Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The banality of evil: Shocking video of a man being lashed in Iran

It is hard to put a face to the torturers and murderers that have filled our common psyche in the past months. What exactly does a human being who beats another to death look like? In what dingy outpost of civilization do these deeds occur? Are filthy, dark cellars the only province of deliberately inflicted pain?

But harder still is the jarring realization of what philosopher Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil, that great oppression is carried out by legions of functionaries who may pull a prisoner's nails out with pliers, then go home and kiss their children goodnight. Normality in the name of a premise, an ideology, a religion.

Much as our sanity demands it, we cannot relegate evil to groups of fanatics operating in the stifling heat of a detention center, overcrowded and reeking of urine and feces and fear.

It can be seen in the jovial face of Hamid Rasai, Majlis representative from Tehran, as he compares Mir Hossein Mousavi with MKO leader Massoud Rajavi and says that anyone who stands in the way of the goals of the Islamic Revolution must be eliminated. And it can be heard in the words of former health minister, Kamran Lankarani, a poster boy for youthful idealism, as he claims that Mohsen Rouholamini died of meningitis, not because he was bludgeoned so severely in jail that his jaw had been shattered. Or in the fatherly figure of Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the supposedly moderate former head of the judiciary, as he pleads that he could have done no more than sign a watered-down moratorium on stonings after Jafar Kiani had been buried in a pit and stoned to death in Takistan.

And as the footage posted on the bottom of this page shows, evil can occur under the leafy green canopy of a tree on a sunny day, the tinny sound of a radio playing soothingly in the background, an old man watching dispassionately from a row of chairs along the garden wall. The banality of evil.

The exact details of the footage are unknown now, but they are immaterial. The place is Iran, the time is recent enough for the video to have been filmed with a mobile telephone. 'Please don't film me, I'll be dishonored,' the prisoner wails, clutching at his tattered dignity. 'I'm not filming,' the other man responds. 'This is my handset.' Primeval barbarity meets modern technology.

The man is tied to a tree, his back bare, and he is methodically lashed 76 times. The sentence lasts six minutes, during which time the man screams and pleads to no avail. Justice must be done.

As a child in the Shah's time, I knew a man, a family friend, whose eyesight had been damaged at a torturer's hands. A clamp had been placed on his head and the screws tightened until he had shrieked and his eyeballs had almost been expelled from their sockets. He had rebuilt his life, but was forced to use a magnifying glass to read. It was a cruel daily reminder of prison days for such a voracious reader. I asked my father about him once, only once because even a child knows that some personal horrors cannot be delved too easily. But the truth still pierced my cloistered existence and has stayed with me since.

But what of the present Iran? What have the pious overlords created? What hope for the future generations? Over 230 people have been executed in Iran since the beginning of the year. Iran is the only country in the world to kill juvenile offenders. Torture and brutality had become common practices, even before the recent unrest.

When the highest authorities in the land set the tone, the rest of society follows. The murder rate rose an astonishing 11% last year, according to official statistics, which can be suspected of being below the true figures. The number of people killed by relatives increased by 10% and the murder of parents by their offspring was up by 3%. Bank robberies ballooned by 36%. Violence and death beget more of the same. As prominent thinker Abdolkarim Soroush said in a blistering open letter to Leader Ali Khamenei recently, 'All your celebrations have become mourning ceremonies.'

This culture of violence must come to an end. The regime and its functionaries have committed many crimes, but the day that they are removed, the cycle of vengeance must be broken. They must be tried in open courts and capital punishment must forever be banished from Iran. Only then can the country become a champion, rather than a violator, of human rights. The land which spawned the Cyrus the Great cylinder, considered by some to be the first human rights charter in the world, can aspire to nothing less.

Many years ago, Elie Wiesel, a concentration camp survivor and author, recounted a parable at a gathering. A man lives in unjust times. He comes to the town square every day and speaks of justice and tolerance, but no one takes notice. In fact, brutality and corruption become the norm. Yet, every day, he returns to the square and, as the years go by, speaks louder and longer. Finally, an exasperated passerby asks, 'Why do you come every day and speak louder and longer? You are not changing anyone.' The man responds, 'I speak louder and longer so that I may not change.'

We must speak out. We who hold no power must speak out lest we become like them if ever we do wield power.

We must speak out to retain our own humanity.

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