The unhappy events of the last several weeks triggered by
the Grand Jury's decision in the Eric Garner case -- in which the police were
acquitted of homicide -- and the fatal shooting of two police officers in Brooklyn
last month brought to mind another city in another part of the world plunged
into chaos. It seemed like a sudden
spasm of violence from out of nowhere but that was because many of the city's
most prosperous residents failed to see what was happening in front of their
In the final months of 1978 terror was in the air. The well-to-do huddled in their homes at night, lighting candles because the power had died and there was no telling when it would be restored. They were scared out of their wits as the cries of outraged mobs filled the air, knowing that they were the target of their rancor. They just hoped that they would survive until dawn. And then in the morning they would try to resume their normal lives and go to work, only to be greeted by the sight of shattered windows in the banks and shops. It was becoming harder and harder for them to deny what was plainly evident: the world that these people knew -- a privileged class to be sure -- was soon going to come to an end.
This was the situation in Teheran before the collapse of the Shah's regime. Years ago, I was working on a book project with an Iranian exile who described what it was like. Leave aside that the Shah's regime which she supported and benefited from was corrupt -- that isn't the point. What has stayed with me was her observation that civilization is such a thin veneer and it can be swept away in an instant. In some way society is based on a shared illusion and once that illusion is shattered all bets are off.
And here we are, decades later, in another part of the world where history doesn't seem to matter so much, where power outages are rare, where things seem to function for the most part, and yet who are we to think that we are immune from the fears and fury that can upend our lives and divide friends and neighbors? History hasn't given us some kind of waiver for all the talk of American exceptionalism. We might be better prepared to deal with a 9/11 or a Hurricane Sandy -- collective threats from the outside -- than we are with racial tensions simmering in our own city, which can often be ignored (at least if you're white and middle-class) until something blows up. And something has just blown up.
The brutal slaying of two police officers in Brooklyn last month has only ratcheted up the tension and further polarized the city. What makes the situation more volatile is the exploitation of the tragedy to fit into a narrative in which Mayor Bill DeBlazio's policies are somehow blamed for the murders as Patrick Lynch, head of the Policemen's Benevolent Association, has alleged. Lynch has doubled down, contending that the police now need to be on a war footing, but just who is supposed to be the enemy -- the public? Minorities? The Mayor? (Possibly the most immediate impact is a curtailment of community policing intended to overcome suspicion of the police in minority communities.) In contrast to his predecessors Michael Bloomberg and Rudolph Giuliani (who weighed in with his own criticism of the current occupant of City Hall), for whom the police could do no wrong, DeBlazio is accused by detractors of weakening and demoralizing the NYPD, most notably by curbing the controversial practice of stop-and-frisk. He was already under fire when he cautioned his biracial son Dante to be careful around the police or when he referred to an "alleged" assault against police officers during an otherwise peaceful protest when there didn't appear to be anything 'alleged' about it. DeBlazio already had a low standing -- in the thirties -- among white New Yorkers before the killings but still retains widespread popularity among blacks and Hispanics, which only underscores how far apart the races are even in the most diverse city in the country. DeBlazio is now being compared --not favorably either -- with John Lindsay, New York's mayor at a time when police officers were being targeted by black militants and crime was at a peak. (New York's murder rate has declined from over 2000 to under 300.)The defensive stance by police is understandable in light of threats made against them on social media and claims that a fringe group of protesters took up a chant calling for the death of cops. As in so many instances, the conversation -- in the city and the country -- is in danger of becoming monopolized by the most incendiary voices -- how else to get people's attention? The holiday spirit is in short supply. I'm not arguing that New York in 2014 is about to turn into Teheran in 1978 or even New York in 1972. But here's something to bear in mind: The angry mob crying out for the death of upper- and middle-class Iranians in the middle of the night didn't exist. The opponents of the Shah had hidden microphones among the trees in the wealthier sections of Teheran to make it seem as if hundreds of people were gathered in the dark, ready to move in for the kill, when in fact hardly anyone was there at all