'Yes, Castel,' he replied. 'It's hardly credible. But everything points to its being plague.'
Castel got up and began walking towards the door.
'You know,' the old doctor said, 'what they're going to tell us? That it vanished from temperate countries long ago. (Albert Camus, The Plague)
Camus' great novel is set in the "smug, placid air" of Oran. The 'banality of the town's appearance and of life in it' means that its citizens "go completely to sleep there". So when a plague strikes the town - Camus' symbol for totalitarianism - its dreamy citizens refuse to believe it. The Oranians are, after all, humanists who think they live in a reasonable world in which everything is up for negotiation. So they opt for denial.
Jean Bethke Elshtain draws out the moral of Camus' tale. '"There are no rats in Oran". Why? Because there cannot be'.
Camus' "humanists" are unwilling or unable to peer into the heart of darkness. They have banished the word evil from their vocabularies. Evil refers to something so unreasonable, after all! Therefore, it cannot really exist. Confronted by people who mean to kill them and to destroy their society, these well-meaning individuals deny the enormity of what is going on.
Have some commentators responded to the Iranian regime's threat to the state of Israel in the same way as Oranians? The question is raised in a new study (PDF) by Joshua Teitelbaum, an academic who lays out exactly what the Iranian president and other Iranian leaders have been saying about doing away with Israel, and how far it all is from the efforts among western commentators to exculpate and minimise.
Juan Cole of the University of Michigan has claimed that Ahmadinejad did not say Israel 'must be wiped off the map' but merely that 'he hoped its regime ... would collapse'. Teitelbaum shows that Ahmadinejad not only punctuates his speeches with "Death to Israel" (marg bar Esraiil) but on Iranian TV on June 2, 2008, he said "Thanks to God, your wish will soon be realised, and this germ of corruption will be wiped off the face of the earth".
The Guardian's Jonathan Steele argued after a similar outburst two years ago that Ahmadinejad "was not making a military threat" against Israel, but only "calling for an end to the occupation of Jerusalem at some point in the future". Teitelbaum cites Ahmadinejad speaking in Gorgan in northern Iran: "Israel's days are numbered ... the peoples of the region would not miss the narrowest opportunity to annihilate this false regime".
Stephen Walt says, breezily, 'I don't think [Ahmadinejad] is inciting to genocide'. At a military parade on April 17 this year, Ahmadinejad said: "The region and the world are prepared for great changes and for being cleansed of Satanic enemies."
Teitelbaum collects a host of similar genocidal taunts used routinely by the politico-theocratic class in Iran. He quotes the opinion of Michael Axworthy, a former head of the Iran section of Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that the dispute over Ahmadinejad's words is 'bogus'. When the slogan "Israel must be wiped off the map" appeared "draped over missiles in military parades, that meaning was pretty clear" says Axworthy.
Martin Woollacott also seems to think the plague vanished from temperate countries long ago. He writes that Iran will cut a deal "after a long and reassuring period, free from the threats that have helped to create the present crisis". His argument is faulty on two grounds. First, Israel does not "threaten" Iran. Israel seeks to defend itself against Iran, which threatens Israel with annihilation. The present crisis is not the result of any "threats against Iran" but of the dash for a nuclear capability by a regime that says Israel is a "black and filthy microbe", a "cancerous tumour", a "disgraceful stain", and a "stinking corpse" that is "heading towards annihilation". Second, the regime in Tehran is not a normal regime. It has not responded to the reassurances of the international community which have been issued by the bucketload. It is a revolutionary theocracy that seeks regional hegemony and which exports eliminationist antisemitism throughout the region. It organises Holocaust denial conferences. It funds and trains terrorist organisations.
Yet we Oranians find it near-impossible to take the apocalyptic ideas of the Iranian Mullahs seriously. Interviewed for Democratiya, the German political scientist Matthias Kuntzel argued our failure of imagination is dangerous.
Alan Johnson: Western observers find it hard to judge the significance of the Iranian regime's beliefs concerning the return of the 'Twelfth Imam' and the connection of this belief to either Holocaust denial or the pursuit of the nuclear bomb. Should we take this idea seriously?
Matthias Kuntzel: We must take it extremely seriously. Different religions have different ideas about the Messiah. It's normally a form of metaphorical thinking about utopia - a better world in a future to come. But in the case of the special brand of Shiite Islam that Ahmadinejad and the group around Khatami represent, it's quite another story. They have transferred the abstract idea of a Messiah into a political programme for today. That's why it matters.
If the mayor of Rome knocked down a quarter of the city to build a giant boulevard to prepare for the reappearance of Jesus Christ as a Messiah, I think the Italian people would remove him, maybe to the asylum! But this is exactly what happens in Tehran. It was part of the last election campaign. Ahmadinejad won with the promise of building a boulevard for the return of the Twelfth Imam. Look, it's the first time in human history that the special threat of destruction connected to the nuclear bomb is connected to this kind of religious apocalyptic thinking. This is extremely dangerous.
Yes, it's hardly credible. But everything points to it being plague. This does not mean a military strike on the Iranian nuclear facilities would be a wise policy. But it does mean we must wake up and say, with Camus, that wisdom begins in "refusing to bow down to pestilences".