As A City Upon A Hill

Builders of states, architects of revolution: these are usually idealists, who believe that what they create shall be different, better, other, more, than all that came before.

If wishes were horses . . . .

CD2-01John Winthrop, Puritan prelate of the Massachusetts Bay Company, promised to plant on the shores of North America a beacon for all the world: “the eyes of all people are upon us,” he said, and “we shall be as a city upon a hill.” Yet before his people could even properly feed themselves, they were busy hanging one another for adultery.

Nearly 400 years later, the animatronic Ronald Reagan proclaimed that Winthrop’s fabled American city had taken on a glow—we were now “a shining city on a hill.” To which William Burroughs was heard to grumble: “America may well be the hope of the world. It is also the source of such emotional plagues as drug hysteria, racism, Bible belt morality, Protestant capitalistic ethic, muscular Christianity, that have spread everywhere, transforming this planet into an annex of Hell.” My own observation, expressed at the time, was that the only American city I could see with much of a shine, there during Reagan’s time, was Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, then all aglow from the near-meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear facility.

In a 1972 interview with the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir confessed her deep disappointment with the reality of the Jewish state.

You’ll think me foolish, naive, but I thought that in a Jewish state there wouldn’t be the evils that afflict other societies. Theft, murder, prostitution. I thought so because we had started out so well. Fifteen years ago in Israel there were almost no thefts, and there were no murders, there was no prostitution. Now instead we have everything, everything. And it’s something that breaks your heart[.]

So too, Iran. 

In 1975 I fell in with the predominately Iranian and Palestinian students active in the local university’s chapter of the ISA (Iranian Students Association). There I had my first real exposure to torture. I had known that torture was at least on occasion engaged in by all the various combatants in the recently concluded conflicts in Indochina. But the torture then ongoing in Iran was deliberate, systematic, horrific, and a matter of state policy—a tool of SAVAK,SAVAK-victims-list-US-Embassy the intelligence service loyal to the Shah, Iran’s then-dictator. Iran was then an ally of the United States; when in 1976 Jimmy Carter was elected president, and quixotically rode out into the world bearing the banner of “human rights,” SAVAK was made to ease up some on the cattle prods, broken glass, and boiling water: Iranian prisoners dubbed this era “jimmykrasy.”

The photo above depicts three Iranian women reviewing an illustrated list of SAVAK victims, posted on the walls of the US embassy during its 1979-1980 occupation by Iranian students. For, despite Carter’s good intentions, the US had historically been complicit in SAVAK abuses, particularly during the Nixon and Ford administrations, when SAVAK more or less ran amok. During this era, Henry Kissinger’s amoral policy of realpolitik involved enabling and rewarding the Shah, who was perceived as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, and a brake on Iran’s fellow, more unruly, oil-producing states in the Middle East. The Shah was showered with aid and arms, while Kissinger & Co. gazed upon the tortures of SAVAK with eyes wide shut.

We young folk in the ISA not only wanted SAVAK torture to stop, we wanted the Shah deposed. Why this was both necessary and desirable is illustrated in this photograph, Peasant-kissing-Shah-Feet-1962which depicts an Iranian “citizen” kissing the feet of the Shah. The Iranian and Palestinian students in the ISA were Marxists, and envisioned the Shah replaced by a secular socialist state. Many of the young ISA men and women I knew returned to Iran, eager and hopeful, when the revolution commenced in 1979. Few came back. Some were killed; some disappeared, and are presumed dead. The others are in exile. For the Shah was not replaced by a secular socialist state. Instead, in his wake, rose a fundamentalist Islamic theocracy.

For you see, in all those years when SAVAK was torturing and killing, most of those tortured and killed were leftists. As the United States in 1953 overthrew, via coup, Iran’s democratically elected leftist secular Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, replacing him with the Shah. It was US policy throughout the Cold War to ruthlessly suppress leftist elements throughout the developing world. Thus, when revolution came to Iran, there simply weren’t enough leftists left alive, to counter the fundamentalist Islamists, then mostly unmolested—ignored, humored, or even encouraged—throughout the Middle East, by both the US and authoritarian potentates such as the Shah.

Which brings us, 30 years later, to today.

I thought about those young men and women of the ISA, forever young in my mind, when I read Saturday that a senior member of the Iranian judiciary has acknowledged that some Iranians arrested during the June demonstrations protesting the apparent re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been tortured in Iranian jails.

Speaking to reporters at a news conference, Qorbanali Dori-Najafabadi, the prosecutor general, said “mistakes” had led to a few “painful accidents which cannot be defended, and those who were involved should be punished.”

Such mistakes, he said, included “the Kahrizak incident,” a reference to the deaths of several detainees at Kahrizak detention center in southwestern Tehran.

His comments came after weeks of reports that detainees had been tortured, and they fell somewhere between an admission and an accusation, as most of the arrests were made by the Revolutionary Guards and the paramilitary Basij militia, groups that are not under the control of the judiciary.

Even so, the statement was likely to be incendiary in Iran, where allegations of torture by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi became a central justification of the 1979 revolution that brought the hard-line clerics to power.

And so, we are back to where we were 30 years ago, with the government of Iran torturing its own people.

What, as Lenin famously asked, is to be done?

First, to take heart. Because the mere public admission of the torture means that not all elements of the fiendishly complicated Iranian political class are comfortable with it. As the Times reports:

Detainees’ accusations of torture have already prompted a parliamentary investigation of abuses at Kahrizak, which was closed last month by order of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mr. Dori-Najafabadi said his team had tried to change the situation after taking control of the arrests last month, the ILNA news agency reported, and he encouraged people to come forward with complaints.

“Maybe there were cases of torture in the early days after the election,” he was quoted as saying, “but we are willing to follow up any complaints or irregularities that have taken place.”

In another indication of dissension, he said a special judiciary committee had recommended the release of Saeed Hajjarian, a prominent reformist. Mr. Hajjarian’s family said he had been tortured, and has expressed concern about his health.

Second, to take heart. Because all will not always be this way. As Martin Luther King said, and as our president these days frequently reminds us: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This is as true of Iran as of anywhere else. My ISA friends did not live to see an Iran that did not torture its own people. I may not, either. I may not even live to see an America that firmly eschews torture. But if I don’t, my daughter will. Or hers. This is what Bob Dylan meant, when he sang:

and if i die
at the top of the hill
and if i don’t make it
you know my baby will

It will happen. That this or that person doesn’t live to see it, will not prevent it. Someday, we really will be, and all over the world, as a city on a hill. And, everywhere, we will shine.

Until that day, a still pretty damn wobbly Steve Earle, performing Dylan’s song. In a Tennessee prison. The performance a condition of his parole from the place. He got out. So will we.


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2 Responses to “As A City Upon A Hill”


  1. 1 annie August 18, 2009 at 8:02 am

    brilliant.

    ……..

    “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

    sometimes i fleetingly loose my faith this is true, reading your post warms my soul.


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