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It’s time for a good national confession

It is deeply established in Catholic moral theology that grave sin calls for the sacrament of reconciliation. The fundamental components are well known: contrition, confession, reparation for sins. The sin must be named. We must be sorry for the sin. We must make disclosure of what we have done. Finally, we must redress, to the extent possible, the wrong we have committed.

The contemporary world has developed a similar technique for seeking and extending forgiveness, the truth commission. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for instance, offers pardon to those who confess in full. Truth commissions in El Salvador and Guatemala, likewise, are helping victims to heal, uncovering evidence to document the awful events of past decades so that the memory of those years is not lost to new generations. Truth commissions are at work in Nigeria, Panama, Sierra Leone and East Timor. Peru and Indonesia will soon follow, and there is pressure for commissions in Mexico, Bosnia, Serbia, Ghana and Burundi. Canada is concerned about the way it has treated native peoples and may use a committee to air the subject.

In his column on page 19, Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan, who as a member of Congress at the time persistently opposed the Vietnam War, writes, “Vietnam can never be forgotten. It will rise up in our souls at unexpected times and in unpredictable ways.”

That warning would stand for other U.S. ventures in other lands. In many cases where truth commissions have occurred, the missing partner has been the United States. We have trained soldiers, conspired to overthrow elected rulers, aided and abetted torture and assassination, have been complicit in exploitation of indigenous populations. Yet we remain unaccountable. We get to go home. We get to forget.

But all of these things will indeed rise up, not only in our souls in unexpected times and ways, but also in the souls of those who have been the victims of our actions.

It is time we take a lesson from those in the developing world who have faced incredibly ugly moments of their past as a way to a healthier future. It is time for a U.S. truth commission, to open the countless intelligence community and State Department files detailing U.S. activities during the past half century.

The United States is remarkably adverse to any such suggestions. While we in this country fully support international tribunals for others, we have resisted all attempts to be held accountable by any international bodies. The United States is not the only developed power in need of some serious truth telling. Europe’s colonial powers and Japan could benefit from this remarkable new element of democratic governance.

Some items to consider

The following are some items, hardly an exhaustive list, the United States might consider:

In Nicaragua in 1979, the CIA moved to save Somoza’s National Guard, which had slaughtered some 40,000 Nicaraguans. The United States flew Somoza’s troops in planes disguised with Red Cross markings to Honduras where they were supplied with sophisticated arms and supplies and reconstituted as a terrorist force under the direction of Argentine neo-Nazis. In subsequent years there followed the Sandinista revolution, the overthrow of control by the Somoza family, all resisted by the United States in a variety of ways, and the U.S. funding of the contra forces aimed at thwarting the revolution. The International Court of Justice ultimately found the United States guilty of mining Nicaragua’s harbors. In violation of our treaty obligations, we refused to acknowledge the verdict.

Unfortunately, the events in Nicaragua were not isolated. A 1964 CIA secret report, published by The New York Times in June of last year, describes the 1953 overthrow in Iran of the democratically elected and modernizing Premier Mossadeq in “an operation planned and executed by the CIA and the British SIS.” The CIA’s Kermit Roosevelt went to Iran to coordinate the army revolt. Mossadeq had done what he was entitled to do under international law. He nationalized oil.

The overthrow of Mossadeq resulted in popular unrest that led to the Ayatollah Khomeini dictatorship, which, in November 1979, seized the U.S. embassy and took 62 Americans hostage. It was a period of massive terrorism. By Amnesty International count, the Iranian government assassinated 2,946 opponents in the year 1991 alone.

In 1964, it was Brazil’s turn. We collaborated actively with the military plotters who overthrew the democratic regime of President Joào Goulart, because of his commitment to socially progressive reforms. The result: more than two decades of a military dictatorship that institutionalized torture, “disappeared” tens of thousands of citizens and wiped out institutions that shield the citizen from the state -- labor unions, women’s associations, political parties. Its fear of grassroots organizing led to persecution of Christian base communities. Bishop Helder Câmara was declared a non-person and denied access to the written and electronic media.

Chile was the most evolved pluralist democracy in South America in 1969 when it elected Salvador Allende president. Sen. Jesse Helms put in writing the conclusions of an Oval Office meeting he attended along with President Nixon, Donald Kendall, president of Pepsi Cola, David Rockefeller of Chase Manhattan and CIA director Richard Helms. “Not concerned risks involved. No involvement of embassy. $10 million available, more if necessary. Full-time job-best men we have … Make the economy scream. 48 hours for plan of action.”

A September 1970 cable from CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., declassified last year, set out a strategy of destabilization, kidnapping and assassination designed to provoke a military coup in Chile. It included the incredible statement: “Discredit parliamentary solution.” This echoed a statement of Henry Kissinger, who was masterminding the conspiracy, about the same time: “I see no reason why a country should be allowed to go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.”

So solid was the Chilean tradition of an apolitical military that René Schneider, Chilean commander in chief, had to be assassinated as a first step. Three more years of dirty tricks were needed to engineer a putsch that produced a 17-year military dictatorship. Pinochet’s first 19 days registered 320 summary executions, including poet Victor Jara, and two U.S. citizens, Frank Teruggi and Charles Horman. Under Pinochet’s misrule some 130,000 Chileans were arrested, and 3,100 were murdered or disappeared.

Pinochet was the dominant figure in Operation Condor, an international instrument of cross-border assassination, abduction, torture and intimidation linking the secret police forces of Chile, Paraguay and Argentina. Condor teams eliminated hundreds of leading opponents of regimes in those countries, including Orlando Letelier and U.S. citizen Ronni Moffitt in Washington, Carlos Prats in Buenos Aires and Bernardo Leighton in Italy.

The Truth Commission established under the auspices of the United Nations in 1993 to determine violations of human rights during El Salvador’s long civil war found: “The military were plainly the main perpetrators of massacres, executions, torture, and kidnappings … premeditated and ideologically inspired decisions to kill.”

This is the military to whom the United States had given at least $6 billion in arms, supplies and training. We ignored Archbishop Oscar Romero’s plea that this aid “will surely increase injustice here and sharpen the repression that has been unleashed against the people’s organizations fighting to defend their most fundamental human rights.” To our lasting shame, Congress accepted President Reagan’s paranoid argument: “In El Salvador terrorists with outside support aim at all Central America, later South America, and, I’m sure, eventually North America.”

We knew the facts

We knew the facts at the time. For six successive years in the 1980s the annual human rights report of the Council on Hemispheric Relations repeated those facts: “El Salvador and Guatemala are the only two governments that abducted, killed and tortured their political opponents on a systematic and widespread basis.” In those years, they killed 150,000 and created several million refugees. Secret reports now available document that we knew of these barbarities.

A 1999 United Nations Truth Commission report on Guatemala’s 36-year civil war termed the assault against the population, particularly Mayans, “genocide” and highlighted the United States’ support for a string of brutal dictators, its use of the CIA to aid the Guatemalan military and its training of Guatemalan army officers in counterinsurgency tactics as elements contributing to widespread torture and death.

The report pinned more than 90 percent of the atrocities on the army and its death squads. More than 200,000 people in Guatemala were killed or disappeared. Another million or more became internal refugees as a result of the brutality.

U.S. intervention in Vietnam was marked by massive violations of human rights. The 1968 My Lai massacre is on the judicial record. Charges are well documented that Richard Nixon in 1968 persuaded the South Vietnam leaders to sabotage the Paris peace negotiations by assuring them that an incoming Republican president would give them a better deal that the Democratic incumbent. Four years later, Nixon ended the war on the same terms. In the meantime, 60,000 Americans and an unknown number of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians lost their lives. Agent Orange, the aftereffects of which continue today in children born without brains or spines, rendered much of the country infertile, perhaps permanently.

What good does it do to look at the dark side of our national history, a side that is rarely approached? As citizens, we have become numb to what is being done in our name. We unquestioningly accept the language of military solutions and the rationale of national interest. Others, however, see matters differently. Those who feel the brunt of our policies often wonder how we can justify such brutal actions with the noble language of our founding documents. Those who are going through the painful walk through their own recent history wonder how we can ignore our own role in these sad episodes.

As the awareness of those who have felt the effects of our actions increases, our own credibility crumbles.

Confession, as they say, is good for the soul, and that goes, as well, for a nation’s soul. We’re long overdue for a good confession.

National Catholic Reporter, June 15, 2001