ON ONE OCCASION, the man who helped kill three civil rights workers came to my motel room for an interview. I did all the reading beforehand. I read about the murders, about how the three had been beaten, kicked and then shot. The more I read, the more I hated. So when the door opened, I was face to face with a man I hated more than any other man. Then I met him.
The hat went out of me. He came in, took off his hat and sat on a chair. He called me sir and was polite; he talked of his child and his problems in school; he talked about his job and what life had been like in prison. I tried -- really tried -- to keep the hate burning, but the flame kept going out. I thought about Hanna Arendt and her phrase about the banality of evil. I tried not to look into his eyes, but in the end it was no good and I could hate him no more. He became real to me -- a person. It is always this way.
I think of that man now because of the Iranian crisis and how television has brought home to us the faces of out enemies. The closer they get and the more we see them, the harder it is to hate them. No longer do we have caricatures and mobs, but instead a man named Ghotbzadeh who wears nice suits and Gucci shoes and says things like, "I'm a nice guy." He sits for interviews with John Chancellor, talks English very well, smiles and uses the idiom in a disarming way.
All this is new. In the old days, villains were villains and if the media did anything, they constructed stereotypes to suit our national purposes: "Sneaky Japs" and a whole string of things for the Germans. We believe in national stereotypes and in the villainy of national leaders because we did not have television to show us otherwise.
Can you imagine if Barbara Walters had interviewed Adolf Hitler: "I know you don't like to get into personal matters. Herr Hitler, but how is Miss Braun?" The scenario gets a little silly and maybe a little tasteless as well, but you can see what I mean.
Television has changed the whole game -- the rules anyway. What we have going now is some sort of idiotic debate between peoples. The Ayatollah, for instance, will not see a single American representative -- not even Ramsey Clark. He will, however, see the representatives of American television networks, effectively going over the head of the government, talking directly to the people. In this manner -- and especially since television was instrumental in arranging the dramatic journey of Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem -- the medium has taken on a role for which it is not, by its very nature, well suited.
No matter. The interviews continue apace and what makes matters worse or more complicated is the fact that so many of the Iranians being interviewed are our own creation. They were schooled in America. They lived in America. Like Ghotbzadeh, they know how to say "guy." They all seem like updated versions of those stock Japanese characters in olk World War II movies who were forever explaining why their English was so good: "I went to UCLA."
In one sense, there's nothing wrong with any of this. It calms the nerves. It takes the starch out of old uniforms and diffuses the martial spirit. Seeing the face of the enemy and learning that he is somewhat like us is always a valuable lesson. In the television age, the message comes electronically, but the lessons are at least as old as Shylock's affirmation of the universality of man: "If you prick us, do we not bleed?"
But for all of that, there is a danger, a trap, and it is the same one I fell into when I interviewed the man who had been an accomplice to a triple murder. There was something missing, and in his case it was the civil rights workers themselves. They were gone and they were, at the very least, half the story.
The same is true in Iran. The television camera is always selective. In this case, it access has been restricted and we do not see the people inside the embassy -- the hostages. We do not see the terror, the horrors, the filth, the agony, the tedium, the mental pressure, the anguish, maybe the pain.
What we see instead is a buoyant, personable Iranian spokesman. It is not a true picture of the situation. What is missing are the hostages, and until we see them we are simply being manipulated. The hostages, after all, have faces, too.
Close your eyes and you can see them.