As you know, on this long drive to Louisiana, I’ve listened to Christopher Hitchens’s memoir, “Hitch-22,” and been challenged by it in several ways. Mostly the challenges are along the lines of, “How can you like a man who says these things?” and the more pleasant, “How can you not like a man who says those things?” But having finished the book last night, on the outskirts of Meridian, Mississippi, I’m waking up this morning sensing that there’s one aspect of his book, and his outlook, that will linger with me a while.
The most consistent quality I detect in Hitchens’s character was a loathing of bullies (a quality that did not prevent him from behaving like one on occasion, though in one instance he recounts with remorse, he led a group of left-wing student thugs who shut down a Tory minister’s speech at college). I love this short anecdote told by Jane Mayer, recounting his embarrassing members of a supposedly anti-Semitic country club in Florida. This resonates with me at a fairly deep level, though I only wish I had even the tiniest portion of Hitchens’s rhetorical power to deploy against them. Though, let me note before I go further, I heard him once use his gifts in a way that struck me as, well, bullying. Back in 2002, he argued on the radio about some religious topic with a friend of mine, a man who was not a journalist or a public person, but a simple, pious Catholic who objected to some position of Hitchens’s. My friend was soft-spoken and respectful, and Hitchens made a fool of him. It was painful to listen to, ugly, and unwarranted. Hitchens had clearly made his mind up that this stranger, because he was a believing Catholic, deserved no respect or mercy, and Hitch didn’t give it to him. It was like watching Muhammad Ali beat up a postman, and did Hitchens no credit. To witness that kind of power — moral force and matchless articulation — deployed against a deserving target was an awesome thing to behold, but to see it used against someone who is weak and undeserving of such contempt was much less edifying. Given that Hitch was a moralist above all else (he was even moralistic in his immorality), the temptation to divide the world into Good and Bad, and to make no exceptions (except when it suits you, as he did quite rightly in Borges’s case), is a terrible temptation to abuse power.
But I digress. Anyway, I had not realized until listening to this book how despicable the Argentine junta was in terms of its human rights violations. For some reason, I was under the (false) impression that this was a facet of Chile under Pinochet. I know so little about Latin American history that I thought the imprisoned and tortured dissident journalist Jacobo Timerman had been Chilean. In fact, he was Argentine, and Argentina’s history of right-wing torture and human rights abuse appears to have been as bad as Chile’s under Pinochet. Last night before going to sleep, I spent some time online reading about what was called (by the junta itself!) the “Dirty War,” and confirmed, generally, the things Hitchens said about the place.
The tortures they subjected their prisoners to included forcing children to watch their parents tortured, and vice versa. They would in some cases insert starving rats into the orifices of prisoners. Think about those things for a moment. Of course they did many, many more things that most decent people couldn’t dream of. The thing is, the generals did these satanic acts under the guise of cleansing the country of atheistic Marxist rabble. Truth to tell, there really had been left-wing terrorism; the generals didn’t come from nowhere. As we know from history, when radical left-wing governments have taken power, they’ve done the same thing. There is something in our nature that renders us capable of all manner of disgusting evil once we’ve decided that our cause is sufficiently righteous. Hitchens says in his book that religion is responsible for that, but I don’t know how any remotely honest accounting of history can sustain such a judgment.
The point I want to bring up here is how unsettling it is to confront the role the Catholic Church in Argentina — unlike the Church under military dictatorship in Chile or Brazil, for example — played in justifying and sustaining this regime of torture. From a 2007 NYT story:
In Argentina, however, there was a much tighter relationship between the clergy and the military than existed in Chile or Brazil. “Patriotism came to be associated with Catholicism,” said Kenneth P. Serbin, a history professor at the University of San Diego who has written about the Roman Catholic Church in South America. “So it was almost natural for the Argentine clergy to come to the defense of the authoritarian regime.”
Those days may be over. After he finished his testimony on Monday, Father Capitanio was surrounded by a sea of elderly women from the Mothers of May Plaza, a group that has pushed successive Argentine governments for answers since the dirty war began in 1976. They wore white scarves in their hair bearing the names of family members who disappeared. Dabbing away tears, they clung to the priest, kissing him on the cheek and whispering their thanks.
Father Capitanio said that he felt that a weight had been lifted — and that he was not alone. “Many men and women of the church, bishops as well, have come to agree with my way of looking at the reality of the church’s role,” he said. “We have much to be sorry for.”