Every time I think I’ve assimilated what I’ve learned about inhumanity by studying what happened before and during Argentina’s military dictatorship, reality deals another blow, reminding me that I can still be traumatized, and that terrorism is not something that happens only to other people, far away. The latest attack hit two days ago close to home – in Boston, 100 miles from my front door. Boston is near and dear to a great many of my friends, co-workers, and neighbors; it’s the home of some of my favorite people on the planet; it’s a city I love to visit whenever I can.
But on the afternoon of April 15, I found that my reference point for the bombings at the Boston Marathon was not 9/11, an event that my U.S. peers recalled immediately, automatically. Instead I found myself thinking of the bombing 19 years ago of the AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina), the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. I think the mental connection was related to the scale of the Boston attack – much, much smaller than airplanes flying into the World Trade Center, collapsing buildings, killing several thousand people. The horrific scene 100 miles from here felt more personal than the attack in New York City – three deaths instead of 3,000, small bombs (the media is now reporting that they were made with pressure cookers, a common kitchen implement) hidden in duffel bags, at an annual sporting event with many spectators. What I’ve heard, seen, and read of the AMIA terrorist attack seems similar: on a pleasant, unremarkable weekday in July 1994, people in the Once neighborhood went about their business, and then, just before 10 a.m., a car bomb exploded, destroying the building, killing 85 people, and wounding 300. And, as U.S.-Mexican Jewish writer and professor Ilan Stavans has noted, ending any sense of insulation from terrorism that Jews may have felt in post-dictatorship Latin America.
Of course, I’m not the only one in Western Mass thinking of that particular atentado, or attack. In the middle of my writing this piece, a co-worker, knowing of my interest in Argentina, showed me an email that her brother-in-law had just sent his loved ones, which contained a news photo from 1994 of what was left of the bombed AMIA building. Where a yellow construction vehicle stands in the debris in this picture, he wrote, is where he and my co-worker’s sister had sat two hours before, drinking coffee at a café table on the sidewalk.
In the last several days, I’ve avoided writing, because after horrific events, everything that doesn’t directly aid the victims tends to seem trite, inconsequential, inadequate. But it’s also too easy to self-censor, and I’ve spent most of my life resisting the silencing of voices that need to be heard. I’ve written on this blog about standing in Parque de la Memoria in Buenos Aires, reading the names of some of the 9,000 people – mostly young, many pregnant – who have been documented as desaparecidos, the disappeared, murdered by the military before and during the dictatorship. This was state terror in the service of neoliberal economic policy – much of it imported by and from the United States – and thus much more difficult to resist, survive, and recuperate from.
The first time I visited the park, nearly two years ago, I was in the process of learning in detail about the horrors that the Argentine military and its civilian accomplices had perpetrated upon its citizens (and plenty from other nations, thanks mostly to Plan Cóndor). I was grieving, in a place that seemed appropriate for such emotion, the enormous loss of life, youthful potential, hope, freedom, vitality… And nature had handed my graduate school classmates and me a day fit for mourning, an early winter afternoon so overcast that the shade of gray sky melded with the granite walls of names and the muddy river into which military pilots had dropped their drugged victims. The memorial site was nearly deserted except for our group of 18 and our Argentine guide, and felt isolated from the rest of the world.
In the wake of the Boston bombings, I find myself losing faith in humanity. That’s a melodramatic way of putting it, but I have fleeting thoughts that whatever species are left on the planet after humans have destroyed it will be better off without us. Obviously it’s impossible to function this way, so I’ve been trying to keep in mind my second visit to Parque de la Memoria, just about three weeks ago. I use the photos I shot in the park two years ago in slide lectures I give to college classes and community activist groups in the U.S., and I’d wanted to return to take pictures of the sculpture and installations I’d missed last time. I was also curious about how I’d feel while touring the memorial site a second time, by myself.
March 29, 2013: for observant Christians, Good Friday; for observant Jews, a day during Passover; for me, the waning days of my spring vacation and the first day I’d had to myself all week after a 4-day intensive Spanish course. For everyone in Buenos Aires, it was a glorious fall day: clear, sunny, warm, with a breeze that seemed to sweep all workaday worries out to sea. I set out from my hostel near Plaza de Mayo to catch a bus, or colectivo, by myself for the first time, without 17 other USians. Interestingly, in the bus shelter I immediately met a husband, wife, and their three adult daughters taking the same bus for the first time – they were from Tucuman in Argentina’s north and were in Buenos Aires to visit one of the young women, who lived in the city. On the bus I chatted with them about Argentina’s inflation and slang, and the daughters’ recent travels in Europe. Turned out they were visiting one of the other coastal parks and got off at the stop before mine.
Between 2011 and this March day, I’d forgotten that Parque de la Memoria is part of a strip of public and private parks and large restaurants on the coast of the Río de la Plata. This area was not deserted as it had been two years ago, to say the least. Porteños were out by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, with their families and friends – kicking fútbols, sunbathing on blankets, playing with their kids, fishing in the river, munching on panchos (hot dogs) from sidewalk carts, setting up parillas (barbeque grills), having tailgate picnics, talking and smoking and laughing and eating and having a grand ol’ time. One family even had a tent set up on the strip of grass between the parking lane and the rambla, or seaside walkway. I was so busy taking in this scene, I almost missed my stop. At the last moment, I recognized the installation of street signs about the dictatorship and its aftermath, Carteles de la memoria, by Grupo de Arte Callejero, or Street Art Group.
I passed through Parque de la Memoria’s gate, crossed the broad plaza area, and sat down on a bench in the shade to eat a snack and get my bearings. In the distance I could see young children playing in Dennis Oppenheim’s Monumento al escape (Monument to the Escape), despite a couple of paper signs saying, “Prohibido subirse a las esculturas.” I ended up at a discreet distance, taking photos of their parents taking photos of them playing. Two years before, this behavior would have felt sacrilegious to me, but on this bright March day, it seemed like a child’s natural reaction to a colorful sculpture that looks like three play houses tipped on their sides, or dice a giant has just tipped from a cup while playing an enormous board game. The sun shone through the red laminated glass, making each “house” glow mysteriously.
As I wandered around taking snapshots, I watched children playing on other large sculptures, teenagers skateboarding on the plaza, young adults and their parents taking photos, joggers running past Carteles de la memoria on their circuit through the riverside parks, and dozens and dozens of families sitting on the grass, simply hanging out on a gorgeous day. At first it felt a little odd to see people camped out in lawn chairs in the shade of what had been my favorite sculpture two years before, Marie Orensanz’ Pensar es un hecho revolucionario, their children tossing soccer balls through the O’s, but then I had to laugh – why not? Wasn’t this one of the things the Left had been fighting for in the ’60s and ’70s, that dictatorships try to kill – the freedom to do what you like, as long as you aren’t harming anyone or anything else? These steel, iron, and reinforced glass works of art weren’t going to crumble or be scratched by small children’s sneakers and sandals.
But my view of the memorial park was transformed in an hour. Yes, it can be a place to grieve. But the fascists have won if that’s all we do. Hundreds of Argentines and visitors, including me, were out enjoying life that glorious fall day. And the millions of us who live in, love, and visit Boston will continue to live our lives. That’s the best way I can think of to defeat terrorism.