By Frank James
One of the truths about totalitarian states is that they take on an inner logic that's far from logical to outsiders.
They are places where paranoia and delusional thinking tend to rule the day since facts that conflict with the official propaganda that passes for reality in such states are either ignored or viewed as an enemy disinformation campaign.
The tale of Maziar Bahari, a Newsweek reporter who was imprisoned for four months by the Iranian regime in the notorious Evin Prison, is just the latest example of the bizarreness that such oppressive states induce in the foot soldiers who help perpetuate the system.
In a current Newsweek piece, Bahari describes what one might expected -- the terror of being arrested and accused of being a spy, of being beaten and told by your interrogators that imprisonment might last for years only to be ended by execution. (He also told his story in a "60 Minutes" segment.)
But he also tells of the absurdity of the experience, stemming from his captors warped understanding of the rest of the world, particularly the West, and the U.S.
For instance, Bahari recounts one of his first conversations after he was imprisoned with an interrogator he dubbed Mr. Rosewater for the smell of the man's perfume. Mr. Rosewater had accused him of being a spy for the CIA; MI6, the British intelligence service; Mossad, the Israeli spy organization, and Newsweek. Yes, Newsweek.
Mr. Rosewater wanted me to tell him about a dinner I'd attended with eight other journalists and photographers at a friend's house in Tehran in April, several weeks before the election. "You are part of a very American network, Mr. Bahari," he said, as if summing up his case in a courtroom. "Let me correct myself: you are in charge of a secret American network, a group that includes those who came to that dinner party."
"It was just a dinner," I murmured.
"Yes. A very American dinner. It could have happened in...New Jersey, or someplace like that."
He paused. "Your own New Jersey in Tehran."
The strangeness of the accusation was unsettling. New Jersey?
"You've been to New Jersey, haven't you, Mr. Bahari?" The thought seemed to infuriate him, and I was struck by the feeling that for some reason he might have wanted, secretly, to go to New Jersey himself. The worst thing that can happen in any encounter with Islamic Republic officials is for them to think that you're looking down on them.
"It's not a particularly nice place," I said, trying to sound conversational.
"I don't care. But it is as godless as what you wanted to create in this country."
OK, New Jersey has, fairly or unfairly, been the butt of many a joke, even by New Jerseyans. But that it is the epitome of godlessness in the eyes of an Iranian tough who's never been there would be laughable if the level of ignorance it betrays weren't so frightening.It's a reminder of philosopher Hannah Arendt's incisive phrase: "the banality of evil."
Another example of how absurd the Bahari's captivity sometimes was. His captors showed Bahari evidence of his supposed treachery, an interview he had done before the June election with a fake news reporter from Jon Stewart's Daily Show.:
Only a few weeks earlier, hundreds of foreign reporters had been allowed into the country in the run-up to the election. Among them was Jason Jones, a "correspondent" for Stewart's satirical news program. Jason interviewed me in a Tehran coffee shop, pretending to be a thick-skulled American. He dressed like some character out of a B movie about mercenaries in the Middle East--with a checkered Palestinian kaffiyeh around his neck and dark sunglasses. The "interview" was very short. Jason asked me why Iran was evil. I answered that Iran was not evil. I added that, as a matter of fact, Iran and America shared many enemies and interests in common. But the interrogators weren't interested in what I was saying. They were fixated on Jason.
"Why is this American dressed like a spy, Mr. Bahari?" asked the new man.
"He is pretending to be a spy. It's part of a comedy show," I answered.
"Tell the truth!" Mr. Rosewater shouted. "What is so funny about sitting in a coffee shop with a kaffiyeh and sunglasses?"
"It's just a joke. Nothing serious. It's stupid." I was getting worried. "I hope you are not suggesting that he is a real spy."
"Can you tell us why an American journalist pretending to be a spy has chosen you to interview?" asked the man with the creases. "We know from your contacts and background that you told them who to interview for their program." The other Iranians interviewed in Jason's report--a former vice president and a former foreign minister--had been ar-rested a week before me as part of the IRGC's sweeping crackdown. "It's just comedy," I said, feeling weak.
"Do you think it's also funny that you say Iran and America have a lot in common?" Mr. Rosewater asked, declaring that he was losing patience with me. He took my left ear in his hand and started to squeeze it as if he were wringing out a lemon. Then he whispered into it.
"This kind of behavior will not help you. Many people have rotted in this prison. You can be one of them."
It's not that Bahari's interrogators didn't have a sense of humor that's so disturbing. You don't really expect humor to be the strong suit of men who arrest and torture people for a living.
But that they in their ignorance, in their cluelessness, were so certain they had the "truth" on their side, that's really troubling.
As Jon Meacham, Newsweek's editor, wrote in a column introducing Bahari's story, what's worrisome is what people like Bahari's captors could do if they got the bomb. Meacham wrote:
To get a sense of the depth of the struggle and its stakes, read Maziar's piece--and then imagine his captors with nuclear weapons.