Such a tragic milestone as Thursday’s 30th anniversary of the terrorist bomb destruction of the Israeli Embassy has left me no choice but to advance the return of this column (originally planned for next weekend, rather than for just off the plane from Heathrow with jet lag).
The phrase “shock horror” might belong to the cheapest style of tabloid headline writing, yet 30 years later I find no better way of describing my reaction. The death toll of 29 (according to last Thursday’s commemoration – the figure of 22 is widely given) might seem eclipsed by the 85 perishing in the AMIA Jewish community centre bomb blast 28 months afterwards but that first jolt of shocked disbelief can never be replicated.
The shock was all the greater for its context towards the end of the first calm summer in years. The bloodbath of the La Tablada leftist insurrection in 1989 (actually claiming more lives than the Israeli Embassy attack) and the Bonex Plan daylight robbery of national savings at the turn of the decade had blighted previous summers but the convertibility introduced on April Fool’s Day, 1991, was finally clicking after a slow start – ending two years of four-digit annual inflation and giving Carlos Menem a comfortable midterm victory. A hard-won mood of complacency so rudely shattered.
Nobody could understand what had hit them. A half-baked theory was widely circulated (and persists until today) whereby the atrocity was an Iranian reprisal for Menem contributing a couple of tiny corvettes to the 1990-1991 Gulf War fleet. Every reason to suspect the Islamic Republic of Iran, of course, but this motive made absolutely no sense – Saddam Hussein had slain almost a million Iranians in the then recent 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war so why on earth should Tehran be angry with Menem for joining the international alliance to take Saddam out (unless they thought he should have tried harder)? The almost universal credence given to this interpretation shows vast ignorance of the Middle East.
As it happened, I perhaps had more reasons to suspect Iran than most without realising it at the time. In 1991 the Buenos Aires Herald newspaper (of which I was then Co-Editor) embarked on a marketing strategy of covering the national days of every country with a Buenos Aires embassy in the form of interviewing their diplomatic representatives, while plugging the corresponding companies and chambers of commerce for ads – there was to be blanket coverage of all nations in the first two years before shortlisting the most worthwhile. Since Islamic Revolution Day falls in February, that month in 1992 found me dropping into the Iranian Embassy on Figueroa Alcorta for the corresponding interview (the notorious Mohsen Rabbani, posted at the embassy for almost 15 years, was one of my interlocutors). I was made to wait a good half hour in the entrance lobby before being admitted for my interview and during that period there was an almost incessant entry of huge crates accompanied by a lot of nattering in Farsi. “The biggest diplomatic pouch I’ve ever seen in my life,” I said to myself at the time without giving it any further thought and to this day I cannot really believe that they could have been so open, but who knows?
Another mass reaction to the atrocity with which I found it hard to empathise was the facile phrase: “Todos somos judios (“We are all Jews”).” The objection to this laudable sentiment is not any anti-Semitic reflex but that it cheaply robs the Jewish people of their special victim status by seeking to share it. Proclaiming the attack to be directed against Argentina as much as the Israeli Embassy is true enough inasmuch as it happened on Argentine soil with Argentines and even some citizens of neighbouring countries also perishing but such innocent bystanders were never the target of the terrorists – we need to place ourselves inside their sick minds to understand that this was part of an ultimate objective of the extinction of the Jewish state and concentrate all our sympathy on the Jewish people instead of drifting into any self-pity.
The Herald had an extremely direct contact with the tragedy in the form of my co-Editor Nicholas Tozer visiting an Embassy attaché Rafael Eldad (who rose to be ambassador in the following decade) in the late morning of March 17, 1992, thus escaping death by a couple of hours – Nicholas was always going to take such an extreme atrocity very much to heart but this circumstance led to a quantum leap in his shared suffering. My own mood at the start of that day was much more frivolous – March 17 is, of course, Saint Patrick’s Day and my mind was centred on how I could best honour my Liverpool Irish grandmother by getting as drunk as possible that evening. But ever since 1992 the festive exuberance of that increasingly globalised carousal has had to co-exist with that awful tragedy in Argentina at least – an irksome collateral effect if not the heart of the matter.
As it happened, these two sides of March 17 directly overlapped that day. The blasted Israeli Embassy on Arroyo and Suipacha was then flanked by the Irish and Romanian Embassies, with the former closed for the day. Embassy secretary Brendan Ward was bussing to a community event in Rosario and just two minutes into his journey while still pulling out of Retiro terminal he suddenly saw a huge mushroom cloud rising above the area he knew so well. “Oh my God, that’s my embassy! How could the IRA have reached Buenos Aires?” he thought. With no mobile telephones in those days he was stuck with that worry throughout the journey to Rosario before learning the news.
But apart from one Benedict Green being detained here as a suspect, there has never been any whisper of IRA activity and this leads to an important point about Argentine life – the immigrant mosaic includes several countries with traditional terrorist problems but all of them come here leaving their troubled histories behind them. Thus the Basques, Croats and the Irish are all six-digit components of the Argentine population but no ETA, no Ustase and no IRA here. I would say the same about the two million or so Argentines originating from Islamic countries (many of whom are anyway Maronite Christians) and this deepens my conviction that this horror came from outside although with a local connection let off the hook by (deliberate?) mistrial.
But that is just my opinion – we still do not have the full truth, far less justice but we can at least remember.