Tianenmen Square, 1989.
Each of these surprise flashpoints in history’s long march against totalitarianism proved as dazzling at its outset as it did hopeless at its extermination. Each of them left a trail of broken bodies, but the last was different than all its historical forebears in one way: the president of the United States kept silent while it was unfolding. Barack Obama, and the world, saw police beat and gas protesters and kill 27-year-old music students and nine-year-old children; and Iranian reports indicate that those arrested were viciously tortured in a secret prison. All the while, the president maintained a reticence that helped enable the secret police. The young protesters who continue filling Iran’s streets this weekend to renew their revolt against corruption offer Barack Obama a unique opportunity: a chance to redeem his previous, disastrous inaction. Will he act this time to prevent hundreds more of their fellow citizens from meeting a similar fate?
His predecessors, who faced the actual threat of nuclear annihilation, greeted oppression with resistance. President Johnson called the Soviet invasion “patently contrived” and threatened United Nations action. Reagan, unable to garner NATO support for an effective response, imposed the economic sanctions at his disposal. George H.W. Bush, who was overly cozy with Beijing, verbally denounced the massacre and temporarily suspended diplomatic relations.
President Obama met crisis with equivocation, choosing to “withhold comment” about the transparently rigged election and standing idly by as Iranian secret police brutalized and arrested 2,500 democratic protesters, so as not be seen as “meddling.” Republicans John McCain and Lindsay Graham condemned his actions as “timid,” and even both houses of the Democrat-controlled Congress passed measures condemning the abuse more stridently than Obama. Finally, on June 20, Obama released a statement a week later calling on “the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people.”
Like his invitation for Iran to “unclench its fist” on nuclear weapons, his plea was ignored, as the mullahs’ enforcers murdered Neda Agha Soltan and rounded up hundreds more to a then-unknown location.
We now know their fate: torture and death in Iranian secret prisons. One person detailed the vicious beatings in a Kihrizak prison, where “at least 200 people in one room, and everyone was getting beatings with sticks…The walls were all bloody.” The police allegedly turned off the lights to thrash the protesters for half-an-hour in pitch black. Among those killed was Mohsen Rouhalamini, a nine-year-old boy and coincidentally the son of an adviser to one of Ahmadinejiad’s opponents. Tehran released 140 political prisoners from their cells Tuesday, citing poor prison conditions, in an attempt to tamp down outrage before Thursday’s protests. Former President Mohammad Khatami described the substandard environs: “Murders have been committed, lives have been lost, blood has been spilt. Our youth, men and women have been treated in such a way that had it been committed in prisons controlled by foreigners everyone here would be shouting and denouncing it.”
Despite the presence of a child martyr, it is Neda’s memory that draws crowds this weekend. Thursday was the 40th day since her death, a sacred day of remembrance in both Islam and Christianity. Thousands – including “defeated” presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi – gathered at her grave Thursday, some chanting, “Neda is alive, Ahmadinejad is dead!”
Already, Iranian police have responded with tear gas and batons. In a grisly spectacle, The Washington Post reports several people “fell into recently dug graves and were injured.” As the demonstrations promise to intensify this weekend, at least 20 protesters from June’s uprising are to be tried on such charges as “sending pictures to enemy media” (primarily the cell phone broadcasts of their initial, public beatings).
This mix of legal and physical oppression gives Obama what so few get: a second act – and thus far, he is blowing it. Responding to the brutality at Neda’s grave, the State Department called Iran’s actions “disturbing.” Ho-hum.
Obama has the chance to speak forthrightly or repeat his week of weakness. He has consistently offered Mahmoud Ahmadinejiad an unclenched fist, and the mullahs turned their fists against their own citizens, possibly the most potent force to topple the regime. Iran’s budding revolutionaries are again in the streets. Can Obama bring himself to warn the mullahs as clearly against unprovoked police brutality as he did the anti-totalitarian leaders of Honduras against setting foot in the United States? Can he deem show trials as offensive as he has the building of Jewish settlements in Israel?
The good news is, the people once crushed by Islamic oppression, are now emboldened to fight it. David Horowitz recounted how Tom Hayden told him, “If people’s heads got cracked by police… it `radicalized them.’” Iran’s populace has become radicalized – and media reports show they are beginning to fight back. The Washington Post notes, “three members of the much feared voluntary militia known as the Basij were beaten with their own batons after a group of people pulled them off their motorcycles near a park. The motorcycles were set on fire.” Another crowd smashed the windows of a secret police van and rescued two prisoners inside. And for once, stone-throwing Muslims are casting their stones at other Muslims.
National figures have equated this regime with the Shah, toppled by the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Protesters met at Behesht-e Zahra, the cemetery that contains the bodies of the Revolution’s “martyrs.” The Iranian people are reappropriating their history with a new enemy.
If they can do that within an Islamic gulag, can President Obama at least retract his offer to meet with Iran’s fraudulent president without preconditions? If timidity prevails, this weekend Obama may kill Iran’s democrats with kindness.