We all know that wars, and the governmental usurpations of power that are entangled with them, extract a heavy price from the citizens of the nations that fight them. Most people are aware of the huge monetary costs and the unconscionable toll of human lives, most of them young, which result from fighting.
But something much more sinister happens to a country in battle, and to its people: There is an illusion of unity, at least for a time, that masks the fissures opened within the populace and its culture. Those ruptures are inevitably created by whoever happens to be in power, or more precisely, his or her propaganda machines. In times past, kings and other dictators simply ordered people to go out into the countryside or into cities and spread wishful thinking or outright lies about the motives and status of the war. Later, religious and educational institutions would perform this function (To a large extent, they still do.) and in subsequent times mass media would do the job.
And what is the result of the spread of fantasy and falsehood? Azar Nafisi, in her wonderful Reading Lolita in Tehran, described its results in her native Iran during its eight-year war with Iraq during the 1980′s. Even if you are not a student of literature and don’t care for the authors she invokes, her critical memoir is worthwhile reading for its account of how people’s lives change during a war. Equally important, she shows how people’s perceptions of that war and its actual or alleged motives also change, and how rulers exploit those changes.
"For me, as for millions of ordinary Iranians, the war came out of nowhere one mild fall morning: unexpected, unwelcome and utterly senseless." Change "Iranians" to some other nationality, and Professor Nafisi could have been describing how Americans felt on September 11, 2001 or December 7, 1941 — or Poles on September 1, 1939, or how people from other countries reacted when, it seemed, la mort vient du ciel clair (death came from the clear blue sky) in the words of Albert Camus in La Peste (The Plague).
In the days that follow such events, people are confused, angry and scared. Such mental and emotional states are exactly what those in power need in order to rally the people, or to create a semblance of unity, about the war. This happens by turning the people and the nation into proxies and symbols: by creating a myth, if you will. Professor Nafisi relays the syllogism the regime promulgated during the early days of the war: "[T]he enemy had not attacked just Iran; it had attacked the Islamic Republic, and it had attacked Islam."
All you have to do is change "The enemy to "Terrorists," "Iran" to "the United States", "the Islamic Republic" to "our nation" and "Islam" to "our way of life," or some such phrase, and you have, in essence, the first lie the President and his mouthpieces told the American people after the events of 9/11.
Politicians talk in such high-blown and patently duplicitous rhetoric because they know people who are (or think they are) hungry for security and safety will eat it up the way kids scarf down McDonald’s Happy Meals. And the politicos’ words are as devoid of truth and meaning and as full of bluster as those fast-food treats lack nutritional value and are laden with fat and calories.
The citizens of a country — most of them, anyway — rally around its leaders’ call to nationalism. There is a new sense of purpose, or the belief that there is one, for a nation under siege. And, for a time, people from all walks of life want to show their patriotism, or at least that they share the values that are being expressed publicly at such times. However, as Nafisi points out, in Iran "many were not allowed to participate fully."
On the surface, not allowing people to participate in rallying a country into war doesn’t make sense, at least from the point of view of those who are ruling. But it allows them to do what every wartime ruler needs to do in order to keep the country’s people and resources focused on the conflict. Not allowing certain people to participate means that a government can deem such people as detrimental to the war effort, and therefore unpatriotic and a threat to everything its citizens value. In the early days of the war (the fall of 1980), according to Nafisi:
The polarization created by the regime confused every aspect of life. Not only were the forces of God fighting an emissary of Satan, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, but they also were fighting the agents of Satan inside the country. At all times, from the very beginning of the revolution and all through the war and after, the Islamic regime never forgot its holy battle against internal enemies. All forms of criticism were considered Iraqi-inspired and dangerous to national security.
I can only imagine what Professor Nafisi was thinking on that day when Ari Fleischer warned Americans to "watch what they do and watch what they say." Or when Jos Padilla and others who did little more than to embrace Islam were declared "enemy combatants" and held without being charged of any specific crime. (Can you imagine Bush at Nuremberg trials?) By the time Bush, Fleischer and their partners in crime so cynically exploited events for their own ends, Professor Nafisi and her family had been living in the United States for five years. Was she saying, to herself or her friends, the Persian equivalent of "Here we go again!"?
I also have to wonder how she and her family have been treated since the Twin Towers came down. From my own admittedly unscientific observation, most Americans, if they had met Arabic, Muslim or Middle Eastern people, hardly gave them a second thought, especially if said encounter took place in a large city. While some may have thought them exotic or simply strange, most Americans did not see them as a threat to their well-being. A Jewish acquaintance of mine lives in a part of Brooklyn where Jews live alongside Muslim and Christian immigrants from Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Morocco and Yemen. Of them, he says, "What’s not to like? They work hard and push their kids to study. So do I."
His view has definitely receded into the minority. When people come under suspicion for no other reason than their race, national heritage or religion, they are, as Nafisi points out, denied the opportunity to show their solidarity with their neighbors. This, of course, places them under more intense scrutiny and suspicion — and subjects them to even greater discrimination — than they otherwise would have experienced.
I seriously doubt that the President has read Nafisi’s book. But he and his cohorts have certainly brought, in this country, a situation Nafisi describes: People united against a perceived enemy within their own borders (or an enemy that is perceived within their own borders) which is, according to the syllogism du jour, an agent of the enemy that young people ostensibly are dying to keep out of our country.
Of course, that "enemy within" doesn’t have to be imported, or even outside the mainstream. The "enemy" in the lexicon of this Administration, has come to mean any person or nation that opposes or even questions the invasion or Iraq, just as in Nafisi’s Iran, it came to mean anyone deemed not sufficiently loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini and his stated beliefs
And, whatever the outcome of the current war, the distrust that "loyalists" feel toward "traitors" is unlikely to go away. It didn’t in the Iran Nafisi left ten years ago; nor did it subside in the former GDR and other Soviet satellites after the fall of the Berlin Wall. When such suspicion deforms people’s relationships with their neighbors, whatever government comes along next is sure to be at least as tyrannical as the one that’s been ousted. And you can bet your last fiat dollar that government will do whatever it can to keep people divided against their neighbors in order to "unite" them against the next putative enemy.
Professor Nafisi is an exacting scholar, excellent writer and, from what I can tell, a fine human being. I hope only that she and others don’t have to experience, in this country, what they left in their native lands!
Justine Nicholas [send her mail] is the deputy director of the Office of Academic Achievement at York College in Queens, New York.