I am currently reading “Reading Lolita in Tehran” the bestselling memoir by Azar Nafisi, an Iranian scholar who secretly gathered female students in her home to study western works of literature.
During this time the Islamic Republic of Iran was arresting and executing citizens for charges as flimsy and innocuous as “Being Westernized, staying too long in Europe, smoking Winston cigarettes, displaying leftist tendencies.”
The Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed “Criminals should not be tried. The trial of a criminal is against human rights. Human rights demand that we should have killed them in the first place when it became known that they were criminals.”
In school, students were forced to trample the American flag each day while shouting “Death to America!”
How does a whole society—filled with sensitive as well as hard-hearted, educated as well as ignorant, principled as well as selfish people—fall prey to the murderous and oppressive dictates of a mono-maniacal leader?
This widespread public insanity is not unique to Iran, nor to the extreme, fundamentalist brand of Islam being force fed to the Iranian public at that time.
This phenomenon which I call the “Crazed Charismatic Leader” has happened throughout history and across the globe. Consider Germany during WWII under Hitler. Russia under Stalin. Recall the communist revolutions in China and Cambodia, the Jonestown massacre, Charles Manson, Idi Amin.
(My inner feminist requests to make this comment: note the gender of the leader/perpetrators…)
The most effective way to ensure blind and heartless obedience by the masses is to perpetuate terror by the administration. When people think that their lives or the lives of their families are at risk, they will do literally anything.
This revolting truth applies to animals, not just people: An appalling experiment in the 70’s proved that a primate mother locked in a cage with an electric floor will eventually will stand on her baby to protect herself.
When we are truly terrified, we become primal, instinctual creatures with one overriding ambition: to survive. Under the influence of terror we are unable to access the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher thinking, for assessing our behavior relative to our values, for perceiving the universality of the human condition and thus, unity with our fellow man.
For this reason terror is a social disease more dangerous and contagious than any weapon. My hope for the future is that leaders who are bullies are quickly spotted for the Neanderthal throw-backs they are and immediately removed from power.