Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A holiday downer

Thoreau, Unqualified Offerings: The LA Times has a profile of an Iranian dissident who had spent time in an infamous prison. Three things leap out. None of these things are new, not even to me, but they are important, and so worth reinforcing again and again.

(1) They fear him. Though they have power and oil money and guns, they fear a non-violent student who dares to say things that they don’t like. Speech and ideas are powerful. And that should give all of us hope. Though our situation is nothing like his, though we live under a regime that is (usually) less openly brutal to its citizens, a place where speech of every kind is (usually) far less risky, we also despair that there is nothing to be done. Perhaps we are right to despair. Perhaps our regime is stronger than the one he lives under because ours does not fear speech.

But just when I start to despair that nothing can be done, that perhaps IOZ is right, I remember that even our regime works (more subtly) to narrow the range of acceptable discourse. In the end, I think our regime fears ideas just as much as Iran’s. The difference is that our regime has found more subtle responses to speech and ideas, and is better at (usually) ignoring speech and ideas. Still, deep down they fear it. That means something. Perhaps it doesn’t mean enough, but it means something. And I will cling to it.

(2) Their interrogations aren’t so different from the stories that have leaked out from our secret prisons. OK, they differ from the water-boarding stories that have gotten so much attention, in that these interrogations are far less clinical and controlled than the waterboarding procedures that have been given so much deliberate attention. But go beyond the rare and high profile stories, and look at all of the people who have been beaten, put in stress positions, and driven crazy with all sorts of psychological tricks, and you’ll see yet another example of the same tactics at work. This is nothing new, but like many well-known points it needs constant reiteration. The same regime that claims to be so superior to Iran seeks the unchecked power to behave like Iran’s secret police.

(3) They know that what they are doing is wrong. Which means that they have no excuse.

Before he left Evin his interrogators asked him to pardon them for their sins. He scoffed.

“Here is the sentence I told my interrogators on the last day: ‘If I had seen you in the streets before I was arrested, I would not consider you qualified to carry manure.’ I told them they understood nothing of Islam and I could not pardon. ‘That’s not important,’ they said, but their faces were filled with anger.”

We are often told that the people who do our government’s dirty work are patriots who reluctantly do these dirty deeds for the good of all, while the people who do the dirty work of other regimes are unrepentant thugs. The truth is that they are busy lying to themselves; they are just desperate men in denial. Zamanian saw the cracks in the armor. He saw how desperate they were for an excuse. This goes back to the fact that they are afraid of speech and ideas.

None of these things are new. They aren’t new to others. They aren’t even new to me. But they’re important, and hence worth pointing out again and again.

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