A Day that Lives in Infamy, 40 Years On

The mass rallies chanting “Death to America” organized by the Iranian regime made their annual appearance in world headlines on Monday.

Indeed, the ayatollahs made a special effort to get out the crowds this year, the 40th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the holding hostage of 52 Americans there for 444 days during the Islamic revolution.

Days that live in infamy in the West are re-lived and re-celebrated in state-orchestrated frenzy in the streets of Iran.

We must not mistake this for mere demagoguery and bluster: The threats are real. Backed up by a vast military machine, Iran defies international diplomacy, projects terrorism throughout the region and insists on its right to nuclear weapons. There is no doubting Iran’s superpower ambitions. They cannot be appeased; they must be faced down.

As the White House said in a statement on Monday, “Until Iran changes … its hostile behavior, we will continue to impose crippling sanctions.”

For most people, the connection between the current world situation and the events of 1979 belongs to history.

There are those, however, for whom those 444 days remain painfully vivid. For whom the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution is a trauma that has not been obscured by the passage of time: They are the survivors and their families.

The Americans who worked at the embassy were horribly abused; they were beaten, tortured and starved by their captors. During those 14 months, they were forced to stand before mock firing squads. When moved from one place to another, they were blindfolded, bound and shoved into vans. Thus, they lived in constant fear and anxiety, which led some to attempt suicide, though in the end all survived the ordeal.

Not that the nightmare ended with their return home — for example, Richard Morefield, who was serving as the U.S. consul general in Tehran at the time of the upheaval. His widow Dorothea (he died in 2010) told the Los Angeles Times that even after he returned to the U.S., “Richard never slept through the night and often woke up afraid. He had trouble sleeping in rooms with closed doors, a vestige of the time he was thrown into a cell in Iran and locked behind a steel door.”

Besides the trauma itself, which in many cases never lets go, there is another issue that prevents what is commonly referred to as “closure.”

The issue is compensation.

In 2015, Congress established a fund to compensate victims of state-sponsored terrorism, including the Iran hostages, their spouses and children. The U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund is financed by money from organizations penalized for doing business with countries under sanction, such as Iran, Sudan and Cuba.

The legislation provided the Iran victims as much as $4.44 million each — $10,000 per day of captivity. Yet only a small percentage of that money has actually reached them, The Los Angeles Times quoted their attorney, Thomas Lankford, as saying.

The reason for that has to do with the proliferation of victims and a sort of competition for recognition and compensation.

In this case, the other group vying for the money are relatives of the victims of the September 11 terror attacks. Somehow, in a way that is not yet clear, the claims of the 9/11 victims have taken precedence over those of the Iran victims.

The latter would seem entirely justified in their current demand that, after 40 years, their suffering should be recognized more fully and the compensation promised them delivered without further delay.

There is no question that the 9/11 sufferers deserve to be compensated as well. There is no attempt here to compare one victim’s trauma with another.

But, Lankford argues, their benefits should not be distributed at the expense of the Iran victims.

“If you’re going back to what would I rather have, [Richard] or the money, I’m glad I had my husband for 30 years,” Mrs. Morefield said. “It was a very hard time … but money is a lot different at 85 than when you’re much younger. Still, I hope it happens.”

The world first heard the cry “Death to America” on Sunday, November 4, 1979. It came from the mouths of a mob of armed followers of Ayatollah Khomeini as they stormed the main gate of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

We hear it again now, and we know that the fanatical hatred behind it has not passed.

Rome had its “Carthage must be destroyed,” and the Soviet Union had its “We will bury you.” Tehran has its “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” But like all tyrannies, it will pass from the earth. May it be soon.