I’ve been reading a book about the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, when radical Islamist students stormed the US Embassy and took 66 Americans hostage, ostensibly to demand the return of the exiled Shah, who had been admitted into the US for cancer treatment. Later the hostage-takers acknowledged that the events had nothing to do with the Americans or the Shah but were about destabilizing the moderate Bazargan government and consolidating power for radical Islamists, both of which goals were accomplished. I am not making a statement about the justification for the assault but simply reporting what the main actors have said themselves.
The hostages all say pretty much the same things about their captors: these were educated young Iranians–at least in terms of having formal study–but who viewed the world through a hopelessly naive and dogmatic prism of religious extremism. Americans thought it was ridiculous for the captors to call the embassy a “den of spies,” but the students seemed genuinely to believe that every activity in the embassy was dedicated to destroying Iran and its new regime. Every embassy employee from secretaries to Marine guards to the cultural attache was accused of being a CIA operative, and many were beaten and threatened with execution unless they confessed. The rough treatment of the hostages, including solitary confinement, long periods of being bound and blindfolded, not being able to speak to each other can mostly be explained by their captors’ fervent belief that they were dealing with evil people who were torturing Iranians and plotting to make Iran part of their empire. They couldn’t fathom that most of the embassy staff was involved in mundane activities, such as processing visa applications and running the motor pool.
One Army warrant officer jokingly said he had been in charge of a “wheat mold” program to destroy Iranian crops, and later several hostages were beaten and interrogated about this insidious attempt to ruin Iran’s economy. Another was asked about his role in the 1953 overthrow of the Mossadegh government. He replied, “I don’t know anything about it. I was ten years old at the time.” The hostage-takers were sure that they had God on their side and that the rest of the world would soon embrace their radical Islamist vision of heaven on earth. One captor rapturously predicted, “The American people will revolute!”
As I read these things, I thought of the numerous politico-religious fanatics who have crawled out from the woodwork lately, who see everything in the world as some kind of Satanically inspired effort to destroy all that is good in the world. Thus, a call to stop bullying gay children becomes an insidious plot to recruit children by homosexual pedophiles; a modest attempt at healthcare reform is the first step towards a Stalinist system of repression; adoption of any moderate or liberal social or economic policies is worthy of execution; and sending children to a Labor-party summer camp is morally equivalent to mass murder. These are some examples of extremism a friend of mine shared from a Mormon message board where I used to post.
Yes, I know most of these folks are just trolls, but some of them actually believe the crap they spew. As much as I would prefer simply to mock these idiots, I recognize that there is a dangerous edge to them, as fanatics tend to sacrifice their values ostensibly in the service of those values. The hostage-takers, for example, espoused freedom, faith, and morality but engaged in theft, torture, kidnapping, and other crimes. They thought their behavior was entirely justified, even though it violated the tenets of Islam, as some of their hostages often reminded them. The same potential exists among some of our crazier Mormon-rightwing fanatics. I have no doubt that, in the service of liberty, they would be happy to deprive their enemies (liberals, feminists, gays, immigrants, and so on) of their liberty. For instance, we’ve seen efforts over the years not only to deny gay couples the right to work benefits but also the right to work in the military and in public service. In the effort to “protect the unborn,” these folks would force women to go through pregnancy but without the resources to care for their children; they have used humiliation, intimidation, and plain hatred in their quest to celebrate the dignity of human life.
But these people are just like the hostage-takers: they believe fervently in a reality created by talk radio and extremist Mormon rhetoric, and they reject any facts or information that conflicts with that reality. Unlike them, I am happy to let them vent their nonsense. As the recent election showed, their vision of America is not appealing to most Americans, even Republican voters. What worries me is that too many right-wingers are responding not by thinking about what changes they need to make to become politically relevant again but by talking about civil war and secession. One of my coworkers said he thinks the only solution is revolution: “I’m ready.” A more extreme example is the Mormon woman in Arizona who ran over her husband with her SUV because he hadn’t voted, thus dooming the world to four more years of Obama.
I know, most conservatives do not have such warped thought processes (I am a conservative Republican, by the way), but there are too many crazy people out there.