Saw Argo the other day, was impressed by the way it was filmed in such a 70s style, sorta like that movie The Limey or an episode of the Rockford Files.

I also felt nostalgia for that relatively nonviolent era. All those hostages and nobody was killed. It’s a good thing the Ayatollah didn’t have some fundamentalist Shiite equivalent of John Yoo telling him to waterboard everybody.

At the time we were all so angry and upset about the hostage-taking, but from the perspective of our suicide-bomber era, that whole hostage episode seems so comfortingly mild.

15 Responses to Nostalgia

  1. Mark May 28, 2013 at 5:24 pm #

    Yeah, it’s great they didn’t waterboard everyone in that “relatively non-violent era”. They managed by just beating up a few hostages and subjecting others to mock executions while at the same time summarily executing thousands of those who they believed were their internal opponents. But, hey, at least they weren’t John Yoo! (read Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah).

    I do agree with you on Argo. Good flick.

    • Andrew Gelman May 28, 2013 at 6:03 pm #


      I was speaking specifically about the hostages. I agree that the Ayatollah’s regime did all sorts of brutal things.

  2. RobC May 28, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

    Though the hostage-takers didn’t kill any of their hostages, it’s worth remembering this day after Memorial Day that eight brave U.S. soldiers died in a failed attempt to rescue the hostages.

    Professor Gelman is correct that no hostages were waterboarded, but they were subjected to physical and psychological torture:

    The actual treatment of the hostages was far different from that purported in Iranian propaganda: the hostages described beatings,[58] theft,[59] the fear of bodily harm while being paraded blindfold before a large, angry chanting crowd outside the embassy (Bill Belk and Kathryn Koob),[60] having their hands bound “day and night” for days[61] or even weeks,[62] long periods of solitary confinement[63] and months of being forbidden to speak to one another[64] or stand, walk, and leave their space unless they were going to the bathroom.[65] In particular they felt the threat of trial and execution,[66] as all of the hostages “were threatened repeatedly with execution, and took it seriously”.[67] The hostage takers played Russian roulette with their victims.[68]

    The most terrifying night for the hostages came on February 5, 1980, when guards in black ski masks rousted the 53 hostages from their sleep and led them blindfolded to other rooms. They were searched after being ordered to strip themselves until they were bare, and to keep their hands up. They were then told to kneel down. “This was the most terrifying moment” as one hostage said. They were still wearing the blindfolds, so naturally, they were terrified even further. One of the hostages later recalled ‘It was an embarrassing moment. However, we were too scared to realize it.’ The mock execution ended after the guards cocked their weapons and readied them to fire but finally ejected their rounds and told the prisoners to wear their clothes again. The hostages were later told the exercise was “just a joke” and something the guards “had wanted to do”. However, this affected a lot of the hostages long after.[69]

    Michael Metrinko was kept in solitary confinement for months. On two occasions when he expressed his opinion of Ayatollah Khomeini and he was punished especially severely in relation to the ordinary mistreatment of the hostages—the first time being kept in handcuffs for 24 hours a day for two weeks,[70] and being beaten and kept alone in a freezing cell for two weeks with a diet of bread and water the second time.[71]

    John Yoo didn’t order or inflict that treatment; Shiite torturers did.

    • Andrew Gelman May 28, 2013 at 6:04 pm #


      I agree completely that the hostages were mistreated and tortured, it just seems that hostages get treated worse nowadays, thanks partly (but, of course, only partly) to Yoo.

      • Mark May 28, 2013 at 6:56 pm #


        Your comment baffles me. What are you trying to say?

        • Andrew Gelman May 28, 2013 at 7:16 pm #


          See last paragraph of my post above. That’s the summary.

      • RobC May 28, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

        Andy, with all respect, I think you’re forgetting the First law of holes.

        • Andrew Gelman May 28, 2013 at 8:09 pm #


          I respect my commenters. To reply to a commenter is not to dig a hole. I think all of you have valuable points to add. In my post, I was relaying my subjective impression upon seeing Argo that, from the perspective of our suicide-bomber era, that whole hostage episode seems so comfortingly mild.. All of your perspectives are valuable too.

          • Mark May 28, 2013 at 10:06 pm #


            I was trying to understand who you think are the hostages today.

            • Andrew Gelman May 28, 2013 at 10:25 pm #

              I was comparing to the people who the U.S. government captured and held at Guantanamo.

              • Mark May 29, 2013 at 8:24 am #

                You consider them to be hostages?

  3. Fr. May 29, 2013 at 8:43 am #

    Is there a dataset of hostages somewhere? It would probably be a bit gruesome (esp. if you include an ‘outcome’ measure), but there is a dataset of killed journalists, so why not hostages?

    (Perhaps in GDELT?)

  4. Geoff G May 29, 2013 at 10:59 am #

    The abuse cited by RobC in his block quote was torture when Iranians did it to Americans. But, during the Bush administration, John Yoo and others redefined torture so that it did not include the things defined above. Accordingly, it was now legal for Americans to have prisoners’ ‘hands bound ‘day and night’ for days[61] or even weeks,[62] long periods of solitary confinement[63] and months of being forbidden to speak to one another[64] or stand, walk, and leave their space unless they were going to the bathroom.[65].” Prisoners were “were searched after being ordered to strip themselves until they were bare, and to keep their hands up.” In addition, some prisoners were waterboarded and brutalized in other ways the Iranians apparently didn’t think of or try.

    The beauty part is that the redefinition allowed Americans to treat the prisoners they held the same way the Iranians treated the hostages, or even worse. The ugly part is that the redefinition of torture deprives Americans of moral standing to criticize abuse of American prisoners. But, moral standing is for chumps. Might makes right. If Americans are waterboarded in the future, it won’t be described by Americans as “roughhousing”, nor will it be seen to be clearly within the laws of war. John Yoo will not be counsel for the defense, arguing that what the foreigners did to our troops was acceptable because it was not as bad as organ failure or dismemberment, though his writings may be introduced into evidence by the defense.

    No, torture of Americans will be prosecuted in the future. When others complain about the inconsistency, they will be told, perhaps by John Yoo, that we can prosecute war criminals because we can, not because of squishy concepts like morality or the rule of law. All’s fair in love and war, provided you’re the big kahuna who has more to fear from honoring the law than breaching it.

    • Dan June 2, 2013 at 3:34 pm #

      You’re being a bit selective, Geoff, in omitting many of the Iranian tactics, including mock executions, beatings, and Russian roulette. And with the exception of “hands bound day or night for days”, the items you list are routine in US prisons for those who’ve presented a danger to others – and have been upheld by dozens of court rulings. Rough treatment, no doubt, but not torture. I’m honestly more concerned about the force feeding now underway with some Gitmo prisoners.

      On balance, though, the Gitmo prisoners have been treated far better than the Iranian hostages were. Certainly not “worse” as Andrew seems to imply.

      As for waterboarding, I think it has hurt our moral standing, but it’s worth remembering we did it to 3 people – all of them undeniably terrorists with knowledge of additional plots – and none after 2003, and none at Guantanamo. We also waterboard all of our Special Ops candidates as part of their training, a friend of mine who went through it describes it as “terrifying”, so I think it’s fair to call it psychological torture at a minimum. There are plenty of *allegations* of torture at Guantanamo but I’m not aware of one that’s been substantiated. I think we should always be skeptical of what our government tells us, but that doesn’t mean taking the word of accused terrorists as gospel either, especially when 30% of Gitmo released prisoners have gone on to commit terrorist acts.

  5. Chaz May 30, 2013 at 5:33 am #

    Central America had a lot more death squads then than now. Maybe the CIA has a limited attention span, and they can only cover one region at a time.