Figuring Out Our Values by Studying Our War Criminals


Jorge Rafael Videla, the military junta leader who oversaw a ruthless campaign of political killings and forced disappearances during Argentina’s so-called Dirty War against dissidents in the mid-1970s, died on Friday in the Marcos Paz Prison in Buenos Aires, where he was serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity. He was 87.

At least 15,000 people were killed or “disappeared” during the junta’s campaign, according to government estimates. Human rights officials say the figure is closer to 30,000.

It is gratifying to read of the death in prison of a man who had almost 30,000 people murdered. It is even more gratifying to learn that he spent his last thirty years of life in jail. The successful execution of the rule of law, the nonviolent approach to justice, is the single greatest rebuke to those who cry out for weapons on both sides of this world’s political spectrum. Those who wanted to “teach Saddam a lesson” ended up destroying a country and making little progress toward justice, while killing, wounding and displacing millions. Those who fought valiant leftist revolutions for the sake of the people in the end got nowhere except civil war and the opportunity to become hapless pawns of superpower rivalry. The winners of history here are those patient Argentinians who built a civilian alternative to the regime after the embarrassment of the Falklands War. 

It is these words of the great General, however, that captured my attention. 

He declared in 1977: “One becomes a terrorist not only by killing with a weapon or setting a bomb but also by encouraging others through ideas that go against our Western and Christian civilization.” 

Well before Bush’s war on terrorism, we have this saint of a man giving us a clue of what happens when we invent a word, like terrorist, and make it into anyone who does not conform to the military’s interests. Then you declare them terrorists and enemies of Western and Christian civilization. It is almost enough to make one an enemy of Western and Christian civilization when war criminals come to its defense. But they are not the civilization, they are not the Enlightenment or Western values, they are just thugs that escaped justice. 

The problem is not Western civilization or Christian civilization. The problem everywhere, East and West, North and South, are war criminals who use states and whole civilizations for their own narcissistic purposes, and in defense of the selfish few who keep them in power. 

We can overcome these folks by the patient application of the rule of law across the planet that more and more is blind to color, religion, wealth etc. But we must also spend time studying the values of war criminals, their frame for values, and then doing the opposite. Their way of thinking is corrupted and corrupting, but sometimes a valuablet path to figure out the complexity of our problems is to study our worst leaders and then do the opposite of what they say. I know that is why Hitler’s every word and every strategy and theory was so important in my evolution of peacemaking strategies. 

Consistently, human rights applied to everyone usually embodies the opposite of whatever values are being spouted by the latest war criminals, but study of the worst of leaders is helpful sometimes in knowing how to move forward in our search for nonviolent civilization. Every civilization should seek out its wisest voices, but also pay heed to its clever war criminals, and then do the opposite of what they say.

© Marc Gopin