Several points should be made on the reports now surfacing that accuse the Salvadorean Army of having deliberately killed during July several score of unarmed civilians who were rebel sympathizers.
The first point is fundamental to American justice: No final judgment should be made until incontrovertible proof is obtained. Reporters now have uncovered clear evidence of killings. But proof of responsibility is not yet certain, despite strong suspicion directed at the Army.
Elements of both the Army and the guerrillas have their own motives for visiting such mayhem upon peasants: the Army, because much of it bitterly opposes the changes President Jose Napoleon Duarte is making in the nation, including the gradual harnessing of the historically independent Army. One way to strike a blow at Duarte and possibly topple him would be to cause American support for him to evaporate by a return to a substantial degree of terrorism by the right against the Salvadorean peasants.
And the guerrillas, because they now are on the defensive. They are forced to conscript recruits from an increasingly unwilling populace. In past years guerrillas on a few occasions donned Army uniforms and perpetrated atrocities to turn citizens against the government.
Hence, the urgency that President Duarte investigate the incident completely and with the utmost dispatch.
This may prove difficult in a land where even noncontroversial court cases routinely drag on for five or six years. But at stake for Duarte and the troubled land he leads is future American support, which totaled nearly $200 million in military aid this year. The Salvadorean President now is in the midst of a honeymoon period with the United States Congress and the American people. They are allowing him a modest amount of time in which to provide clear evidence that he can improve his nation's human rights situation by curbing military excesses - as well as make military strides in holding off the guerrillas, advance in land reform, rebuild the economy, and gain the confidence and support of the skeptical peasantry.
It is a tall order, but one on which Duarte has been making definite progress thus far. Other than the July incidents now surfacing, human rights violations are reported by all sources to have declined substantially in recent months. The military has shown renewed aggressiveness in the field and has put the guerrillas on the defensive. Peasant support for the guerrillas has begun to wane.
The recent reports of the July killings serve to remind Americans, including their government, of the enormity of the challenges facing the Duarte regime. Most progress in human affairs is not measured by a straight line leading upward on a graph paper, and so it may be in El Salvador: New challenges may crop up from time to time.
Yet it is important to give the Salvadorean government time to work out its problems, provided it is making good-faith efforts and, on balance, moving forward. Despite the July violence Congress is believed disposed to permit Duarte some additional time.
From Duarte's perspective, it is important to the retention of American support that the investigation into the facts of the July killings be prompt and complete and that the results be made public expeditiously and in full. It is equally important that, if the Army was responsible, there be no repetition. Duarte's support in the US and the Congress probably can weather one such incident, but it would have grave difficulty standing up to a series.