This morning I was in my study reading that 1707 best seller, "The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion," when the deep, confident voice of television commentary insinuated a booming sentence through the half-open door: "What is unique is that no civilized nation holds hostages."
Ah, I thought, what concision! Three mistakes right there: the Americans being held in Iran weren't hostages, but captives; the nation holding them was not civilized; and there wasn't anything unique about it, either. And so I reached out my foot, shut the door and went on reading "The Redeemed Captive."
Written by John Williams of Deerfield, Mass., shortly after being ransomed from the Indians who'd held him prisoner for two years, it tells how, suddenly, Indians burst into his home, dragged two of his children out into the front yard and slaughtered them, and forced Williams and his wife to march as captives the 300 miles to Quebec. But his wife, upon stumbling in a river, was hatcheted to death by one of the savages.
The lessons Williams drew were these: (a) one must ultimately depend on God; (b) the savages, and the French holy men egging them on, could not be appealed to; and (c) under the circumstances, the best of all possible Indians was a dead one.
His book is perhaps the best of the wildly popular "captivity narratives" that were to colonial times what television is to now. The early Americans found that these true tales spoke to something deep within them: the sense of being an imperiled civilized nation in a hostile night of bloodthirsty barbarians.
Many of those captivity narratives had scenes where chanting Indians menaced and humiliated the captives before killing them. And these accounts served to rally the Puritans to cold-blooded, systematic reprisals that went beyond anything the Indians were capable of. A murderous antipathy toward bullies was central to the Puritan character, and when the Indians finally got their full attention, it was bad news.
By the time of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking tales, the captivity narratives had become incorporated into novels. There were still the mockery-before-murder rituals; but whereas in the first captivity narratives the victims got killed anyway, Natty Bumppo always managed to wriggle loose, and the only gods anybody ever needed to depend on were ingenuity and good luck. This formula continued to be successful in hundreds of 19th-century dime novels and in the scores of captivity movies Hollywood put out in the '30s and early '40s.
We still see those on late-night TV: the wigwams around the clearing, in the ghastly torchlight; the Hollywood extras tricked out to look like Apaches; the hero and heroine either lashed to stakes or tied up back in the chief's tent; the rhythmic, taunting, blood-thirsty chants of the circling savages. While behind all that, evil-eyed in the firelight, the crafty witch doctor whips the frenzy on toward murder.
In the movies, these victims of the mockery-before-trial ritual always survived -- they worked the thongs loose or their friends slit open the back of the tent. They might get killed in other ways, of course: shot with arrows, stabbed, scalped. But they were never killed in that way, at the mockery-ritual, because something too elemental was at stake -- maybe even a battle between God and the Devil, because that witch doctor was straight out of Hell.
Then, in the late '40s captivity movies slacked off abruptly, and one heard instead the smooth voices of social relativism, unctuous as Muzak, reassuring us that it had all been a bad dream. There were no such things as savages, we were told, just "cultural differences." And it was thought provincial to get uptight about Christian civilization anymore, since it was a well-known fact that it didn't make any difference what a man believed so long as he was sincere.
And suddenly, here now is Ayatollah Khomeini, who is mighty sincere. And the mockery-before-murder ritual, incited by him, is reenacted on our television screens many times each day, due to the thoughtfulness of Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, the holy man's expert on weaknesses in the American character.In this ugly ritual outside our embassy in Iran, the wigwams have been replaced by Kafkaesque office buildings, the bows and arrows by submachine guns. And those massed, raging haters are no longer 100 pretend-savages who don't really mean it, but 100,000 Iranians who do. "Death to America!" we hear them chant. And we see our countrymen bound, blindfolded and mocked, our effigy pummeled, our flag burned and ourselves menaced, day after day. In the movies, such scenes became intolerable to us if they went on for more than 15 minutes. But this video captivity has gone on for a month, has ripped into our soul and has reminded us, as nothing else could, that the frontier, which went away from us for awhile, is come back to howl at our windows.
And so Ghotbzadeh, whose aim it was to get our attention, has got it, all right, although whether it is going to be the kind of attention he had in mind remains to be seen. Possibly it will be. Perhaps his game all along has been to lure us into rash acts that could trigger a general conflagration in the Middle East. In either case, nothing he could have staged could have been so effective in rousing the primitive depths of American anger. For the truth is that many Americans left off listening to the social and political commentaries weeks ago and don't need words like "industrialization, urbanization, nationalism" or even "Soviet conniving" to explain the meaning of the savage ritual in Tehran. We have seen that acted out all our lives and take it to mean these people can't be appealed to. And so, in what's to follow, we will solidly support our president, who, as Ghotbzadeh may have noticed, is a Puritan, and a pretty cool-headed one at that. So far.