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Wouldn’t it be fascinating if some reporter with access to the presidential candidates in the waning weeks of the campaign asked them their thoughts on what’s happening in the courtroom in Palm Beach, Fla., where two Salvadoran generals are on trial?

One has to wonder if the candidates are at all aware of it. Not many folks seem to be paying attention.

The significance of this trial, of course, is not that the families of the four women who were raped and murdered 20 years ago expect to see significant compensation. Their determination to bring the generals to court, their sheer persistence in making the case these 20 years, has been driven by the same sense of justice the four women themselves stood for. And the relatives’ success in bringing the case to trial could prove a valuable breakthrough in further establishing culpability, both on the part of the Salvadorans who commanded the forces that committed the atrocities and U.S. authorities who justified the arming of those forces and the training of the troops that did the killing. The injustices perpetrated on the four women stand in for a lot of injustice done in the name of the United States in tiny El Salvador.

In 1992 I had the chance to interview Gregorio Rosa Chávez, auxiliary bishop in San Salvador. He was, at the time, closely involved with the new peace process. The San Salvador archdiocese had declared a “Year of Grace and Mercy,” in an attempt to foster reconciliation. But the need for grace and mercy, he said, is tempered by the demands of justice. Placing the situation in a Catholic sacramental context, the bishop said that sins cannot be forgiven until they are identified and someone is held accountable. I remember thinking then that a missing partner in the process of identifying sin and seeking forgiveness was the United States.

If the two generals on trial had been in charge of forces that committed similar atrocities in, say, the Balkans, we would be heralding their arrests as a triumph for human rights.

But for 20 years, the United States has been fairly silent, hoping the sin will go away without anyone noticing. It won’t.

Count on Colman McCarthy to come up with the unexpected twist on things. He did it for years as a columnist for The Washington Post and a regular contributor to NCR. While we take seriously the responsibility to vote and have used our pages to comment on election issues, we think McCarthy makes some compelling points along the way to arguing that those committed to peace should pass by the polling places. You don’t have to agree with his conclusion to nod yes to many of his arguments.

-- Tom Roberts

My email address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2000