September 18, 2014
Carter: a humanist in an inhuman age
From Where I Stand
Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man for it is the image of God.
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, Catholic mystic and Zen Buddhist, wrote those words. I think they capture the essence of Jimmy Carter.
The former US president, of course, is a Baptist, a born-again Christian. But he severed his ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, when its leaders voted to deny equality for women. He still preaches and teaches Sunday School at the Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, where he was born and still lives on his peanut farm.
He is a humanist, a good man in a world that does not revere and often scorns goodness. When he became president in January 1977 he announced an epic change in US foreign policy. His vision for US’s role in the world reflected his religious beliefs.
Carter said that the United States would act on the world stage according to “our moral values” and that his administration’s policy was “designed to serve mankind.”
In other words, Jimmy Carter made a commitment to universal human rights.
And he made that commitment when the military dictatorship in Argentina was at the height of its power and had already abducted, tortured and murdered thousands of its own citizens in a maniacal “war” against “subversion.”
I well remember the problem that was posed to people with moral values during the 10 months of the Nixon administration’s foreign policy. It was already clear that the dictatorship had embarked on a lawless hunt for “terrorists” and many innocent people had been sucked into the military’s murder machine.
Diplomats from the US and other democratic countries worked to save their own citizens caught up in the dimly visible horror of a world in which human beings literally disappeared. But the protocol for diplomats was non-intervention in domestic affairs.
Carter’s commitment to universal human rights changed that comfortable arrangement. He appointed Patricia Derian, a champion of civil rights in the South, to head a strengthened human rights bureau at the State Department. She chose a young political officer, F. Allen Harris, to apply the policy from the US Embassy in Buenos Aires. “Tex” as Harris was known went to Plaza de Mayo to see the mothers of disappeared people, distributed cards to them and invited them to come and see him at the embassy.
They came in their thousands and Tex, with the help of a local employee, a heroine in her own right, was able to establish the first clear record of what Rabbi Marshall Meyer, a towering hero of those terrible times, described as a mini-holocaust.
All this happened in a nation that was muted by a pestilent mixture of fear, denial and conformity. The voluntary silence of the press allowed the military to carry out a plan to exterminate anyone and everyone deemed to be “subversive.”
It was Carter’s commitment to universal human rights based on the moral values that he believed were common to the American people, whom he said “are basically decent, basically honest, basically have great common sense” that stopped the mass killings.
The policy did not work perfectly, but by cutting off arms sales, blocking credit and by expressing moral outrage the Carter administration not only prevented the military from imposing its will on the Argentine people but also save uncountable lives.
Tex Harris, speaking in the aftermath of the World Cup, used a soccer metaphor to describe how the US human rights team carried out the plan of manager Carter.
You can see and hear Carter in these videos filmed at the Carter Centrein Atlanta on July 16. The panel discussion and conversation with Carter was preceded by an extraordinary film made by the remarkable family of journalism professor Charlie Tuggle and students at the University of North Carolina. The film, Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo and the Search for Identity also illustrates the role played by the Buenos Aires Herald in defence of human rights.
The Carter Centre event crystallized my admiration for Jimmy Carter. I remembered how inspiring he was and recalled seeing photographs of him, cut from newspapers, adorning the walls of a home in a villa miseria, incongruous among panoply of pictures of Evita, Perón and soccer stars.
I have often written in publications here and abroad about the way that Carter and his human rights team managed to save lives, so it was a joy to be able to tell him in person what a difference his faith in human goodness and his dedication to human rights made when Argentina was shrouded in darkness. I have always thought that he embodied what America is about.
A continued inspiration
It continues to be inspiring to me that Jimmy Carter, who will be 90 on October 1, has continued to do good work. There is no doubt that he is up to the task. He remembered every detail of his involvement with the military dictatorship, including the time when he dealt with Luciano Menéndez, the most feared of all the murderous generals. Menéndez, who has been sentenced to multiple life imprisonment charges, controlled La Perla, a death camp near the provincial capital of Córdoba. At that time he had abducted five members of the Deutsch family, father mother and three sisters, and was holding them as hostages. The Menéndez death squads were search for the Deutsch’s son Daniel.
Daniel was at the Carter Center with Fernando Reati, who had been kidnapped in Córdoba along with his entire family. For the first time both were able to thank Carter personally for saving them and their family members, see:
My wife Maud and I travelled from Atlanta, via Buenos Aires, to Córdoba where we met Susana Deutsch and her husband Antonio Granero. We went with them to La Perla, now a museum, where Susana and her parents and sisters were held, but survived — thanks to Jimmy Carter.
I remembered that Antonio, a legendary figure in Córdoba, —“Cascote” of Hortensia magazine fame — came to see me in Buenos Aires when Susana and her family were seized by Menéndez. I also met another man who remembered travelling to Buenos Aires to report the disappearance (forced abduction) of a relative where only the Herald received him and listened to him.
I was particularly moved when I was approached at a rally in the Israelite Cultural Association, by Mónica Leúnda, who told me that she thinks of and thanks Jimmy Carter every day.
She, too, is one of the few survivors of the La Perla death camp.
The rally was to call for peace in Israel and Gaza. All the panellists who spoke described themselves as Jewish Palestinians, identifying themselves with Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis and Palestinians. Like the great Argentine-born musician Daniel Barenboim, who is believed to be the only individual who holds both passports (as well as Argentine and Spanish nationality), and most of the audience in Córdoba they believe in universal human rights and the importance of being human in these most inhuman times.