To disappear became a transitive verb in Latin America. Military dictatorships "disappeared" their opponents. That is to say, they kidnapped, tortured, murdered and disposed of them, leaving only an inconsolable absence in the place of a human being.
I spent some time in Argentina in the aftermath of the 1976-83 dictatorship. Enough to become familiar with countless picture frames holding images of impossibly lovely young women, taken from their homes for "brief questioning," never to be seen again. Enough to know the unquenchable parental tears these disappearances provoked.
It was not too early then, in rooms filled with the animal sobbing of the bereaved, to feel rage at the junta's crimes. But it was too early to know the full extent of them: the 30,000 disappeared, the torture at the Navy School of Mechanics in Buenos Aires, the corpse-dumping flights out to sea.
Argentines still hoped back in the 1980s. They hoped, whatever their heads told them, that the longing in their hearts might return their loved ones intact. No doubt, many still hope.
With disappearance, closure is impossible, for there is no evidence of an ending. In this infinite prolongation of suffering lay the particular contribution of the generals to the infliction of pain.
There was something else we did not know back then. Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state, told Admiral CÃƒ©sar Augusto Guzzetti, the Argentine foreign minister, in June 1976: "If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly. But you should get back quickly to normal procedures."
Later, Kissinger assured the admiral that the administration "won't cause you unnecessary difficulties." He also grew angry when he learned that the U.S. ambassador in Buenos Aires, Robert Hill, has given the junta a warning about violations of human rights. "In what way is it compatible with my policy?" Kissinger asked, before suggesting that Hill might have to go.
These exchanges, records of which were obtained in recent years under the federal Freedom of Information Act by the nonprofit National Security Archive, suggest how the surrogate battles of the Cold War, as fought in the American hemisphere, drew the United States into forms of complicity that remain a shadow on its conscience.
More recently, the historian Robert Dallek unearthed transcripts in the National Archives that show Kissinger, bitter at negative newspaper coverage of the 1973 coup in Chile, complaining to President Richard Nixon that, "in the Eisenhower period, we would be heroes." The coup would lead to thousands of "disappearances."
I was thrust back into this Latin American vortex, which haunted me in the 1980s, by a powerful show called "The Disappeared" at New York's El Museo del Barrio. It features works about horrors, often followed by impunity, to which the United States turned a blind eye at best.
Ana Tiscornia's blurred portraits, palimpsests in which the subjects seem to hover between life and death, capture the slow fading of the disappeared, and their flickering hold on those from whom they were seized.
A corridor full of photographs of young couples feature women who were pregnant when "disappeared." The Argentine military would wait for the child to be born before murdering the mother. The babies went to childless military couples. Laconic captions say: "The couple and their child remain disappeared."
As Laurel Reuter and Julian Zugazagoitia write in their introduction to the show, organized by the North Dakota Museum of Art, the artists "ask us, as North Americans, to question what role our own country played in supporting the Latin American governments which killed their people as a matter of course."
The artists also ask us something else. This month six human rights groups listed 39 people they believe are secretly imprisoned in unknown locations by the United States as part of the war on terror.
President George W. Bush acknowledged last year that some individuals deemed particularly dangerous had been moved "to an environment where they can be held secretly." In effect, categorized as enemy combatants, they have been "disappeared."
This practice is unconscionable. It does not matter that the purpose of the disappearance is not murder, as it was in Argentina.
Once people disappear, every basic human right is at risk because every check, every balance, has gone with them. The worst becomes almost inevitable because there is nothing to stop it.
The United States demands accountability of others when its own people go missing. It must demand the same accountability of itself, whatever the fight. The lovely, longing and lost young faces of Latin America require at least that.
© 2007 The New York Times Company