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Timerman and His Enemies

Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number

by Jacobo Timerman, translated by Toby Talbot
Knopf, 164 pp., $10.95

No one had to impose my enemies on me. I selected them myself. I didn’t avoid them: I pointed them out, marked them, attacked them.” Jacobo Timerman is, by all accounts, a brave, irascible, and combative man. It is nevertheless not entirely true that he selected his enemies himself. As he learned in the prisons of Argentina, Jews don’t yet have that historic privilege. His eloquent book reminds us again of how awful it is to be “chosen”—by left-wing terrorists and right-wing policemen, by revolutionaries and generals. But it is true that Timerman embraced the battles that were imposed upon him, promptly and passionately, and then sought out others. He is a man whom we are likely to know best, whose political and moral stature we will most accurately estimate, if we consider the list of his enemies.

The Terrorists. In his essay “The Return of Eva Perón,” V.S. Naipaul quotes an Argentine trade unionist on torture. “Depende de quien sea torturado. It depends on who is tortured. An evildoer, that’s all right. But a man who’s trying to save his country—that’s something else. Torture isn’t only the electric prod, you know. Poverty is torture, frustration is torture.”1 That kind of talk is common enough—not only on what passes for the left—doublethink a dozen years before its time (Naipaul was writing in 1972). Terror is defended in the same way: “Violence, in the hands of the people, isn’t violence,” said Juan Perón. “It is justice.” Timerman is a man of the left who has steadily resisted this corruption of language and morality. He saw the terrorism of left-wing Peronistas and Trotskyites as embodying one kind of fascist ideology and the terrorism of paramilitary and parapolice groups as embodying another. And he said so again and again in his newspaper La Opinión, describing the murders and kidnapings, naming names.

The two fascisms”—I can’t think of a better description of the struggle for power in much of the third world. Two imitative ideologies, “devoid of German precision,’ but spiced with Latin American eroticism,” two expressions of contempt for democracy, two excuses for a politics of terror. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Irving Kristol has described Timerman as a spokesman for those who attack only the authoritarians of the right, not the totalitarians of the left.2 That’s not a line that can make much sense of the two fascisms, and it is surely to Timerman’s credit that he refused to draw it. One day, in the same mail, he received death threats from a rightist paramilitary group and a Trotskyite “army”—and published them both the next morning, wondering which organization would wind up with his corpse. “After all, it was a question of only one corpse….” The rightists were, of course, more likely to come to power and then to establish an alliance with the United States and the “free world.” No doubt, he should have offered his corpse to them.

Timerman is a leftist of a special sort, a left Zionist. He grew up in a Jewish community heavily secularist and socialist—Mapai and Mapam, parties named for their Israeli counterparts, won 53 percent of the votes in the Associación Mutual Israelita Argentina elections as late as 19693—and he has remained faithful to the politics of his parents and his childhood comrades. His enemies, then, were waiting for him almost before he knew who he was. And he responded by attacking the anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism of the left as well as of the right, criticizing the PLO, publishing extensive reports on Russian dissidents, and so on.

Many Argentine Jews, university students especially, have taken a different path, seduced by the “cosmopolitanism” of the left and then trapped by a politics that requires the repeated repudiation of their own history and the traditions of their community. Timerman is the product of those traditions, their embodiment and defender, and one would have thought that Jews the world over would recognize in him the sort of champion that the Argentine community needed (and still needs), capable of rallying its young intellectuals. But Timerman is a difficult man. If he condemns the PLO, he is also critical of right-wing governments wherever they appear, even in Israel. He draws his own line. The Argentine generals did not understand him either.

The Generals. In 1975 and 1976, Timerman called for and then supported a military takeover in Argentina. The country was then ruled by the incompetent Isabel Perón and her Rasputin, López Rega, and beset by the two fascisms. Timerman argued that only the army could carry out the necessary repression, and he persuaded himself, at least, that it was prepared to do this within the limits of the law. He was something of a macher in those days, a maker and doer, proud of his contacts with powerful and influential men. As Machiavelli boasted of his conversations with Cesare Borgia, so Timerman with his generals. It was a miscalculation.

In fact, the army was already heavily infiltrated by and entangled with the right-wing paramilitary groups. The officers had a world view, and it wasn’t legalist. They were committed to repressing only the fascists of the left, and they didn’t call them that, since “fascist” was a name that many of them admired. And they had a tough-minded view of what repression required—a view nicely summarized and rather surprisingly endorsed by Professor Mark Falcoff in a recent issue of Commentary:4

After the coup…the military initiated a sweep of known or suspected elements of the violent Left. As is necessarily the case in any urban setting where the forces of order must contend with the virtual invisibility of the enemy, a blanket repression is often the only means which offers any hope of success. In such situations—let us not mince words—the distinction between terrorist and suspect, between sympathizer and activist, indeed, between innocent and guilty, is often lost—but in the end the job can be done, if the will is there to do it.

Professor Falcoff is obviously tempted to mince words: notice the odd juxtaposition of “necessarily the case” and the two “oftens.” But in the end he comes through bravely, with a faint hint that we might have won in Vietnam too if only we had had the will. He gives us a good example of what Auden must have meant by “the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” (We can imagine for ourselves the boring meetings where the generals discuss the Zionist conspiracy.)

What Falcoff describes is the policy of every terrorist government, beginning (in the modern period) with the Committee of Public Safety and the 1793 Law of Suspects. The abolition of innocence is the prerequisite of a successful Terror, and it is always accompanied by the ideological multiplication, not so much of suspicious persons as of whole categories of suspects—in Argentina, liberal journalists, psychoanalysts, Jewish students, and so on. So the “chaotic, anarchistic, irrational” violence of the two fascisms was succeeded by “intrinsic, systematized, rationally planned terrorism.” But the system was a complicated one. The government that presided over it kept its official distance and closed its official eyes. Its leaders were “moderates,” its agents “extremists.” A nice division of labor: “Each officer of a military region,” writes Timerman, “had his own prisoners, prisons, and form of justice, and even the central power was unable to request the freedom of an individual when importuned by international pressure.”

Then the disappearances began. Men and women were “arrested” in the middle of the night, blindfolded, thrown into the back seat of one of the “killer cars,” Ford Falcons, made in Argentina, “a sturdy small car,” writes Naipaul, “there are thousands on the road. But the killer Falcons are easily recognizable. They have no number plates.” 5 And the killers who ride in them don’t wear badges or carry warrants or bother with bookings and charges. Their captives simply vanish. Months later, perhaps, their bodies are found, dumped on a garbage heap, washed ashore on a Uruguayan beach. Some 15,000 are still unheard from, missing, probably dead. Timerman began to publish the names of the missing and to demand an accounting from the government. He was never sure that this did any good. A few captives were released; others, it seems certain, were hastily shot. He printed the desperate appeals of parents, relatives, and friends. The alternative, he thought, was to close down the paper and run away. The generals told him to stop. He did not stop. And in April, 1977, the killer cars came for him.

Timerman was convinced that he was arrested because of the policies of his paper: “…in view of the sort of journalism I practiced, the possibility of my arrest and assassination fit into the rules of the game.” But his captors—“You’re a prisoner of the First Army Corps in action”—had what is called today an agenda of their own. They decided that they held in their hands the Argentine representative of the international Jewish conspiracy. And they drew him into a nightmare world of insane and (so we might be tempted to think) idiotic hatred.

It is easy to laugh at the Argentine generals and to portray them as pro-foundly silly men. For they believe, and some of them at least really believe, that there is a Jewish plot to seize Patagonia (with leftist guerrillas and Israeli paratroopers) and create a second Jewish state, that Menachem Begin has met with and given lessons to the Montonero terrorists, that the Jews control the Kremlin, and so on. But this is one of those cases that disproves Marx’s adage about the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. The anti-Semitism of the generals is ugly and vicious, and it is dangerous too, for however imitative it is, it can itself be imitated.

Timerman describes the shock, the surprise, the sadness of ancient knowledge renewed. “In the clandestine prisons, and then in the official prisons of Argentina, they pounded it into my skin, my head, my bones: We Jews still occupy the same place in history. We have that place reserved.” How is it possible? Only a little more than three decades after the defeat of the Nazis, a middle-aged journalist is strapped to a table and jolted with electric shocks, while uniformed men, under a picture of Hitler, scream at him, “Jew, Jew, Jew!” Weren’t we done with all that? The very memory had begun to seem like self-pity. Timerman asks, “Was [the fact of my Jewishness] really important? Most of those killed were not Jews, and if we continue to feel sorry for ourselves as Jews, we will end up being hated by the non-Jewish victims…. But in the solitude of prison, it is so sad to be beaten for being Jewish. There is such despair when they torture you for being Jewish.”

  1. 1

    The Return of Eva Perón, With the Killings in Trinidad (Knopf, 1980), p. 112.

  2. 2

    May 29, 1981.

  3. 3

    Robert Weisbrot, The Jews of Argentina: From the Inquisition to Perón (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979), p. 93.

  4. 4

    The Timerman Case,” July, 1981.

  5. 5

    The Return of Eva Perón, p. 157.

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