PARIS — Back when Bob Cox committed his brave little Buenos Aires Herald to saving Argentina from itself, one editorial quoted Nietzsche: “If you look into the eyes of the dragon, you risk becoming the dragon yourself.”

Three decades later, “Dirty Secrets, Dirty War” by Cox and his son David details how a wealthy society of good people, if willfully ignorant, can go so horribly wrong.

And, as a well-meaning but often misguided superpower breathes indiscriminate fire at indefinable evil, the book reminds us what real journalism is supposed to be.

In the 1970s, the Argentine military and police tortured people even vaguely suspected of leftist leanings. Thousands were “disappeared” to hide the evidence.

Perhaps 30,000 Argentines were put to death between 1976 and 1983. Many vanished without a trace.

Washington knew about it from the start. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ignored his ambassador’s anguish and signaled generals to do what they must to thwart communism. Argentine editors averted their eyes in fear of reprisal or for national pride. Cox, a Briton who edited an English-language daily owned by Americans, did not.  

During those ugly years, I was Associated Press bureau chief in Argentina. Like other correspondents, I dug for clues about mysterious kidnappings and disappearances.

One morning in 1976, the Herald ran a front-page headline, a quote from a desperate grandfather: “Help Me Save the Children.” That was a turning point.

A Uruguayan couple had vanished in Buenos Aires along with their two infants and their 4-year-old. Cox told authorities he would campaign until the kids reappeared.

Soon after, a U.S. embassy legal attache — the FBI man — asked to see me. Disgusted with Washington’s complicity in a cover-up, he had decided to spill the beans.

Argentine intelligence officers wanted him to take custody of the kids, he told me. They balked at killing children, and they feared heat from the Herald’s scrutiny.

Then he told me the rest.

Police used simple guilt by association, seizing people found in suspects’ address books. With no oversight, personal vendetta or sexual perversion was cause enough.

He described screams he had heard from routine torture at interrogation centers. One favorite technique was “el submarino.” That is, waterboarding.

Each day, he said, helicopters dumped victims into the ocean, still alive so they would gasp in water and sink. Each military branch had its own disposal airlift.

Others confirmed his details. AP editors agreed to run my stories with unnamed sources. U.S. dailies and weeklies had reporters in Buenos Aires then, and they added more.

We could finally pin those shadowy “right-wing death squads” on the state. Human rights groups, and later President Jimmy Carter, were able to raise holy hell.

Cox kept at it despite death threats and time in jail. By 1979, I was editing the International Herald Tribune, and I offered him a job if he decided to leave. He stayed.

Finally the threats were too blatant to ignore. He moved to the United States late in 1979.

Today, retired in South Carolina, Bob Cox’s preface to the book he found too painful to write alone reflects on what those years taught him about human nature.

A free press is vital to democracy in times of terror, he writes. It is all that stands between citizens and leaders whose zealotry justifies heinous excesses.

He quotes Navy Capt. Adolfo Scilingo, who in 2005 admitted to Spanish judges his role in mass murder and was then stunned to find himself thrown in jail. “I was not a monster,” Scilingo told the court, “but without coercion and of our own free will, we were changed into monsters.”     

Why? Cox explains, “In Argentina people didn’t want to know their government’s dirty secrets, and the press obliged by not reporting what was going on.”

Argentina then is hardly the United States now. Yet Nietzsche’s basic truth remains. Expediency condoned by comfortable apathy breeds dragons.

Cruel and unusual punishment — torture — is one thing.

Americans still know far too little about what is done under their flag in Guantanamo, in Bagram, and elsewhere.

But there is so much else, such as courting tyrants who control geography that is convenient for airbases or oil pipelines.

American reporters, as a rule, try hard to reflect truth when they find it. Yet their numbers are shrinking as fast as their access to places where reality happens.

And this seems to suit many new corporate media managers whose commitment is to share price rather than commonweal.

Peter Manigault, who was the Herald’s publisher back South Carolina, stood squarely behind Cox in the belief that telling it straight outweighed any cost or risk.

Based on wisdom learned the hard way, Cox tells us, “Human beings flinch from reality and deny the obvious, particularly when they feel threatened by acts of terror.”

These days, that has a distressing ring of truth.

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