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Opinion: "Dirty Secrets, Dirty War"

A new book about Argentina's past and why the truth matters.

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.