JACOBO TIMERMA HAUNTS this town like some sort of ghost.He meets people and his book is piled high in the bookstores and he shows up suddenly as an observer at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings into the nomination of Ernest W. Lefever as the head of the government's human rights program. Lefever would like some silence, but Timerman will not stay quiet.
Jacobo Timerman, once publisher and editor-in-chief of the liberal Argentine newspaper, La Opinion, was abducted from his home and imprisoned for 30 months.He was tortured. He was stripped naked and soaked and then attached to an electric-shock machine nicknamed "Susan." The guards told Timerman he would have a "chat with Susan."
"The amount of electricity transmitted by the electrodes -- or whatever they are called -- is regulated so that it merely hurts or burns or destroys," he wrote in his book, "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number."
"At the onset of this long human howl, someone with soft hands supervises your heart, someone sticks his hand into your mouth and pulls your tongue out of it in order to prevent . . . choking. Someone places a piece of rubber in the man's mouth to prevent him from biting his tongue or destroying his lips. A brief pause. And then it starts all over again . . ."
Sometimes, of course, there is no starting over. Sweet Susan is not a precision instrument, and sometimes kills. There is no anticipating what the human heart will do when given a jolt of electricity, and some prisoners succumbed. This was considered a failure. Timerman says, a regrettable failure -- like blurring a carbon or losing a sale. At any rate, maybe 10,000 people died in the Argentine terror, which has abated -- but not ended -- and maybe 15,000 others disappeared and have not been heard from since.
It is not often that a foreign policy debate can be so personalized. Lefever would like America to be less evenhanded, to denouce the terror and the lack of human rights in the communist countries much more than it does the noncommunist countries -- to distinguish between authoritarian countries and totalitarian ones, as if electric shock is milder in the former than in the latter. He would like us to remember, if we would, that just because a military government like Argentina's floats bodies of political dissidents in the rivers, does not mean that it is not still our friend and ally.
It is for this reason that Lefever would like us to lower our voices. He would like us to say quietly and with less passion what his predecessor, Patricia Derian, said loudly and passionately: have respect for human rights. He would like us to remember that in this world you sometimes have to choose between countries that torture and that are our enemies and countries that torture and that are our friends.
"Entire families disappeared," Timerman wrote. "The bodies were covered with cement and thrown to the bottom of the river. The Plata River, the Parana River. Sometimes the cement was badly applied, and corpses would wash up along the Argentine and Uruguayan coasts. A mother would recognize her 15-year-old son, an Argentine, who appeared on the Uruguayan coast. But that was an accident -- the corpses usually vanished forever."
Shhh, we must not discuss these things. Quiet, we would not want to offend our allies. Speak softly and don't talk of bodies and rivers and machines named Susan lest we embarras people who, as Secretary of State Haig pointed out, believe in God and are anticommunist. Don't mention the screams of a woman Timerman heard apparently being tortured for being a Jew, although she insisted that she was a Catholic. Remember that these things happen, too, in communist countries. Maybe more often. Maybe less. Just remember who your friends are.
Timerman was never told the reason for his arrest. One day, tough, he was freed. He was put into a car and taken to the airport and exiled. He lives now in Israel, but he comes occasionally to the United States, where in this debate over human rights he and his book keep coming up. He confronts an administration that wants to resume aid to Argentina -- aid that was curtailed in 1977 for human rights violations. It is an administration that would really prefer it if the entire subject of human rights would simply go away. We should lower our voices, says Lefever. But it's not what you'll want to do after reading Timerman's book. Instead, you'll want to yell bloody murder.