The Ethical Spectacle, May 1995,

Senator Helms and Murder

In the U.S. Senate today is a man, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who should be called upon to answer the following question: "Senator, is murder an acceptable tactic in foreign policy?"

In a December 7, 1994 article profiling the Senator, the New York Times said:

For Mr. Helms, the devil lived down in Latin America during the 1980's. The Senator and his staff aimed to fight him. They became a crucible of American support for the far right wing: politicians linked to death squads in El Salvador; the Guatemalan military, which killed thousands of people suspected of ties to the left; Honduran military intelligence; the Argentine junta; and other violently authoritarian governments of the era.

According to the article, Senator Helms aided Roberto D'Aubuisson and his ARENA party, a Salvadorean politician in command of the death squads, by disclosing a secret CIA plan to support Jose Napoleon Duarte, D'Aubuisson's centrist opposition in an election. As a result, enraged D'Aubuisson supporters plotted to kill U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering. Mr. Helms sent a letter to these partisans that said:

Ambassador Pickering has been the leader of the death squads against democracy. Mr. Pickering has used his diplomatic capacity to strangle liberty during the night.

Senator Helms was censured by the Senate for conducting his own foreign policy. Luckily, Ambassador Pickering escaped murder.

If you don't remember, El Salvador is the country where death squads gunned down the Archbishop, raped and murdered three American nuns and a lay worker, and shot two visiting U.S. labor officials during the '80's; more recently, several priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were gunned down in their home. These are only the crimes that garnered international attention; they took place against a background of the constant torture and murder of anyone seen opposing the regime, including Catholic priests and human rights advocates. My source for the following is Phillip Berryman, Stubborn Hope: Religion, Politics and Revolution in Central America(New Press, 1994):

One priest reported seeing D'Aubuisson tell a rally that after winning they would have to "take care of this archbishop, these Jesuits, these other priests and especially these foreigners who are ruining the minds of our children. And if the gringos want to help the communists and cut military aid, we didn't need military aid in 1932. If we had to kill 30, 1932, we'll kill 250,000 today."

D'Aubuisson is said to have personally ordered the murder of Archbishop Romero in 1980, the day after he preached a sermon calling for an end to the killing.

D'Aubuisson is dead today, of cancer, leaving behind him the question why we have a man in public life in the U.S. who supported him to the extent of disclosing secret C.I.A. activity. If Senator Helms were asked the question, would he claim that D'Aubuisson was not a murderer? Or admit that he was, but claim that he, Helms, didn't know at the time? Or does Senator Helms, in his heart, believe that murder is a justifiable tactic in foreign affairs? And if so, why do we tolerate him?