Context — August 21, 2015, 1:41 pm

Costing Out Iran

Six cents for lost prestige

Published in the July 1980 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Costing Out Iran” discusses the billions of dollars spent on attempts to rescue 52 American citizens who were held hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for more than a year. The hostages were released on January 20, 1981. The full article is free to read at through August 24. Subscribe to Harper’s Magazine for access to our entire 165-year archive.


From an New York Times report, published August 20, 2015, on former U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s announcement that he has brain cancer.

[Carter] also spoke of his disappointment in the botched effort, toward the end of his presidency, to rescue 52 Americans held hostage by Iranian revolutionaries in Tehran. The operation ended after three of eight helicopters failed; eight soldiers also died when one of the helicopters collided with a transport plane.
     “I wish I had sent one more helicopter to get the hostages, and we would’ve rescued them,” Mr. Carter said, “and I would’ve been re-elected.”

“The fact is that there is no such thing as ‘loss of prestige abroad,’” my friend said. “It’s a hoax. Indeed, the, United States is at its most popular when it is seen by others as a ‘pitiful giant.’ The sense of this is that the worst a pitiful giant can do is stumble, fall headlong, and crush a few things under its length, whereas a healthy go-get-‘em giant can crash around and really wreck things. The phrase as gobbledegook can only be matched by that other catchall about the ‘national patience wearing thin.’”

“You don’t think that the national patience wears thin?”

“Only in bars at midnight. That should have no effect on national leaders. It is their patience that wears thin.”

“What then,” I asked, “is the cause for indignation in the bars at midnight?”

“One of the problems is that we have a natural built-in sympathy for the hostages—innocent people held in there against their will. It’s immoral. The blood boils in indignation. But the fact is that the hostages enjoy certain advantages denied the rest of us and which we look forward to when we retire. Relaxation. Nothing much to do. A lot of reading. Our leaders don’t tell us this. But we learn from the German press that Leland Holland, who was the security chief at the embassy, is reading through the encyclopedia and for all we know has reached volume 12 (Hydrozoa- Jeremy).  William Royer is continuing his research in Islamic art. William Keough is rewriting the text of comic books in verse. Others are brushing up on their Persian, studying aspects of thirteenth-century thought, learning Zen, et cetera. The food is apparently good. On occasion, they get visited by Greek bishops. The only thing that disturbs the equanimity of their days is an occasional march-by—by people outside the embassy beating themselves with chains, and the awful thought that the U.S. government (as, we know now, represented by Delta Enterprises) wants to save them and that they may very well get killed in the process. My guess is that every evening the hostages pray that the Delta team in any future attempt will crash through the door of the wrong place, ending up breathing heavily and waving their Uzi submachine guns around in the shadows of the downstairs cloakroom of the deserted French embassy.”

Read the full article here.

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For time ylost, this know ye,
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I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

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In a Walmart parking lot in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 2015, a white police officer named Stephen Rankin shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen-­year-­old black man named William Chapman. “This is my second one,” he told a bystander seconds after firing the fatal shots, seemingly in reference to an incident four years earlier, when he had shot and killed another unarmed man, an immigrant from Kazakhstan. Rankin, a Navy veteran, had been arresting Chapman for shoplifting when, he claimed, Chapman charged him in a manner so threatening that he feared for his life, leaving him no option but to shoot to kill—­the standard and almost invariably successful defense for officers when called to account for shooting civilians. Rankin had faced no charges for his earlier killing, but this time, something unexpected happened: Rankin was indicted on a charge of first-­degree murder by Portsmouth’s newly elected chief prosecutor, thirty-­one-year-­old Stephanie Morales. Furthermore, she announced that she would try the case herself, the first time she had ever prosecuted a homicide. “No one could remember us having an actual prosecution for the killing of an unarmed person by the police,” Morales told me. “I got a lot of feedback, a lot of people saying, ‘You shouldn’t try this case. If you don’t win, it may affect your reelection. Let someone else do it.’ ”

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In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

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