By the eighth week of the Iranian crisis, President Carter had shown that he knew how to prevent a war of nerves from shrinking into a war of guns. Much of the public was grateful, even if it meant that a few sidewalk patriots had to overcome the cheap satisfactions of picking street fights with innocent Iranians.
As well as Carter the pacifist has done, though and as much as he has benefited politically -- who can worry that the economy is out of control when an ayatollah is out of control -- his policy of patience has failed in a major way. He has done little to educate the country on whether or not the grievances of Khomeini, the militants around him and the terroritsts in the embassy are justified.
If America is hated in Iran, Why? What are the relevant facts of in Iranian-American relations for the past 25 years? What abuses of the shah were our abuses, through complicity? And what restitution, if any, do we plan?
It isn't enough to dismiss Khomeini as a madman or believe that the Iranian people are undergoing a public psychotic episode, and leave it at that. "In all disorder," wrote Carl Jung, there is "secret order." The taking of hostages is a grave moral evil. But it doesn't give America a right to condemn the crime without at least having the humanity to understand the criminal's thinking.
A few amateurish efforts have been made along these lines. Rep. George Hansen, who serves his constituents in Idaho by showing up at world trouble spots, returned to Tehran the other day for a second visit. This time he had "a little table" plan. Hansen said he might put a table in front of the embassy and try to learn the specifics of Iran's allegations. "Let's just start the hearings, start the fact-finding right here," he said. "Then maybe we can understand what the problems are between us and get them solved."
Hansen's style of street corner diplomacy is laughably inept. But beneath the clownishness is the core of an ideal that any humane nation would want to have as a foreign relations goal: communication among people. The greater the crisis the greater the need.
Until now, the president has been playing it as though America's hurt -- of being victimized by the terrorists -- is the only one that should matter. It isn't. The violence done to the hostages in the embassy is part of a long pattern of violent exchanges, most often between the powerful in Iran and large numbers of helpless citizens.
It isn't as though the truth of this news is so startling fresh that we need time to grasp it. Iranians have been trying to tell us for years about our complicity in the shah's police state.
In "The Crowned Cannibals" (Random House), Reza Baraheni, one of Iran's major poets and a man who was tortured for 102 days in 1973 by the shah's secret police, wrote of his feelings toward American's leaders. We "carry a grudge against the United States (because) the U.S. government has given its unconditional support to a monarch who has terrorized a whole nation, plundered its wealth and bought billions of dollar's worth of military equipment which neither he nor our nation knows how to use. Iran is a dangerous quagmire in which the United States is sinking deeper and deeper."
Those were unpleasant words to have hurled at us four years ago. Few in high places listened. It was natural to think that if the worse happened in Iran the world's Number One Power could walk away from it, as we did in Chile.
In Iran, no concessions should be made to the terrorists until the hostages are released. But to have a national discussion of Iran's grievances while they are held -- one to be led by the president or congressional leaders in a public forum with all parties represented -- is no concession.
First, it would be a form of needed cleansing which must come sooner or later and, second, it is an honorable reply to the charges that the Tehran revolutionaries are asking to have aired.
If after that the hostages are still held, well, that's tomorrow's reality. We have lost nothing. Our gain would be in a display of true national strength: We are powerful enough to debate the truth about ourselves.