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Slipping and Sliding Into the Success Zone

Tina Rosenberg has drunk coffee with assassins and shot the breeze with Stassi informants. But she's a good person--really.

June 28, 1996|ELIZABETH WEIL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tina Rosenberg is a good person. She's prompt and neat and cheerful and direct. She's not afraid to wear the same outfit two days in a row. She reads the foreign affairs parts of the newspaper, the parts that less-good people barely skim. She's won a MacArthur and a National Book Award and, this spring, the Pulitzer for nonfiction, and she's been genuinely flabbergasted each time. She dates a human rights lawyer. She favors translucent sunglasses over the shifty, mirrored kind. She thinks before she speaks, she smiles at service people and she treats the disadvantaged with respect. Her houseplants, surely, get adequate sun. She has no time, one suspects, for, say, former Stassi informants or the killers of Peru's Shining Path.

And yet Rosenberg--who is 37 and fine-featured, and who writes nonfiction with considerable heart and grace--has spent a good deal of her adult life cavorting with evil sorts.

In 1985, she moved to Nicaragua. She spent a short while reporting on victims of violence but soon switched to interviewing the perpetrators instead. Her first book, "Children of Cain: Violence and the Violent in Latin America" (William Morrow, 1991), grew out of this work: four years traveling around Latin America, hanging out with assassins, drug traffickers, torturers and such.

Her second effort, "The Haunted Lands: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism" (Random House, 1995), led her again into nefarious terrain. This time she spent three years behind the just-fallen Iron Curtain, listening patiently to Poland's Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, sipping fruit tea with East German border guards who shot escapees.

In many ways it seems counterintuitive: you would think good people would have no tolerance for evil, that they'd shun villains who rationalize their atrocities instead of saying, nonjudgmentally, "That's interesting. Tell me more."

But Rosenberg proves this is not the case. What a good person does, it turns out, is question thoughtfully and record with diligence, bear witness to the human capacity for evil in an effort to keep it from happening again and again.

Trucks are honking. The sun is shining. And we are drinking coffee outside the Third Coast, a cafe in downtown Chicago. A waiter with dreadlocks comes and goes. We could be anywhere. The tape recorder on the table--a common sight in Rosenberg's life--could be recording anyone. As Rosenberg is quick to remind, horrific people look just like the rest of us, and have amazing abilities to lead normal, even upscale, lives.

She starts in with some stories--the torturers in Argentina who take their captives out for steaks, the dissidents in East Germany who campaigned to get the secret police files opened, only to learn that they'd been being informed on by loved ones all along.

Most eerily, she takes to describing her 10th day in one of Colombia's most murderous cities, Medellin. On that day she was also drinking coffee, outdoors, in the sun--only with two sicarios, or hired killers.

"I witnessed a murder being planned, and I didn't even consider doing anything about it. It was simply part of my reporting, my ordinary day," she says. "That was exactly the kind of behavior I was struggling to understand."

As Rosenberg now sees it, she, like most people in Medellin, had severed the link between violence and its perpetrators. She was thinking that someone will be killed, yes, but that nobody is responsible, exactly, and nothing can be done. Rosenberg terms this "thinking about violence in the passive voice." Nonetheless, when she describes her days closer to the Equator, "passive" is hardly a word that comes to mind.

"Working in Latin America was very much a street, let's-go-out-and-get-teargassed, kind of thing," she says. "Eastern Europe was almost all formal interviews, talking heads. But down there it was about attending street demonstrations. Or riding in a truck, or whatever.

"I remember once in Managua, I was supposed to go out on patrol with a unit from the Sandinista army," she says, "and I called a woman I know, a reporter for one of the wire services, and I asked her, 'What do you take along? They want you to wear a uniform, how do you deal with that? Is it dangerous?'

"And she thought about it and she said, 'I guess if the shooting starts, you can always hide behind a tree. So no, it's not dangerous.' And that seemed perfectly obvious to me at the time. But looking back on it, you know, it was really stupid."

Before heading to Latin America, Rosenberg's bio was nothing much to read. Childhood in small-town Michigan. College at Northwestern (undergrad, speech; grad school, journalism). Then, however, without even knowing who the Contras and the Sandinistas were, she headed down to Managua with a group of reporters and, boom, the tale picked up quite a bit. Suddenly Rosenberg's days were filled with passions and guerrillas and the quest to understand things base.

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