'The Ordeal of Jacobo Timerman': a Bill Moyers interview

The legacy of Bill Moyers lingers on at Public Broadcasting Service. PBS is still reacting to the imminent departure of Mr. Moyers for what now seems to him to be the greener pastures of commercial TV on CBS. But his final WNET/NY programs continue to enlighten television viewers (until the end of June , when the "Bill Moyers Journal" concludes).

What may prove one of the most important of recent television interviews airs this week: "The Ordeal of Jacobo Timerman" (PBS, Friday, 9-10 p.m., check local listings for time and repeats).

Under the compassionate and understanding questioning of Mr. Moyers, Argentine newspaper publisher Jacobo Timerman compellingly describes a Kafkaesque ordeal as one of the thousands of Argentines who are said to have "disappeared" into illegal captivity in the past few years.

Although the final edited telecast was not ready at deadline time, I was provided with a full transcript which made as reading as horrifying as Mr. Timerman's book, "Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number" published this month (it appeared in "The New Yorker" earlier).

Accused of being a Jewish Zionist, Mr. Timerman explains how helpless he felt , since that identification alone seemed to constitute a crime in the eyes of his torturers.

Mr. Moyers questions Timerman about the silence of Jewish leaders in Buenos Aires, and the Argentine accuses the Jewish leadership of using the same evasive language that they used in Germany in 1934, trying "to compromise with reality."

He insists, however, that it is not only Jews who are the victims, but others as well. "Remember what Pastor [Martin] Niemoller said in Germany: 'First the Nazis came for the Communists and I was silent because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came after the labor union leaders, and I was silent because I wasn't a labor leader. Then they came for the Jews, and I was silent because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came after the Catholics, and I was silent because I wasn't a Catholic. Finally they came after me, and there was nobody left to speak out.'"

In broken but still poetic English, Mr. Timerman appeals to the people of North America to reject what he considers Washington's new policy of silence about human rights among its allies.

"This quiet diplomacy, this is a way of silence. What you are trying to do is to say that it is better to have an anticommunist [ally], a killer, than to have human rights and democracy in Argentina. . . . You are saying in Washington now, through Gen. Alexander Haig, . . . that the only thing you care [about] is anti-communism. That was the position of Hitler. This is why the world was silent when Hitler came to power in the first years. . . . They [the new administration] are trying to destroy the ideologym of human rights, not the policym of human rights. And this is quite different."

But the Reagan administration maintains that its quiet diplomacy -- far from accepting human-rights violations -- is the most effective way of opposing the kind of abuses described by Mr. Timerman.

Mr. Timerman is very disturbed about the apparent link between Libyan Gen. Muammar al-Qadaffi, who wants to manufacture nuclear weapons, and Argentina's Gen. Roberto Eduardo Viola. "Something is going on between Libya and Argentina, and it must be the same nuclear story."

At the conclusion, Mr. Timerman says: "For the first time after the Marshall Plan, you [the US] captured the imagination of the world with your human-rights policy. And the peoples of the world, the people of the Soviet Union; the people of Argentina and South Korea and the black people of South Africa; everybody. Why are you surrendering this? Why are you destroying this? I don't understand."

Thus, this gentle, haunted man converts what could have been a horrifying tale of torture and degradation into an unforgettable, uplifting clario n call of warning.

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