The Argentine Court's verdict is a ringing assertion of the rule of law and the standards of public morality. It found five defendants guilty of crimes committed when they were running the country and sentenced two of them, including a former president of the country, to life imprisonment. The acquittal of four other defendants is generating further controversy in Argentina; in seven years, from 1976 to 1983, some 9,000 people disappeared, most of them murdered in military prisons. But the court showed discrimination in assessing the evidence against each of these men as individuals, and the salutary influence of this example of justice will reach far beyond Argentina.
The generals and admirals claimed, by way of defending themselves, that they were saving the country om communism and from revolution at the hands of urban guerrillas and subversives. The urban guerrillas and subversives were not a figment of the generals' imagination. They killed dozens of people in the early and middle 1970s. And they succeeded in bringing revolution of a sort to Argentina -- one that carried to power their enemies in the military, who embarked on a hysterical and vengeful campaign against not only radical gunmen but, as time passed, against almost anyone who held any opinion that the generals and admirals took to be unorthodox. To defend even the most rudimentary concept of civil rights brought a person into dire jeopardy. The junta thought of all opposition as communism, and to stamp it out they engaged in endless brutality, torture and murder. Among the great achievements of this long trial is a full and accurate public record of all that happened.
One of the enduring inanities of politics is the assertion that, whatever its defects in principle, authoritarian government is aleast strong and efficient. Is it? In Argentina, over seven years, the junta mindlessly ran down a national economy that is potentially one of the world's richest. It rolled up the gigantic foreign debts with which the country is now struggling. It spent lavishly on its own armed forces and started a war in the Falklands in which it was rapidly defeated.
In heartening contrast, there is the current democratic government under President Alfonsin. It has led the country into a series of necessary but drastic economic reforms, of a sort that the junta always dodged on grounds that they would be unpopular. The current government has now given its predecessors a fair trial with scrupulous regard to its own high standards of justice; under the junta's standards, all of these men would have been shot in a barracks basement without so much as a magistrate's hearing. Argentina's democracy is providing a memorable demonstration of moral courage and strength.