For no good reason, President Carlos Menem of Argentina has trashed his country's finest achievement of the past 60 years. Previous civilian authorities from President Raul Alfonsin on back courageously re-established the vital constitutional principle that all citizens, military officers included, are accountable to the rule of law. Now, in a country still prone to coup attempts, the tradition of military impunity has been restored.

Under cover of the New Year's weekend, Menem freed from prison the leaders of a succession of military juntas. These men had been convicted of ordering the murder of thousands of Argentines and systematically torturing prisoners, as well as their families, from whom they cruelly withheld information about the victims' fate.Menem portrayed his action as a gesture of reconciliation, closing the book on a tragic past. Instead he has invited a repetition of the tragedy by resurrecting the idea the military can hold itself above the law . . .