Kerry Kennedy, Speak Truth To Power

I have just returned from a few days in Buenos Aires, where I witnessed, first hand, the triumph of the human spirit over evil.

Hector Timerman arrived in New York a quarter-century ago with no papers, seeking political asylum after he fled the military dictatorship. Today, he is Consul General and a leader in the struggle for truth and accountability. He organized a small delegation from the United States to visit his beloved country, and I was lucky enough to join him.

Maternity ward in death camp. Pregnant captured women were murdered until after they gave birth here, and their children were handed over to right wing families to raise.

Back entrance to torture center and officer dorms and death camp in downtown Buenos Aires

Delegation marching with Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo
When I saw my three daughters last night, I gave them each an extra long hug, an expression of my joy at seeing them and my gratefulness that they have been spared the horrors to which so many have been subjected. When they asked me about my trip to Argentina, it was hard to know where to begin. How do you explain to the innocents the cruelty on the scale we saw at the ESMA, the Naval academy used as an extermination center during the military dictatorship? As we walked through its fortress gates in the middle of downtown Buenos Aires with a handful of survivors, just a few of the 5,000 ripped from their families and disappeared forever, you could almost hear the sounds of nightmare memories, the screams from the torture chambers that were drowned by the cheers of the fans at a soccer game a few blocks away, the laughter of children at the school across the street, or the honks from the cars and buses passing by - as though no one knew what lurked in the dark places of Argentina's recent history.

I hope and pray that my girls grow up to be strong and courageous women, and in the same breath I hope their courage never has occasion to be tested.

My children are on my mind, especially, because over the course of our three days in Buenos Aires, almost everyone we met spoke about their own families. There were the mothers marching round the Plaza de Mayo (as they have every Thursday for nearly 30 years), who pinned to their breasts fading photographs of their sons and daughters, snatched at the prime of their youth to face unimaginable torture. There were the grandmothers, the abuelas, in their decades-long quest to identify the newborns stolen from their detained daughters and given to right-wing families to raise. There were the activists, (almost everyone we met, including President Kirchner, spent time in detention) from defenders to union leaders to vice ministers, to the first lady and the president - each humble about his or her own experience of horrors faced in detention, but speaking with pained eloquence of the impact on loved ones, on mothers, fathers, sisters, daughters and sons whose suffering, mental illness, depression, post-traumatic stress, and suicide is never recorded, never considered in the sterile statistic of 30,000 murdered or disappeared.

Director of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., Sara Bloomfield said her colleagues looked at four types of actors in this situation: the perpetrators, the victims, the rescuers, and the bystanders. Much of our journey debated the question of how society might convert bystanders to rescuers, a long road to a more civic society.

Walking through the ESMA we were told how much interaction victims of torture had with naval officers. Hooded prisoners were transferred from their holding cells in the attic to the torture chamber in the basement on the same staircases used by the military to go to and from their dorm rooms, to and from the mess hall, their offices, the hospital, the church. First Lady Cristina Kirchner told a chilling account of the General who brought a priest in to say Mass with torture victims on Christmas Eve, days before the same general had them drugged and thrown live from airplanes into the river or sea below. She said there was always a doctor at the ready to stop the torture sessions prior to death, and a priest to say last rights in case the doctor made a mistake.

When we asked how all these men allowed them selves to act like such sadistic monsters, the answers were chillingly familiar. They believed the country was threatened. They thought they needed to torture people to protect national security. They said what they were doing was an unpleasant necessity. They said they were at war, and in war, bad things are to be expected.

The day we left for Buenos Aires, Michael Posner, as director of Human Rights First, brought a lawsuit against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for torture, giving this trip a particular sense of immediacy. What happened in Argentina was no academic survey of an atrocity from the past.

This is about all of us. It is about Abu Graib, Guatanamo, and dozens of other clandestine detention centers run by the U.S. government around the world. It is about a current U.S. policy that allows detainees to be sent for interrogation to countries known to use torture and other highly coercive methods of interrogation which would be illegal if they took place on U.S. soil. It is about the thousands of political asylum seekers caught up in the Kafkaesque nightmare of our immigration system. And it is about the soul of our country.

I am proud to be on the board of directors of Human Rights First, at the forefront of the efforts to stop our government from using torture. I am convinced that our education activities with Speak Truth to Power, which we will bring to Argentina later this year, will help turn bystanders to rescuers. And I am inspired by the poetry of my good friend Ariel Dorfman, born in Argentina, as I hope you are.


Kerry Kennedy

Speak Truth to Power, a project of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial
515 Canal Street, New York, New York
The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial