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Iran: Neda’s Impact

When I posted my last Iran entry, most people still didn’t know who Neda was, and I had no idea that this was going to turn into such a huge phenomenon. The fact that it has become such a huge story is both encouraging and somewhat worrying. It is encouraging for all the reasons I’ve been writing about—the fact that new media technology allowed the image of her death to be captured and broadcast throughout the world bodes well for all future events of this kind. Whenever there is war or violent oppression, the chance now exists that it will be captured and witnessed by the eyes of the world. While the chances of such a thing happening are far greater in a developed country like Iran than in third-world countries, as time goes on these kinds of images and the strong reactions they provoke will become more commonplace, and a much greater part of the collective consciousness of humanity.

What worries me is that Neda’ death may become such an iconic symbol that it will lose its effect. It’s the raw emotion generated by that image that’s important, not because it happened just to her but because this kind of thing happens all the time. Her death just happened to be caught on camera. The way some are talking, you would think that the only grievance the Iranian people have is that the government killed this one specific woman. What about the tens of thousands of women and children who have been killed by the dropping of American bombs over the last 100 years? These things are no less horrifying than Neda’s death—they just feel less horrifying because we didn’t see them. If the citizens of Iraq had been out there with cell-phone cameras and Twitter during the “shock and awe” campaign, things might have gone much differently after the initial invasion. The calls to get our troops out of there as soon as possible may have been impossible to ignore—although to be fair if anyone would have ignored such calls it would have been Bush and Cheney.

The point is, what’s missing from all the discussion about Neda is that she is not an isolated incident. She confronts us with a reality that most of us try very hard to ignore: these kinds of horrors happen all the time.

The worst, most hypocritical exploitation of Neda’s death so far has come from John McCain, who stood on the senate floor and used his feigned outrage over her death to score some cheap political points by attacking the president for not speaking out forcefully enough. I’ve already explained why this line of attack is complete bullshit—more forceful rhetoric from the American president would only serve to undermine the protesters—but what’s far worse about this is that John McCain thinks he has any right to mourn a woman who lived in a country that he talked about—actually, sang about—bombing. If McCain had become president and actually bombed Iran, he might have killed Neda himself.

The outrageous hypocrisy of the neoconservatives in this debate is overwhelming. These are the people who’ve treated the Middle East as one homogenous Evil Entity that would respond to nothing but force. Now they’re acting like the true champions of the Muslim People, standing up for them when Obama is too weak and timid to do so. Completely ignoring, of course, the fact that it was Obama’s approach—delivering speeches specifically targeting the people of a country and promoting a vision of a peaceful and democratic Muslim world—that created a climate in which such an uprising was more likely to occur. Harsh rhetoric and ultimatums from the U.S. only kept the population hostile to us and willing to follow whatever leader condemned us most strongly.

So I would like to see the U.S. treat Neda the way they should be treating all of the Iranian people—offering moral support but staying the hell out of it. Don’t usurp her death for your own shallow political games. Let the Iranian people have Neda. She’s their martyr—not ours.

The negatives aside, her death has already had an incredibly large and positive effect on the events on the ground in Iran. The government has apparently ordered police specifically not to hurt women, because the last thing they want is another martyr. As a result, in some cases where police have been beating men, groups of women gather around and serve as a shield for them, shouting at the police, “We are all Neda”. The police then have no choice but to back off. Neda’s death has therefore almost certainly prevented others from suffering the same fate.

Regarding my personal feelings about Neda, the image continues to haunt me and my heart still goes out to her and those who loved her. But I am much less upset about it than I was when it first happened. I had no idea that it would become such a phenomenon, and I expected that only I and a few other internet-savvy followers of the story would ever know and grieve for her. But now the entire world is grieving for her and that lightens my own burden. The fact that her death has been such a wake-up call for the world, that is has galvanised the opposition and shamed the government, and that it has almost certainly prevented more women from being killed or harmed, replaces my sorrow with gratification.

I was able to watch a live stream of Obama’s press conference yesterday. When he mentioned her in his opening remarks, and when he was specifically questioned about her later in the press conference, I realised how big this had become. It’s much larger than one woman’s suffering. I think the whole phenomenon is summed up best, as Corey has pointed out in the comments, by the song “Watching TV” from Roger Waters brilliant album Amused to Death:

She’s everybody’s sister
She’s symbolic of our failure
She’s the one in fifty million
Who can help us to be free
Because she died on TV

I just hope that we can remember that there was a real flesh-and-blood human being behind the iconic symbol they’re now making of her. From what I’ve read about Neda, she loved music and philosophy, and was spiritual but not too religious. I can’t help but wonder what she would think of all this, but her identity is no longer hers to control. She’s a billion things to a billion people, but only a real person to those who knew her. What she means to them will never be taken away. What she means to the world is now up to us.

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