History often serves as a buffer to distance us from some acts or events we would rather forget. As Americans, we have historically held an affinity for public hangings. Lynching, or the act of illegal execution of an accused by an angry mob, is definitely one of those proverbial skeletons in our closet. The practice reached its peak in the early to the mid 20th century with more than three-quarters of the victims being black or people of color whom we were afraid of mostly because of the way they looked. A fear we can identify with more than ever in this modern era of the so called “war on terror”.
Apparent from the crowd of cheering onlookers who turned out in droves to execute the verbal equivalent of such hideous practice on the Iranian president, not much has changed in the last few decades. Just as the perpetrators of those acts could live with, participate in, and defend such atrocities, and reinterpret them so they would not see themselves as less than civilized, the modern executioner who carried out this hanging, hid behind an academic façade and his title as University president.
Back then, people who carried out such despicable acts knew perfectly well what they were doing yet thought of themselves as normal human beings with no guilt or ethical qualms about their actions which in their view were not an outburst of crazed men or uncontrolled barbarians but the triumph of a belief system that defined one people superior to the other. And for the ordinary men and women who comprised those mobs, that was the highest level of idealism.
What is even more disturbing is that the perpetrators of those crimes were people not so different from ourselves — teachers, doctors, lawyers, policemen, students, family men and women who came to believe that eliminating people they deemed dangerous was nothing less than pest control; (remember the cartoon depicting Iranians as cockroaches in The Columbus Dispatch?) a way of combating an epidemic that if not checked would be detrimental to the health and security of the community.
We’d like to think of ourselves as a nation of civilized people incapable of repeating such evils of the past, but as the Columbia spectacle clearly showed, while the style has changed, we as a people have unfortunately remained the same.