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Penance for U.S. deeds in Central America pending.

Two news stories, one on Nicaragua (NCR, Aug. 13), the other on El Salvador (pages 8 and 9), profoundly challenge our national conscience. Here are two small countries reduced by a decade of war to near economic destruction. Starvation is widespread. Malnutrition threatens the physical and mental development of countless children.

In El Salvador, 75,000 civilians were assassinated without those responsible for the killings being brought to justice. Many thousands were similarly killed in Nicaragua.

The United States played a deciding part in the prolongation of those wars and in determining their outcomes. Can we now walk away as if we had been just innocent bystanders?

The U.N.-appointed and -monitored Truth Commission has established the facts for El Salvador. It makes clear that the administrations of Presidents Reagan and Bush had a responsibility for many of the gross violations of human rights. Financial aid of a million dollars a day helped. So did diplomatic pressure on European and Latin American governments, as well as the training of the infamous Atlacatl battalion, responsible for various massacres.

Add the shameful cover-up by the U.S. presidents and their top aides of what was happening in El Salvador. This involved not only lying but blasphemy: invoking the name of God in their appeals to Congress for more money for the Salvadoran armed forces, presenting the war as a crusade against communism and in support of democracy and Christianity and falsely certifying that the human rights situation was improving.

The response of the Clinton administration to the Truth Commission report was to name a panel to investigate the State Department's handling of civil rights during the war in El Salvador. The panel concluded that "department and foreign service personnel performed creditably ... in advancing human rights."

Has cynicism reached such a level in the United States that the State Department can get away with this callous self-examination? Was it just a mistake when Ambassador to the United Nations Jeanne Kirkpatrick tried to explain away the cold-blooded murder of four U.S. religious women by asserting that they were not only religious but also political activists?

Since when has political activism -- itself an unsubstantiated allegation -- justified murder? Was it just a mistake when Secretary of State Alexander Haig told a congressional committee that the vehicle in which the four women were driving could have accidentally run a check point?

Was it just a mistake when Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Thomas Enders told a congressional committee that U.S. Embassy officials had searched but had not been able to find any evidence of a massacre at El Mozote, where several hundred bodies -- most of them children -- were piled up in the parish house after having been, in the words of the Truth Commission, "systematically and deliberately executed"?

Was it just a mistake when Ambassador William Walker commented at a press conference on the assassination of the six Jesuits and their two employees: "We are at war; this is a struggle, death"?

And not just the State Department. It is even more important to know the roles played by the National Security Council, the CIA and the Pentagon.

President Clinton has promised that government agencies will make available the documentation they have on the 30 cases analyzed by the Truth Commission. Let us insist that he makes good on this promise.

Nor is that the only issue on which the United States stands today before the bar of public opinion and the verdict of history. Even more legally solemn is the ruling of the World Court that the United States was guilty of arming and supporting the contras, mining Nicaraguan harbors and committing other acts of terrorism.

Admission of wrongdoing is the first step toward conversion. But the United States also owes redress, an amount proportionate to the deaths and destruction it caused.

The facts further call on the United States to express its regrets for having lied to its own people and to make amends to the families of its citizens who were assassinated by guns and ammunition it supplied and about whose deaths it lied shamelessly.

This is one of the greatest challenges facing President Clinton. Is the United States prepared to parade itself as a lawless marauder, a terrorist state? Or is it ready with humility to acknowledge its shortcomings, to repair the damage to the extent possible and to make a firm purpose of amendment?
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Sep 3, 1993
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