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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Savage Beatings in a Government's Toolkit: The Case of Iran

To attend the funeral in December, 2009 of Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was the 87 year-old spiritual leader of the Iranian reformist movement, mourners poured out in thousands into the streets leading to the mosque. However, anti-riot police and plainclothes pro-government Basij militiamen had blocked the area.  Parlemannews reported that Basij beat people, including women, and used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowds. One witness told a reporter,  ”Tens of thousands gathered outside for the memorial but were savagely attacked by security forces and the Basijis.” He said baton-wielding riot police clubbed people on the head and shoulders, and kicked men and women alike, injuring dozens.  “I saw at least two people with blood pouring down their face after being beaten by the Basijis,” he said.

To savagely beat a person reflects on the beater rather than the beatee, especially of the latter was not being violent.   While a government could be justified in responding to violence with violence, to use violence where there is none in opposition points to violence being a tool in a government’s toolkit for changing behavior or political positions.   It is, in other words, for some persons to approach others as being less than human—as a kin to dogs.  Kant wrote about the rational nature being of such value that anyone (or anything) having it should not be treated as merely a means, but also as an end in itself.  To reduce a rational nature to an object to be pummelled is to make a rather basic category mistake.  It is perhaps only natural that the beaters and their “superiors” are then presumed to be objects, for one rational nature naturally views others of its class in like terms.  So the beaters, it turns out, jeopardize their own status as human beings by savagely beating non-violent people.   However, if those being beaten are rational beings, they will naturally recognize that the beaters too, being human beings, are rational beings, and therefore not mere objects (to be dealt with as means only).

Besides this Kantian ethical analysis, it strikes me that to classify “savage beating” along with fiscal policy, treaties, and monetary policy represents a category mistake concerning just what it is to be a government tool.   If anything, a tool is oriented to a purpose, and in the case of beating non-violent people the government’s purpose (support rather than criticism) is not likely to be reached.  In fact, being subject to a government tool that is not really such a tool is apt to firm up one’s resistance.   What sticks in my mind is the dubiousness of the assumed linkage between “government” and “savage beating.”  That these two are linked, even in practice, can be approached as odd or bizzare, not to mention as unacceptable. 

Even with regard to a pet, were I to tell you that I savagely beat my dog last night because he refused to eat the dogfood in his dish, you would stare at me in utter shock and disbelief…as though I were nuts…that such a link would be acted upon, let alone made.    We ought to have the same reaction in reading the article I have cited below from the NYT.  …but we don’t.  It is “normal.”  We are “accustomed” to it.  Somehow or other, we have come to accept the existence of something that would strike someone not of  human “society” as odd.  “I’m sorry, what did you say?  The government savagely beat?…I’m sorry, I just don’t get it. I don’t understand what you mean. What you are saying doesn’t make any sense to me.”   That it does make sense to us…and then we condemn it…is itself a problem.   What I am essentially describing is a slippery slope wherein the once unfathomable comes to be presumed as natural (even if undesirable).