THE MILITARY REGIME ruling Argentina has just committed one of the most breathtaking acts of bureaucratic cynicism of any government. It was in the situation of having to explain to its public and to an aroused international community just what has happened to literally thousands of Argentine citizens, swept up as "terrorists" or "subversives" or simply as political opponents, who have disappeared from the face of the earth since the Videla government took power three years ago. There are very substantial suspicions that this government or right-wing vigilante groups that it winks at tortured and killed many of the disappeared; and that it keeps some of them still in secret imprisonment. But if the government conceded having a hand in the disappearances, or in countless deaths or in continued detainments, it would come under pressure to give out information and perhaps to release prisoners. It would be called on to stop its participation in these monstrous crimes. It would be so discredited it might have to forfeit power.

So what has the Videla government done? It has issued a decree allowing the government itself to declare all missing persons dead without official explanation. At one stroke it will be able to avoid having to produce either the disappeared people or their remains or any information about them. The only way to slow down this process of making responsiblity for the disappeared disappear is -- read closely -- if within 90 days someone can produce evidence that the disappeared person is alive. Think about that: the relative of a person of whom no trace exists because the government has obliterated all trace of him must find some live trace in a very short period of time without any help from the government. If the relative can't do it, the government will absolve itself of ever having to show any trace of the missing person, and it will prevent all others from looking for a trace. The government justifies the new procedure, incredibly, on humanitarian grounds: to shorten the time in which a disappeared person's family can apply for a pension.

That the Videla government would seek this way out of its political dilemma suggests a measure of depravity, and stupidity, inconsistent with the dignity of the Argentine people. The new decree cannot be allowed to stand. The government has surrendered all remaining claims to the respect of decent people.