I'm reading Mark Bowden's book "Guests of the Ayatollah" and recently read the article about the Bush administration's secret torture program. And though there are way more differences than similarities, I'm struck by one thing: what access to violent coercion does to people.
There's been lots of studies about this, of course. And it's as if we never learn, and before we know it any moral high ground gives way, and all we're left with are cowardly thugs.
The moment a person has the means to harm a helpless human being (or for that matter, animal) there is an awesome responsibility involved. The New Yorker article relates that many CIA agents are traumatized by the things they'd done, even against decidedly nasty people who are capable of much worse. The "students" who abused the American diplomatic personnel in Tehran may or may not be suffering similar qualms - it says a lot about the kind of people they are if they aren't.
What is most striking is how easily people persuade themselves that violence is warranted, or even necessary. It is as if the option is to alluring to resist - could I hit this person? Could. I pull the trigger? Turn the switch? Why would I have that power and not use it?
Perhaps the most telling sign of a civilzation is the sense of responsibility and accountability that goes with this power. The Nazis glorified cowardly bullies. Khomeini's government endorsed it as a means toward an end end. The Bush administration compartmentalizes, regulates it, but can't quite resist it.