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Works like magic
The collective stare of humanity awakens the sense of decency in human rights violators


June 1, 2007

I'm still scratching my head as to why Iranian officials had to wear masks to confiscate Dr. Haleh Esfandiari's passport. I've never had my passport taken away, but in the movies it's usually a uniformed civil servant in a booth at the airport. He types your passport info into a computer, there's a moment of suspense, then he picks up the phone, giving you a dirty look. He never wears a ski mask, and if his government has trusted him with a weapon, it's usually a sidearm, not a switchblade.

Granted this is just Hollywood, but I've seen my share of airports and can testify to the realism of the costume. Even in Reykjavik, where it gets really cold, government officials don't wear their ski masks on the job. Criminals on the other hand sometimes wear masks so their victims can't identify them to the authorities. But the men who took away Esfandiari's travel papers were the authorities. If the incident weren't so tragically real, this would be a perfect setup for an ethnic joke.

And why dispatch no less than three switchblades after the frail woman? Where in her intelligence file does it say that this 67 year old can overpower two grown men, and that it takes at least a third blade to subdue her? I imagine that even as her heart was pounding with the fear of being knifed, the scholar's brain tallied the two extra assailants as part of Iran's unemployment problem. And then I wonder if this is why the regime is so afraid of her. Not that she may be a spy, but because she can count the failures.

Arithmetic isn't something Esfandiari's accusers are good at. Their long list of suspicions published in a Kayhan article don't add up. The article says that after the revolution Esfandiari fled -- goreekht -- Iran. I couldn't find anywhere in the article as to how this fugitive made her subsequent visits to Iran without being arrested. When was she forgiven? Then there are the dates and places that have been quite reasonably challenged. Of course, this case shouldn't be tried on the web. Esfandiari's guilt or innocence is for a court of law to decide.

Unfortunately in recent years the Islamic regime has treated its laws as a set of intentions akin to New Year's eve resolutions, to be discarded when temptation overwhelms character. In this spirit, Esfandiari has been arbitrarily denied access to legal counsel. The Law, that powerful, complex institution standing above all other organizations, individuals, and situations isn't there to give objective meaning to Esfandiari's guilt or innocence. The accused is trapped inside Iran's bizarre legal Eden.

Astonishingly, there's hope for an expulsion. Consistent international pressure has proven effective in resolving human rights cases, even when the oppressor is not otherwise rewarded or bribed! After trying to riddle why this is true, I gave up and began searching the literature. Turns out social psychologists are also flummoxed by the phenomenon (page 14). It seems there's a moral magic to the collective stare of humanity that awakens the sense of decency in human rights violators.

An erudite member of the Iranian-American community currently sits behind bars instead of behind her desk at the Wilson Center for Scholars. My hopeful stare is on her captors. Comment


For letters section
To Ari Siltez

Ari Siletz



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