Captivity pageant

The December issue of The Atlantic will be on newsstands on November 22. The magazine’s public relations folks let us take an advance look at the articles in the issue. I want to draw your attention to the article by Mark Bowden: “Captivity Pageant” (subscription required).

The article is an excerpt from Bowden’s forthcoming (May 2006) book on the Iranian hostage crisis. The April Atlantic will carry a second excerpt, with a third to follow. Bowden is of course the former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and author of distinguished books including Black Hawk Down. I spoke briefly with Bowden by telephone yesterday, and it is evident that his forthcoming book is based on the same kind of exhaustive research that made Black Hawk Down so riveting.

I asked Bowden if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — the president of Iran — was involved in the hostage seizure. Bowden told me that his reporting establishes that Ahmadinejad was one of the central figures in the student group that planned the seizure and took over the American embassy. Initially Ahmadinejad supported the takeover of the Soviet embassy, but he changed his view when Khomeni endorsed the takeover of the American embassy the evening of the takeover.

Given his position with the student group, Bowden surmises that Ahmadinejad was one of its ringleaders. Moreover, he was identified as one of the group’s ringleaders by every one of the dozen or so hostage takers Bowden interviewed in Tehran last year before Ahmadinejad became president. (Bowden disregards as ambiguous the photograph of the Ahmadinejad lookalike with a hostage.) Thus Iran not only presents one of the greatest threats to American security in the world. The United States has a debt of honor to settle with its odious president.

The present excerpt from Bowden’s book revives the unpleasant memories of the takeover itself; it makes your blood boil all over again. The excerpt tells the story of the hostages first Christmas in captivity. Iranian authorities allowed an American contingent to visit the hostages to celebrate Christmas with them. The leader of the delegation was William Sloane Coffin, famous as the liberal anti-Vietnam War activist:

In what the students regarded as a “major concession,” they allowed three liberal American clergymen to visit and celebrate Christmas with the captives. All three were chosen, according to a spokesman for Iran’s Revolutionary Council, because of “their militant history against imperialism.” Most famous was the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, the celebrated senior minister of New York City’s Riverside Church. Coffin was a large man with sloping shoulders and long, curly dark hair that was retreating fast toward the crown of his head but still fell thickly over his ears. He did not seem ministerial, with his up-from-the-streets New York accent, earthy humor, and background as an officer in the Army and then in the CIA. But he had seen the light, left the Agency, and entered the ministry, achieving prominence as the chaplain of Yale University and a civil-rights worker long before he became nationally known for his often eloquent opposition to the Vietnam War. Accompanying Coffin were the Reverend William Howard, a tall, urbane, dignified African-American Baptist minister who headed the National Council of Churches and was a noted civil-rights and anti-apartheid activist, and Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a Catholic leader from Detroit who was famous for his advocacy of liberal issues inside and outside the Church. Coffin had defended the hostage-takers in public statements in the United States, saying, “We scream about the hostages, but few Americans heard the screams of tortured Iranians.”

In my discussion with Bowden yesterday, Bowden said he found Coffin’s behavior “just outrageous.” Referring to Coffin, Bowden said, “It’s a free country, but we have to put up with a lot…I’m just appalled by American leftists’ kneejerk anti-Americanism.” Coffin and his colleagues had “aided and abetted the militant Islamic fascists.”

Bowden’s article (as well as his forthcoming book) could not be more timely. As I say, Bowden’s reporting makes your blood boil all over again, and not just by virtue of the recollection of the Iranian tormentors of our captive compatriots.


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