Abuse of political prisoners, huh. Sound familiar?
As I watch events unfolding in Iran — and more specifically the ham-handed way Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the other hard-liners are getting “tough” with protesters — I can’t help but be reminded of Dick Cheney. The very same one-dimensional thinking Cheney wore as a badge of honor every single day he showed up for work at his undisclosed location now seems to be at play in Iran.
Tough is good, weak is bad. Brutality is tough, thus good. Decency is weak, thus bad.
It’s a mindset that feeds upon itself. When faced with opposition, attacking the opponent is tough, whereas compromise is weak. Thus, by definition compromise is foolish, while attacking is wise. But since, under this world view, tough is always better, being tougher still must, by definition, be better still.
So you don’t just capture or arrest your enemies, you hold them in a gulag without access to basic human rights. But since tough as a virtue can never be tough enough (how can one ever be virtuous enough?), you don’t stop there: you also abuse and torture the prisoners. Then you put them on trial before a kangaroo court. And if the world (or even many of your own citizens) are offended, who cares?
God knows, brutality can work well as a political weapon, at least for awhile. But it doesn’t always. In fact, sometimes it’s a downright stupid strategy, all issues of right and wrong aside. And when taken to unnecessary extremes, it almost always is. The martyr you make today is the martyr you’ll have to live with tomorrow, after all. And for a national leader to fail to grasp this obvious truth surely goes beyond blindness and enters the realm of pathology.
Thus, by turning to torture, in large part, I’m convinced, to prove their “manliness,” Cheney & Co. didn’t just betray America’s honor, they damaged the nation in innumerable pragmatic ways. They damaged our international standing, made working with our allies much harder, helped recruit terrorists and put our own troops in greater danger.
But such was their devotion to the theology of toughness that Cheney and his crowd would never look back. Even today, when the wreckage left behind by their bluster is as obvious as the bankruptcy of the policies themselves, still they refuse to look.
Turning then to Cheney’s strategic twin in Iran, Khamenei, we see the same thought process in action. One can debate the political wisdom of the hard-liners decision to steal the election and then crackdown on the dissenters. As noted above, autocratic crackdowns are often quite successful. The brutal Chinese suppression of the protests at Tiananmen Square certainly worked like a charm.
But even if cracking down made political sense for the hard-liners (which is far from clear), it’s hard to see how abusing protesters who’ve been arrested can bring Iran’s leaders anything but grief. Yet that’s apparently what’s been happening. Reports of the torture and murder of protesters, causing outrage even among many conservatives in Iran, have now forced Khamenei to announce the closure of one prison. And yet there’s strong reason to suspect that abuse continues and, in any event, show trials, another form of prisoner abuse, still await.
Yes, it’s a moral outrage. Even more than that, however, it’s just plain stupid. But within the theology of toughness none of that matters. To true devotees, toughness is an end not a means — a virtue onto itself rather than a mere tool in service to some other purpose. So, yeah, it’s stupid.
But as Forrest Gump might say, “tough is as tough does.”