Every morning now, a breakfast debate occurs in the Quality Inn coffee shop in Waterloo, Iowa. The subject is not weather, corn prices or the upcoming Iowa caucuses.
It is Iran.
What is significant about the debate is that it has been going on -- with an intensity that surprises visitors and hotel workers -- ever since the Iranian crisis began.
"They don't look like they'd stand up to a fight," said one man the other day. "I think a company of Marines could move through them and take the embassy back."
For nearly five weeks, the crisis has gripped the coffee shop in Waterloo and the rest of the nation as few events ever have. It dominates the nightly news, the morning news and the radio call-in shows. And in face-to-face encounters, Americans are continuing the debate. It has produced arm bands and flag waving, bumper stickers and country songs. And after an initial period of rage, a more ambiguous mood now exists around the country.
"I told my students I'm a little disturbed at what I see in myself," said Dr. Roy Witherspoon, a University of North Carolina religion professor. "I was more than a dove on Vietnam, and I've never known war to solve the issues that ostensibly lead to war. But I also feel that Iran must be taught a lesson. They must understand they cannont violate centuries of custom with impunity."
In part, the intensity about Iran is a triumph of the global village. Every 12 hours, there is a fresh network television feed out of Iran, with more students marching beside the U.S. Embassy, more interviews with the Ayatollah Khomeini, more press conferences with the Iranian foreign minister of the minute.
All are transmitted uncensored through the facilities of the Voice and Vision of the Iranian Revolution, or VVIR as Iranian television is called. It is the equivalent of uncensored daily broadcasts out of Berlin courtesy of Hitler during World War Ii or out of Hanoi courtesy of Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War.
And Americans are watching. On Nov. 14, ABC began airing "The Iranian Crisis: America Held Hostage" at 11:30 p.m. each night. It has scored an unusually high Nielsen rating of 9.6 on a 27-point scale. That means some 7 million Americans are tuning in, far more than ABC normally draws for its fare of reruns at that hour.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the crisis is that America has rediscovered patriotism. Hawks and American flags are suddenly "in" on American campuses; doves and anti-Americanism is "out."
Merchants in the small North Carolina town of Statesville have installed new U.S. flags along two downtown blocks since the crisis began. City leaders have asked shopkeepers to put out flags each morning and take them in each night until the hostages are released.
"What if every town did this?" asked Julian West, president of the Greater Statesville Chamber of Commerce. "This country has been split since Vietnam. This may sound corny, but it [the crisis] may be the best thing ever to happen to America."
At the University of Michigan, birthplace of the radical Students for a Democratic Society, it is suddenly respectable to sing "God Bless America" at football games.
"For the first time, I've seen students waving an American flag," said Donna Leviska, an engineering senior. "That was the most shocking thing I've ever seen in my life -- students at the University of Michigan waving a flag, an American flag."
Said Laurie Krauth, a journalism student:
"It reinforces what I believe, that students on campus are very conservative. Their conservatism comes from a sense that it's all hopeless. People are very cynical about the government and this is a last-ditch effort to make the government their savior."
Iran has sparked more debate on the Ann Arbor campus than anything since the Vietnam War. There have b een endless rounds of teach-ins, panel discussions, seminars and classroom debates. But unlike Vietnam there is not consensus, no clear-cut conservative-liberal split.
The debate has not been as one-sided as one might expect. Some students, for example, have formed a committee to support the Iranian revolution. A member of the Communist Youth Brigade recently wrote a column for the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper, charging that the crisis is a "U.S. imperialistic hoax." And complaints that news media coverage of events has been too pro-American are widespread.
The crisis has produced a set of conflicting crosscurrents of emotion: anger, confusion, frustration, anxiety. Occasionally, the balance between moderation and anger tips. At Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Ill., some 90 Iranian students are on campus. So far at least seven have been beaten up. One had his nose broken during class while other students looked on. At the University of Oklahoma, molotov cocktail damaged the Islamic Student Center early Thanksgiving Day.
"There is John Wayne mentality emerging in the U.S. today," warned Rev. J. Philip Smith, a Disciple of Christ minister in Cleveland. "It is a macho spirit that insists that in any time of international difficulty, the U.S. government should wield a big stick and use force to accomplish its will." $ more common, are subtler expressions of outrage, like a six-inch-high Ayatollah Khomeini voodoo doll which sits on the reception desk at the Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City. It bristles with red, white and blue stickpins.
America talks in a strange language of symbols. It talks in bumper stickers, billboards, T-shirts. Often, its symbols are more eloquent -- or at least more direct -- than its leaders.
Today the symbols do not talk. They scream.
"Iran, Let Our Hostages Go Now, Baby," declares a billboard usually used to advertise mobile homes in Dallas, N.C. "Honor, Not Oil," proclaims a lapel button worn in Cleveland, "Nuke 'em Till They Glow. It worked in Japan. It'll work in Iran," reads a poster at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. And the hottest item at one shop in Tempe, Ariz., is a T-shirt that says, "Nuke the Ayatollah."
In Cabarrus County, N.C., a sign at Florida Steel Drum Co., on State Hwy. 49 declares, "Free the 49." Some 300 yards down the road, a sign under a spotlighted U.S. flag says, "Thank God that I'm an American." Scores of motorists honk horns as they pass.
It was probably inevitable that anything with as much raw emotion attached to it as the Iranian crisis would be set to country music, that favorite art form of much of the nation.
So it was that an unknown gospel group, called Roger Hallmark and the Thresher Brothers, recorded "Message to Khomeini." It is a crude, indignant bit of gut revulsion against the events of the last five weeks. But in its way the song touches a raw nerve of national emotion.
When radio station KEBC in Oklahoma City played it for the first time last week, "our phones went berserk," said Jane Graber, station promotion director, "Within one day we had 150 calls, and our phones are still ringing off the hook. Oklahoma City has gone crazy over this record. We're playing it 12 times a day now and people want more. I don't understand it."
The lyrics give an idea why: Dear Mr. Ayatollah, We know you call us yellow. You'd like to see us crawling and bowing at your feet. You think you're so darn bad. But when Uncle Sam gets mad, There's going to be an oil slick Right where Iran used to be. 'Cause we would take our B-B guns and blow your buns to the sun. Someday soon, Khomeini, you'll burn one flag too many. Uncle Same got his pride And you're about to feel his clout. . . . We're going to send all your schoolboys back too. Just as soon as we cancel their Visa cards. No more Big Macs. See how they like to walk a mile for a camel burger. You know that food we've been sending, Well, if you can eat sand, That's what they call true grit. . . ." Song: Prestige Productions Copyright 1979 This Side Up Music; Writers: Chance Jones and Sid Kinard Artist: Roger Hallmark