Joseph Towle recites the death toll from memory.
In El Salvador, 60,000 or 70,000. In Guatemala, 200,000.
"Some of them, my parishioners," the priest said.
And of course, some 40,000 to 50,000 in Nicaragua, the epicenter.
Towle spent a quarter-century as a missionary in Latin America, some
of it during the time
when the United States closed its eyes to the murders of nuns and priests and even bishops,
and the rivers ran with blood. It was the policy of the United States in the 1980s to support
any government that lined up against Communists and leftists of all stripes, even if those
governments were profoundly murderous. And especially if they helped the United States
stage its secret wars and sundry anti-Communist plots.
This they obligingly did, in return for the usual emoluments: dollars
and benign blindness
toward such unpleasantness as mass graves and murdered clergy.
Towle is not obviously angry when he recalls this time. He has the gentle way of a religious man.
He seems, more than anything, baffled by President George W. Bush's
decision to resurrect
these ghosts by nominating to positions of rank and prestige - and, yes, high honor - people
who helped perpetrate the bloody deceit.
"I don't think they have much imagination," said Towle of the current president and his men.
Democrats on Capitol Hill relish hearings on the nominations of Otto
Reich, nominated to be
assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and John Negroponte to be United Nations
ambassador. Each was present at the creation - that is, they were posted in key diplomatic jobs
and participated, more or less, in that breathtakingly corrupt enterprise that was the U.S.-backed war
against Nicaragua's leftist government. The bill of particulars reads like a Graham Greene novel.
The Democrats will doubtless serialize it.
More revealing, though, is the appointment of a man who will not be
required to raise his right hand and swear to tell the truth for the cameras.
Elliott Abrams, who was Oliver North's colleague and co-conspirator
the the Reagan administration's illegal contra war, is back at the White House.
He works at the National Security Council, where his job is to promote
and human rights worldwide. The appointment was made with a straight face.
The post does not require Senate approval. All it takes is a president
willing to appoint a convicted criminal and unrepentant liar to high public office.
The point is to perpetuate the myth that the whole Iran-contra scandal
was not scandalous
at all but merely a partisan skirmish at the twilight of the Cold War in which the forces of virtue
- that is, the Reaganites - stood against the nettlesome nagging of lefty Democrats.
In fact, the contra effort entangled the U.S. government with international
drug traffickers and money launderers. It involved illegal activity on three continents.
Abrams helped secretly raise money from rich and friendly foreigners. He was a key figure
in the cover-up, lying repeatedly to Congress.
He eventually satisfied felony charges with pleas to two misdemeanors
and was pardoned by the first President Bush just before he left office.
There are pardons, and there are pardons. The president this latest
replaced is still under investigation even for pardons he refused to grant.
But the new president Bush is busy restoring honor and dignity to the
The Restoration Administration has as its ethical premise that anything done by the good men
and women who it knows to be good men and women (that is, loyal to the Bush family)
obviously have unquestionable credentials and unassailable virtue.
"The best person for the job," is how several Bush spokesmen described
the president's reason for restoring Abrams.
In truth, the return of the rogues is a sharp stick in the eye of everyone
- political opponents,
foreign diplomats, scholars, even nuns and priests - who saw the Central America of the 1980s
and discerned neither moral triumph nor political success. It is an attempt to rewrite history.
Like all such conceits, it eventually will fail.