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Unpleasant Truths

FACING past misdeeds is not easy. But that is what many Reagan administration and State Department officials must now do in light of the recent, detailed Truth Commission report on El Salvador accepted by the United Nations. As the report and other recent accounts show, the United States during the 1980s gave the right-wing government in El Salvador $6 billion, mostly in military aid - while participating in what seems a policy of cover-up of atrocities.

The war in El Salvador took 75,000 lives; atrocities were committed by both leftist guerrillas and the military-backed "death squads." But the Truth report, accepted by all parties as accurate, holds the Salvadoran military responsible for most of the murders and human rights violations. During this time, despite both Pentagon reports and cables by Ambassador Robert White, the State Department, at the behest of the White House, denied that human rights atrocities were taking place. Mr. White, for example , told US officials that the murder of Archbishop Romero of San Salvador in his cathedral was ordered by leading politician Roberto d'Aubuisson. US officials denied it to Congress.

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Then there is the 1982 massacre of civilians at El Mozote. Two reporters, Ray Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto, actually saw many of the bodies and gathered evidence of the massacre. Their stories were defamed by the Wall Street Journal, and denied by Thomas Enders, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, before Congress - although he had cables suggesting the contrary. The list of denials, cover-ups, and support of those murdering innocents is long.

The US policy, and what seems a pattern of lies, hubris, and zealotry by officials, cannot be viewed simply as a matter of troublesome details and peripheral issues. These are lapses that have done real harm. Nor is it over. Officials have to answer for suppressing evidence of atrocity in Bosnia and of Kurds in Iraq.

Unpleasant truths must be faced. Lawrence Weschler, author of a book on state torture, notes a difference between forgiving and forgetting: "Forgiveness consists of truth telling, of acknowledgement of what happened.... At that point you lavish forgiveness ... but that can only happen in truth. If it happens in denial, it just sets a seed of bad faith."

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