama campaign and apparently had a less-than-stellar performance when she appeared recently before the Foreign Relations Committee to be grilled on her nomination as ambassador to Hungary. The committee approved her nonetheless, but she’s still awaiting confirmation by the full Senate.)

Do these vacancies matter? Having worked as a foreign correspondent and been married to a U.S. ambassador, I’ve seen both sides of the profession. Just as there are bad butchers and dental hygienists, so too are there lousy ambassadors. Many are preening peacocks with an inflated sense of self, more interested in the trappings and perquisites of the office—having traffic stopped for their convoys, flying the flags on their limousines, staging grand parties in their grand residences—than in the substance of their work.

(Those characteristics aren’t limited to our envoys. I once had the privilege of witnessing the wife of a European diplomat throw a world-class hissy fit when her country’s entire delegation was inadvertently denied seats at a luncheon following the inauguration of an African president. “We give so much fucking money to this fucking country,” she announced loudly, flouncing out of the venue, “you’d think we could get a fucking seat at a fucking table!”)

But I’ve also encountered many dedicated and brave practitioners of diplomacy, men and women who care deeply about the power the U.S. can wield for good in the world, and have used the position of ambassador to further that aim. It’s not always easy. They have to navigate the delicate balance between the dictates of their boss back in Washington, and the sensibilities of their host country. Often times they are required to take actions that seem, from their vantage, counterproductive or a violation of personal principles. The courageous among them will find a way to stand up to Washington; some will even go so far as to quit. For them, the position is almost one of a sacred trust.

And when these posts go empty for months on end, it matters–even in this era of instant communications. Yes, you could send in the deputy-ambassador to deliver a stern message to, say, President Putin of Russia that the U.S. is not going to countenance him arming rebels in Ukraine—but Putin knows that the deputy- ambassador isn’t Obama’s man (or woman.) The deputy wasn’t specially appointed by the president, wasn’t vetted by the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, didn’t have a confirmation vote by the full Senate. The deputy doesn’t possess a document, signed by the president, declaring him to be “extraordinary and plenipotentiary.” For career diplomats, who historically have filled about 70% of all ambassadorships, attaining the title is a huge feat; only about 5% ever achieve it.

By contrast, the deputy is just another bureaucrat who obtained his position by having served long enough in the State Department to rise to the proper rank. No matter how talented or intelligent the deputy may be, a head-of-state isn’t going to be inclined to invite him for a quiet drink or a one-on-one lunch or a round of golf in which to develop an intimate working relationship; second-in-command just doesn’t cut it. It’s the equivalent of consorting with a colonel instead of a general. The title bestows authority: a foreign president or prime minister wants to talk to someone who ostensibly has our president’s ear. Or, at least, that of the secretary of state.

While it all may seem antiquated, a holdover from the days of morning coats and top hats, this is the way nations have always dealt with one another—and still do. (In fact, many countries—Norway, Thailand, Spain and Japan, to name a few–continue to require the ambassador to don a morning coat when presenting his or her “letter of credence” to the head-of-state. Here’s what the Dutch government says about the ceremony: “The king puts a gala carriage drawn by two horses at the disposal of every ambassador that present their credentials and, if appropriate, a so-called blue carriage for the embassy staff. Ahead and behind every cortege ride two Military Police riders in ceremonial uniform. At Noordeinde Palace, a guard of honor and a military band is drawn up. Following a salute by four drum-rolls and the national anthem of the ambassador’s country, the guard of honor is inspected, after which the ambassador and retinue goes inside. On departure, the ambassador is again given four drum-rolls. The dress code for the ambassador is morning-coat or traditional dress of their country.”)

Pomp and circumstance aside, you’d think that with Russia meddling with deadly results in Ukraine, al-Qaeda-linked terrorists running amok in parts of Africa and thousands of Central American children turning up on our doorstep–Congress might have figured out that ambassadors do matter.  Why send colonels to deal with these issues when we’ve got dozens of generals waiting to go?

Originally published by Thought Catalog at

The next time you see video of a hateful, vitriol-spewing crowd chanting against allowing immigrants into our country, you might want to think what it’s like to be a refugee.

And with good reason. By the end of last year, civil wars and other violence had forced a mind-numbing 51 million people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations. To put that number into perspective, it’s tantamount to the entire population of South Korea pouring out of the country and decamping to other places. And half—half!—of all refugees are children.

Consider these statistics: The United Nations High Commission for Refugees figures there are about 6.5 million people displaced internally in Syria because of civil war, with another 2.5 million squatting in camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. That’s about 40% of the country’s total population. In Colombia, 5.4 million have fled their homes, the legacy of internal conflicts that have dragged on for decades. Three million people from the Central African Republic have been displaced by sectarian fighting, some walking for three months to escape to surrounding countries while subsisting on leaves and contaminated water, many bearing terrible wounds from machetes or gunshots. And here in the U.S., 57,000 children have turned up on our doorstep, most of them fleeing gang violence in Central America.

Whether it is internal displacement within your home country, or flight to borders beyond, the experience is nothing less than traumatizing. The decision to leave is usually made hastily, with bombs exploding in the distance or machete-wielding rebels bearing down on your home. You grab whatever you can think of in the moment—bedding, food, cooking utensils, a few sentimental trinkets—and dash. The lucky ones leave in cars. The less fortunate—read: most refugees—head out on foot. Propelled by the violence at their backs, they scurry forward under the weight of their belongings, herding their children, trying to find food and shelter along the way. Fear is the animating emotion: fear of what they are running from, fear of what lies ahead. Think, for instance, of the Lost Boys of Sudan, the 20,000 or so children who were displaced and/or orphaned by civil war in the 1980s and 1990s, and traversed a vast and dangerous wilderness on foot for months, so desperate were they to seek refuge in Ethiopia. Think of the fear and despondency that must impel the Central American children nowadays to make their perilous trek to our border.

The fortunate among refugees will often find shelter with extended family members. It’s a humiliating situation, at the very least: squeezed into someone else’s space, living on their largesse, hoping for their patience and understanding. And that’s a best-case scenario. Many refugees end up living in squalid, fetid camps. Seasonal rains inundate their tents; food is scarce; medical supplies, rudimentary; schooling for the children, virtually non-existent. They sit in these camps for days, weeks, sometimes even years. They have no idea what has happened to the homes they left behind, their neighborhoods, businesses, friends, families. It is impossible for them to know when they will be able to return. They become people with no past and no future—only a present of ceaseless misery.

As a foreign correspondent covering wars, I wrote often about the plight of refugees. It was part of my job description. These were some of the saddest stories I had to report, yet I never fully appreciated what it meant to be uprooted until I, too, became a refugee of sorts. In the summer of 1990, I was living in Liberia with my husband, a career foreign service officer who was charge d’affaires of the U.S. embassy in Monrovia. Rebels led by the warlord Charles Taylor were bearing down on the capital in what had become a grisly tribal conflict. Fearing a bloodbath when Taylor entered Monrovia, the State Department ordered all Americans out of the country except for essential embassy personnel. The other evacuees were going on to Washington, but I got off the airplane in neighboring Sierra Leone to sit on a beach until the war ended. I didn’t want to be so far away from my husband.

It was an agonizing wait. Days turned into weeks. I had only radio reports from the BBC to keep me informed of the war’s horrific progress. I had no idea if my husband was safe. (Later, I would learn that a stray bullet whizzing through his office window missed lobotomizing him by about two inches.) I had no idea of the fate of our Liberian friends; of the families of our employees (who were hiding in our basement); of our house; our belongings. I couldn’t work and I couldn’t make plans. Those were among the most disorienting and dispiriting weeks I’ve ever spent. Life itself seemed suspended. And I was lucky. Unlike most refugees, I had an American passport that would gain me entry to just about anywhere in the world. I had a credit card to pay for an airplane ticket out of there, a bank account back in the U.S. to allow me to begin anew. (Which I would eventually have to do: I was never allowed to return to Monrovia.)

We, as citizens, can’t end the world’s civil wars and violence; they require political solutions forged by political leaders. We can, however, recognize that refugees are the flotsam and jetsam of such conflicts. So when you see those demonstrators screaming against the Central American children who’ve crossed into Texas, think about what it would be like to be a refugee. How we respond speaks volumes about us as a people–and as a nation.


Originally published by Thought Catalog at

Reading the reams of articles about the child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State, I’m reminded of various dictators around the world I’ve covered/known. I’m thinking of those who started out as saviours in their respective countries and did much good–only to succumb to the seduction of power and their own vanity, clinging to their offices in ways that undid their legacies. The similarities between them and Joe Paterno, the Penn State football coach, are striking.

Robert Mugabe, the despotic leader of Zimbabwe, and Alberto Fujimori, the former president of Peru, are prime examples. Mugabe spent decades, starting in the 1960s, fighting the white-minority ruled government in what was then known as Rhodesia. (Which included a ten-year-stint in prison for his efforts.) By the time the war ended in 1979, he was seen by many as a hero and elected prime minister of the newly independent nation. His call for reconciliation among the formerly warring parties was hailed as a model for the continent. Mugabe put much effort into what the World Bank called “human resource investments and support for smallholder agriculture;” as a result, by 1990, Zimbabwe had a lower infant mortality rate, higher adult literacy and higher school enrolment rate than average for developing countries.

If he had stopped after, say, 20 years in office and stepped down, today Mugabe would be remembered as a kind of George Washington to his nation. Instead, as the years passed and he struggled to remain in power, his rule became one of economic mismanagement, corruption and brutal repression. In 2000, Mugabe embarked on a mad land grab, seizing white-owned farms without compensation and “redistributing” them,  mostly to his family, political cronies and military officers. Elections in the past decade have been marked by vote-rigging, rampant intimidation and violence. The impact on the country has been stunningly ruinous. Zimbabwe’s GDP plummeted 40% in the last decade–this, in a country that was considered Africa’s bread basket. Life expectancy for Zimbabwean males is now 37 years; for females, it is 34 years.

In Peru, Alberto Fujimori came into office in 1990 amid staggering hyperinflation and widespread terrorism. He enacted as series of draconian economic reforms that revitalized Peru, set the country on a path to robust growth and and brought it back into the global economy. To combat terrorism, he granted the military broad powers to arrest suspected insurgents and try them in secret military courts with few legal rights. (Fujimori contended that these measures were justified because judges feared reprisals against them and their families.) To many of his countrymen, he–like Mugabe–was a hero for returning Peru to economic stability and ending the 15-year reign of terror by the Shining Path guerrillas. This, despite staging, with the help of the military, a kind of coup in 1992 that shut down the congress and purged the judiciary

If Fujimori had left office in 2000–as required by the new constitution he put in place–he would be remembered for his signature achievements of bringing prosperity and peace to the country. Instead, he got his supporters in Congress to “reinterpret” the constitution, which allowed him to run for a third term. Shortly after the election, which was widely seen as rigged, Fujimori fled to Japan amid a corruption scandal. He was ultimately arrested during a visit to Chile in 2005 and extradited to Peru; he is now serving a 25-year jail sentence for human rights violations, bribery and embezzlement, among other things.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Joe Paterno is even vaguely analogous to either Mugabe or Fujimori. But the trajectory of his 46-year career follows a similarly disturbing arc. Here was a college football coach who broke the mold, who endowed two professorships at Penn State in the humanities to demonstrate his commitment to academics, who helped raise money to quadruple the size of the library, who benched star players for missing class. And he won football games. He became an iconic, revered figure on campus and among Penn State’s tens of thousands of alumni.

And if he had left, say, 15 years ago–at the not-unvenerable age of 70–his would be a magnificent and singular legacy. Instead he stayed on, secure in a cocoon where the money and prestige that his football team brought to the university made him, quite literally, untouchable. It has been reported that both the former president of Penn State, Graham Spanier, and a member of the university’s board of trustees tried to induce Paterno to retire in 2004–to no avail. Perhaps it was his desire to become the winningest coach in Division I college football, which he achieved in October of this year. Or it was simply a failure of imagination, an inability to fathom a life beyond the adulation and spotlight.

Thus, as arguably the most powerful figure at Penn State, Paterno ignored or dismissed stories of serial child molestation and rape by his former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, that allegedly continued for years. Those around him and in the university’s administration, whether out of reverence or fear, went along with it. In doing so, Paterno inadvertently dragged the university into a systemic cover- up of what appears to be the worst scandal in the history of collegiate athletics. And still he refused to step down, even when the full horror of the allegations  came to light. Instead, he issued a press release stating that he would retire at the end of the season–there were still several football games to be played–a move that finally forced the Penn State’s trustees to fire him.   (And set a mob of clueless Penn State students to rioting.)

It was an ignominious end to a man who, like so many others in positions of power before him, had stayed too long.


The New York Times ran a chilling story last Sunday about about a young Argentinian woman who was, unbeknown to her, raised by the military officer who tortured and killed her parents. It is yet another heart-breaking piece of what was known as Argentina’s “dirty war”: the kidnapping (or “disappearing”)  and murder of thousands of suspected leftist terrorists, mostly Argentine citizens, by the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 until 1983. Estimates of the number of people killed range from 9,000 to 30,000.

The military men who carried out these crimes were thought to have taken around 500 babies from mothers in the clandestine detention centers and given them to military and security officials to raise as their own. The children grew up utterly ignorant of their true identities and of the circumstances of their early lives. (To say nothing of the fate of their biological parents.) But through the relentless work of their grandmothers and a human rights group, along with advancements in forensic technology and genetic testing, these children–now in their 30s–are being identified and reunited with their biological families. The Times’ article chronicled one such story, that of Victoria Montenegro. Her father, an army colonel, finally confessed to her in 2000 at a restaurant over dinner that he had headed the operation in which her biological parents were tortured and killed, and that he had taken her for his own child in May 1976, when she was four months old.  You can read about his subsequent imprisonment and Montenegro’s struggle to embrace her true identity in the full article at the following link:

The story is a horrifying reminder of what governments have done to their own citizens in the name of security. But to reach that point, they required the complicity of the country’s institutions, as well as its populace. I covered Argentina in the 1980s, after the generals had been sent back to the barracks and replaced by a civilian government. Stories and documents about the “dirty war” were just beginning to emerge. I profiled one such case,  in which a young plastics expert was taken from his job at a government research center by security officers–never to return. I was able to trace his progress through a series of torture centers, one of which was located in a huge police garage in a residential area of western Buenos Aires. Small homes lined the street opposite the garage.   When I  interviewed the denizens of those houses, all of who had been resident during the time the garage was used for torture, they all–to a man and woman–denied knowing anything about what was transpiring in the building across the street. Yet one survivor of the center told me: “I could hear kids playing in the street. How could they not hear my screams?”

Sadly, much of the country turned a blind eye to the kidnapping and killing of their neighbors–a condition necessary to allow the generals to carry out their unspeakable deeds. It would be hyperbolic to draw a parallel between what happened in Argentina and the recent killing in Yemen by U.S. drones of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen accused of being a terrorist organizer.  But the almost universal silence and lack of questioning about our government’s decision to assassinate one of its own citizens is disturbing. The U.S. obviously isn’t Argentina of the 1970s; we are still a functioning democracy with institutions to protect our rights and freedoms. But those institutions are only as strong as the demands of its citizens. The complicity of Argentina’s people during its “dirty war,” whether by omission or commission, should be a cautionary tale to us in the U.S.