Captivity Pageant

December 1979: Christmas comes for the Great Satan

If the students thought such images were going to affect public opinion in the United States, they were right. Americans were horrified. There was a further outpouring of sympathy for the hostages. Bishop Gumbleton explained in press conferences at home that the four men had clearly been forced to make the statements. He told reporters that while the men were reading, one of them (Hermening) had whispered to him, "This is just a put-up job. Don't pay any attention to what you hear."

Gumbleton said he had asked, "Aren't you afraid of what might happen if I report that when I return?"

"Just tell the truth, sir," Hermening told him. "That's all we care about."

Laingen didn't need the bishop of Detroit to tell him that his colleagues were under great duress. He knew that those of his colleagues who had attended the Christmas celebrations were the most fortunate of the hostages. Others had it considerably worse, and had not been seen or heard from since the takeover—men like the CIA station chief Thomas Ahern and the Agency officers Bill Daugherty and Malcolm Kalp; the embassy's political officer, Michael Metrinko; and others. Laingen knew they had been undergoing intensive interrogation, and he could only wonder whether they were dead or alive.

He felt guilty that his own confinement was so much easier. On Christmas Eve he, Tomseth, and Howland had received a gift from the Spanish ambassador—a wicker basket stuffed with various kinds of Iranian candy. The British ambassador visited and brought sturdier fare: a variety of meats and snacks and a bottle of "cough syrup," which contained a lovely red wine for dinner that evening—all the more delicious after such long deprivation. The three American clergymen had also paid a visit, and the six had talked together for hours. Tomseth was impressed with Howard and Gumbleton, whom he felt to be sincere and there purely for humanitarian reasons. He was suspicious of Coffin, who had the air of a grandstander about him. It seemed to Tomseth that the famous leftist preacher was playing to his home audience. In one glib aside Coffin had remarked, "This situation is much too serious to be left in the hands of professionals!"

Coffin seemed not to appreciate that he had just insulted three foreign-service professionals.

"You are being absolutely silly," Laingen told him.

After they left, Laingen hoped that the clergymen, whatever their political motives in coming, had been appropriately shocked by the zealotry of the students and the strange new political contours of Iran. Islamic fundamentalism posed a threat that transcended the traditional liberal-conservative divisions of Western politics. Liberals like these three visitors had a natural tendency to see any revolutionary as ideological kin, he thought, but they needed to be careful in this case about whom they were cozying up to. The world was a more complicated place than they imagined. Dissenters in Iran were being led to the gallows and to firing squads in droves. In a speech just days before, the imam had defended the great official bloodletting going on in his country as "the blessing of God on a human society," and for good measure had praised amputating the hands of thieves and publicly whipping "prostitutes" (a term with a somewhat broader definition in Islamic society than in the West). Khomeini had ridiculed the Western concept of human rights, saying that the advocates of such liberal notions were ignorant of true humanity, because in their eyes "a man is no more than just an animal." A new form of totalitarianism was taking shape—a religious variation on an ugly twentieth-century theme.

Michael Metrinko spent the holiday as he had spent all his days since the first week of the takeover, locked in a windowless basement storage room by himself. He had been invited to the Christmas party, but he wanted no part of a propaganda show. When his guards brought him a gift from the ceremony, a plate of turkey and stuffing, cookies, and decorated marshmallows, the food was tempting; Metrinko was hungry, but he was galled by how self-congratulatory his captors seemed, how generous and noble and proudly Islamic. He accepted the plate, and when they left him alone to eat, he sat staring at the food.

Then he knocked on the door and said he needed to use the toilet. When the door opened, Metrinko emerged holding the gift plate before him. He marched down the hall into the bathroom and dumped the contents into the toilet bowl. He made sure the guards saw him do it.

They were furious with him. He had insulted their hospitality and kind intentions. He was crazy! When they shoved him back into his room and slammed the door shut, Metrinko felt a momentary pang at having lost the meal. What a glorious treat he had denied himself! But his remorse was nothing next to the pleasure he took in delivering the insult. It had hit home and wounded them, and that was something that gave a more lasting pleasure than the food ever could have.

Mark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. This article is drawn from his book Guests of the Ayatollah, to be published in April by Grove/Atlantic.
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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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