[The following is the text of the First Episode of Roger L. Simon's "Talking Through My Hat" series for PJTV. You can see it here.]
I have never been much of a believer.
The very night of my bar mitzvah – back in that early Paleolithic Age known as the 1950s – I went to see “Inherent the Wind” the play about the Scopes Monkey Trial with Paul Muni as the legendary attorney Clarence Darrow, upending some Tennessee yokels who wouldn’t allow teaching Darwin in the schools. Just the ticket for a wannabe smarty-pants New York boy
I returned to ask my parents, who were then in bed: “Do you believe in God?” Before they had a chance to answer – they were liberals and looking for a “measured” response – I blurted out proudly “Well, I don’t.”
Never mind that the theory of evolution has little to do, probatively, with a belief in God. Teenage rebellion coupled with some precocious reading of Bertrand Russell – he was cool and smoked a pipe – had taken over. From then on in I proclaimed myself an atheist or… or more specifically… an agnostic. I mean – who knew, right?
In fact, lo these decades later, I still don’t know. I usually joke with those few who are interested that the existence of God – as someone else said on a related matter – was “above my grade.” And, of course, in a literal sense, it is. St. Thomas, St. Anselm or Maimonides…. I am not. Far from it. In fact, to be blunt, I went along in my life mostly ignoring the big issue, lost in the Big Bang, as it were.
Sometimes I would explain, if pressed, that in a universe of, according to some Australian astronomer, 70 sextillion stars – that’s 22 zeros – it was hard to conceive of a deity interested in daily affairs on our speck of a planet: less than one grain of sand on all the beaches of the world combined, by comparison.
And then there was the matter of the Holocaust. How could a beneficent God… or any God worth worshipping… have permitted that? I still have trouble with that one.
So I remained unmoved as an agnostic… even if my wife and I did send our daughter to a Chabad Sunday school for a couple of years… Hey, whoever said I was consistent?
Meanwhile, however, I was going through a political transformation of a sort, which I won’t detail here, but describe in my memoir Blacklisting Myself. But during a CSPAN interview on the book, Armstrong Williams did challenge me on my religious beliefs.
Suffice it to say, that although I moved ideologically rightward on a number of issues, that didn’t include social ones. I was still the good old agnostic I always was.
Until I went to Geneva, Switzerland a couple of weeks ago. I was there to cover Durban II, aka the Durban Review Conference – an attempt by the United Nations to ratify the results of its 2001 human rights conclave in Durban, South Africa.
Actually that original conference was an orgy of anti-Semitism from which Israel and the US walked out.It was nothing worth ratifying unless you were racist. I was in Geneva with others to monitor the situation.
But I didn’t realize the man who turned out to be the conference’s key speaker – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of the Islamic Republic of Iran – would be staying in my hotel. I learned that surprising fact from some Swiss security people only minutes before I saw the Iranian president face to face.
Standing in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, we were suddenly told to put our cameras away.We were not allowed to take pictures and indeed had to keep our cell phones in our pockets, lest they be construed as a weapon.
I heard screaming sirens followed by shrieking motor cycles when Ahmadinejad himself entered, accompanied by a phalanx of Iranian secret service, all of whom were larger than he. He was indeed a small man, almost diminutive, and marched straight across the lobby in what seemed at the time like a goose step a few feet away from me, staring directly at me while waving and smiling in my direction.
I did not wave or smile back.
I couldn’t. Indeed, I was frozen. I felt suddenly breathless and nauseated, as if I had been kicked brutally in the stomach. I was also dizzy. I wanted to throw up. But no one had touched me and I hadn’t eaten anything for hours.
It was then, I think, that I found, or noticed, or understood, religion personally for a moment.
Here’s what I mean.
For most of my life I had rationalized the existence of bad people – or, more specifically, placed them in therapeutic categories. They were aberrant personalities, psychologically disturbed. It wasn’t that I thought better economic conditions or psychoanalysis or medication or whatever could fix everyone. I was long over that. Some people… serial killers, etc…. had to be locked away forever. They would never get better. But they were simply insane. That’s what they were.
Still… I had seen whacked murderers like Charles Manson, late OJ Simpson, up close and this wasn’t the same. This was more than the mental illness model. Far more. For one thing, I had never before had this intense physical sensation when confronted with another human being. Nor had I wanted to vomit. Not for Manson. Not for anyone. This was different.
It was almost unreal, like being in a movie, in a certain way. I know comparisons to Hitler are invidious, in fact usually absurd, but I was feeling the way I imagined I would have felt opposite Hitler.
I was in the presence of pure Evil.
Now that’s a big word and I have spent my life reluctant to use it. But there it was – popping up out of my mouth within seconds of the Iranian leaders disappearance into the hotel elevator. For once, “psychopath” or “sociopath” did not feel remotely appropriate. Only the E-word would suffice.
The next day Ahmadinejad spewed his Holocaust denying bile to the United Nations plenum – ratifying that evil, if not the repellent Durban I – and some, but not nearly enough, of the state representative’s walked off. Enough would have been all of them.
A short time after that, I saw the Iranian again, up close and personal, although I really didn’t want to do it.
In fact I would have preferred to be almost anywhere else but in that room with him at a press conference as he twisted the logic of the journalist’s questions, turning the word “democracy” into “tyranny,” “freedom” into “oppression” and “tolerance” into “racism.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know how to address or question evil, although by then I knew to my core I was facing it.
This was the guy that my president wanted to talk with?
That night I felt agitated. I couldn’t sleep well – from jet lag, of course, but also from digesting this experience. So I took an Ambien around two a. m. to get some rest. Not more than twenty minutes later someone banged on my door.
I sat up in my bed. The three floors above me had been taken by the Iranian delegation. Had they come to get me? Was I the next Daniel Perle? I knew UN officials had been reading my reports on the conference…. which weren’t friendly… why not the Iranians?
I lay there in bed for a moment wishing I hadn’t taken that Ambien. Then I screwed up some courage, threw my feet over the side and stumbled groggily to the peephole.
No one was there.
Had it just been some drunk banging on the wrong door? Or my perfervid imagination? I didn’t know. But I did know I didn’t want any more to do with Evil. I had had enough. I took another pill and went off to a drugged-out sleep.
So how does this make me religious?
Well, just as there are no atheists in foxholes, maybe no one is an atheist when confronted with what he finally acknowledges to be Evil. If there is Evil, there must be Good, no? And some force governing this game, something that, well, looks over it.
I know I am being irrational here, so I will stop. Being in the presence of Ahmadinejad’s evil, fleeting and haltingly put me in the presence of something else.
It’s strange come to things that way, but there you are. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you will find me at temple on the Sabbath or any other holiday for that matter. Or even spending much time admitting I am religious. I may even deny it. I’m not a joiner anyway, except in the old Groucho Marx sense about clubs and members. And any belief in the Ten Commandments can be ascribed to the practical. It’s just a smart way to live a happy life, as most of us know – pragmatic, really. And I’m certainly not about to give up carnitas.
Still… I wonder what happened to that thirteen-year old boy.
Maybe I’ll meet him some day again.
This Roger L. Simon and I’ve been Talking Through My Hat.