Of Causation and Emojis

My favorite literary expostulation from the last couple of days came from Javad Zarif, foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It entered the world in the form of a tweet, that contemporary answer to the haiku, and concerned the fate of Ukrainian flight 752, which met its end shortly after taking off from the Tehran International Airport last week. Everyone on board was killed, all 176 people, including 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians, and a handful of Swedes, Afghans, Germans, and Brits.

When the news of the disaster was first flashed, there was some speculation that a fault in the plane—a Boeing aircraft, much in the news of late because of problems with its 737 Max—might have been responsible. Iran itself initially insisted that the plane had crashed because of a technical fault.

But it soon transpired that the plane (a Boeing 737-800) did not simply crash. On the contrary, it had been shot down.

Iran initially denied any involvement. Suggestions to the contrary were part of a “big lie.” “No one will assume responsibility for such a big lie once it is known that the claim had been fraudulent,” said one Iranian spokesman on Friday.

Isn’t it curious how quickly a “big lie,” snake-like, can shed its skin of mendacity and present itself in cold daylight as the simple truth? After four days floating on that giant river in Egypt, Iran came clean. Sort of.

Iran had indeed shot down the commercial airliner, but inadvertently. It was a mistake. The trigger-happy chap who sent the Russian Tor M1 surface-to-air missile hurtling toward the aircraft apparently mistook it for an American cruise missile.

Fun facts: a Tomahawk cruise missile, with booster, is a bit over 20-feet-long, with a wingspan of less than nine feet. A Boeing 737-800 is a few inches shy of 130 feet long with a wingspan of nearly 113 feet. Students of interpreting radar cross-sections will find that interesting.

Frances Townsend, a former Homeland Security adviser to President George W. Bush, expressed a thought that will have occurred to many observers. “A country that cannot competently operate its air defense system aspires to possess #nuclear weapons! Really?! Just contemplate that for a moment.”

But enough suspense. What about that literary tour-de-force from the foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran? Here it is in all its lapidary perfection:

Aristotle identified four sorts or aspects of causation: formal, material, efficient, and final. Mr. Zarif introduces a fifth category, akin to what some specialists call the Chewbacca defense: rather than offer a rational and compelling explanation one instead resorts to “intentional distraction or obfuscation.”

We shot down a commercial airliner by mistake, through “human error,” but that error was caused by “U.S. adventurism.” Or maybe the causal element was the phases of the moon, or someone playing “The Goldberg Variations,” or the price of truffles.

Anyway, we shot down the airplane, killing 176 people, but we did it because the Americans are meanies and don’t like it when we murder and maim their soldiers and attack their embassies.

Jack smacked Paul over the head with a crowbar, killing him, but he was led to do it because a policeman ticketed his car the day before yesterday.

That is the epistemic core of Zarif’s communique. The nauseating sentimental postscript is concentrated not in the words of apology but in the teeny-bop broken-heart emoji. The elements of duplicity and calculation residing in that image are patent and repulsive. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) spoke for many when he asked “Just how completely twisted in the head do you have to be to shoot down a passenger plane killing all on board and then write this disgusting tweet? A new low even for Iran.”

The disaster of Flight 752 took place in the context of the liquidation of the terrorist mass-murderer Qasem Soleimani last week by the United States on the order of President Donald Trump. But that courageous and far-seeing act itself took place in the context of Iran’s decades-long assault on American and, more broadly, on Western institutions that promote a culture of tolerance and religious freedom.

The fact that many U.S. news outlets and Democratic politicians instantly coalesced around Soleimani as a “revered” military leader tells us what great inroads Stockholm Syndrome has made among American elites. Hence references to Soleimani as “General Soleimani” in headlines and such, and hence the video-clips on endless loop supposedly showing a nation in mourning over the loss of a beloved leader and “martyr.” One New York Times reporter really went to town, comparing Soleimani’s death to that of Martin Luther King, Jr.

All that is part of the anti-Trump static that is the background noise of life in the elite redoubts of the United States circa 2020. The real story in Iran, however, is revealed not by the manufactured spectacles of grief and mourning for a man who had terrorized the Iranians who had protested against the atavistic theocratic regime but the scenes of protest breaking out all over Tehran and elsewhere in response to the destruction of Flight 752 and, not incidentally, in response to the brutal, bloody, and jihad-obsessed mandarins who have held Iran in their clammy grip since the malignant absurdity of Ayatollah Khomeini. We’re all used to the Iranian chants of “Death to America.” What we’re hearing now, however, are chants of “Death to the regime after all these years of crimes.”

Last week, Donald Trump eliminated one of Iran’s most potent emissaries of death and destruction. All the beautiful people huddled together and wailed that Trump had just “destabilized” the Middle East (had it been stable beforehand?), that his “unilateral” action was illegal, counterproductive, immature, that, ultimately, he may have started World War III.

That was then. Now it looks as though he may have sparked the great unraveling of theocratic totalitarian control in Iran. And this just in: the Iranians apparently have just arrested the British ambassador. Arrested. In civilized countries, if there is an issue with a diplomat, one expels him. In civilized countries. But this is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Someday, the world will stand back and applaud Trump for his canny and farseeing statesmanship. I do not assert that that recognition is coming any time soon. But come it will.

Many of those who most bitterly attacked Ronald Reagan back when he was helping to precipitate the demise of the Soviet Union now sing his praises. I predict that, sooner or later, such people and their heirs will be singing the praises of Donald Trump, too.

Unfortunately, the oblivion that wraps historical and political stupidity in blinking impunity will also extract any toll of responsibility from those future cheerleaders who denounce Donald Trump today. It is all part of the human comedy, distracting, amusing even, when approached with sufficient cynicism. It is not, however, agreeable or edifying.

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