As the arrest of Sierra clearly shows, the prosecutors are looking far beyond the former military officers and policemen directly accused in the trial. Larrea's emphasis on a "collective sense of shame" is echoed in the courtroom nearly every day. The victims' testimonies rarely involve the men in the dock, and the prosecutors frequently ask the witnesses how other people -- priests, neighbors, colleagues, or even journalists at La Nueva Provincia -- might have contributed to their ordeals. After the trial ends next month, the prosecutor intends to launch a similar case this summer against the local navy unit, in part for its involvement in the infamous "Death Flights" of that era.
And that, in turn, raises another fundamental question about criminal investigations like Argentina's: How far should the circle of culpability extend? It seems obvious that everyone should condemn the soldier who pushed a pregnant woman, drugged but alive, out of an airplane -- but what about the air-traffic controller who guided the plane to its destination and back? It was the military regime that carried out the policies at the heart of the Dirty War, but those policies would have been impossible without the complicity of broad swathes of society.
Argentina's recent experience vividly demonstrates that countries emerging from authoritarian rule cannot expect quick or easy fixes to the problems of transitional justice. How can a country expect to bury its past when so many of its vanished victims never had graves? Katherine Sikkink, a leading scholar on transitional justice, argues that criminal trials can be inherently healing even when they don't reach a clear verdict. But based on my own experience of the tribunal in Bahía Blanca, I suspect that many of the victims of the Dirty War won't be satisfied merely by an act of public catharsis. Many of them say they want to see the killers of their loved ones punished with the full force of the law.
The undeniable need for this trial in Bahía Blanca, half a lifetime after the events it scrutinizes, suggests that other countries emerging from authoritarian rule will have little choice but to confront the horrors of the past. They must initiate this painful process even without the promise of closure. Even the best-dressed wound still leaves a scar.