One of the most horrific stories to hit the news not just in recent weeks but forever, was the burning alive of an innocent man accused of pedophilia. Bijan Ebrahimi was a handicapped man who was being harassed by teenagers. He began photographing the acts of harassment to provide evidence of their abuse, and in no time rumors swirled that he was taking pornographic photos of the teens. Police led him away for questioning, and after being released, a crowd gathered, began chanting “pedo, pedo,” and in the height of the hysteria, he was attacked and burned alive by members of his community.
Yet as extreme as this crime was, such hysteria is consistent with how humans respond when behaving in groups, and there is nothing about the incident which could not or would not happen anywhere and at any time, were the accused put within striking distance of the general public.
For example, recently a principal of a middle school was accused of pedophilia with his students. No evidence has been presented of his guilt other than the accusations of a few students, yet the comments of readers revealed just how violent our own population is willing to become when emboldened by permission to attack. In a piece published in The Huffington Post headlined, “David Ellis Edwards, Principal, Raped Boys in Office While Parent was Outside: Cops,” the following comments were published (they are unedited and the ellipses were in the original comments):
“He needs to be taken out back and shot.”
“I hope he gets raped every single day of his miserable, pathetic life.”
“I believe he should be shot without due process.”
“Hang this man.”
“He needs help . . . with castration”
“”Necklace him (with tire, saturated in fuel and lite him up).”
“He needs to be tased and then given shock treatments to his brain.”
“Castration!!!!! Life in prison. Prison inmates will help him experience rape.”
“If it had been one of my children, there is no doubt in my mind that my husband would have then and there killed the principal. He wouldn’t get any objections from me.”
“He should be stripped, greased up and sat straight down on top of a flag pole and rods thrown at him until he is no more.”
“Very slowly . . . tortuous and slow. . . real slow . . . cut . . . salt in the wound . . . slice . . . vinegars . . . hot grease cook the skin . . . acid in the face . . . nails in his (you know what) and need I say more . . . Just plain torture. . . .”
“You don’t need a judge and jury if that was our kid . . . he is disgusting . . . cut off his wiener and let him sit there and watch himself bleed to death.”
Despite my efforts to find any reports online or in any media of evidence against Mr. Edwards other than the accusation, I found none. Moreover, among all the reports I read, I found no more than three or four comments in total which suggested he should be presumed innocent unless found guilty in a court of law.
Such comments reveal less about the accused than they do about society’s capacity for violence when the accusation is extreme and disturbing. As Adolph Hitler’s right-hand-man, Joseph Goebbels once said, tell a big enough lie and people will believe it. I learned this own lesson myself when I was accused of acts of terrorism, and my life and career were shattered as a result.
I had been a well-respected professor for years when I asked my department chair to speak to a colleague I had heard was spreading gossip about me, threatening another student, and engaged in inappropriate behavior with students. All I had asked of my department chair was to speak to the man, but before I knew it, I was pulled into a sexual harassment investigation against the colleague, told I would be fired if I did not prove I was telling the truth, and then subjected to an escalating series of accusations that began with claims I was negative, to claims I was lying, to claims I was mentally ill, to claims I was suicidal, to claims I was homicidal, until I was told I was under a Homeland Security investigation but not told why.
After months of devastating inquisition, and thousands of dollars spent on attorneys’ fees, I learned that a student, caught up in the hysteria of rumor mongering, had claimed that in a lecture on the Manhattan Project, I said I was building a hydrogen bomb to drop on three people (every other student in the class reported I said no such thing). Another student, her friend, wrote that I wanted classified information on nuclear transport “in exchange for a higher grade” (the Faculty Senate found the claims “defied credulity” after reading the email exchange between me and the student). The students would later write that they were assured that if they made their reports, I would never know about it, and their grades would be changed. Two junior colleagues similarly made claims that I was threatening suicide and homicide if I didn’t get what I wanted (fair treatment).
The truth was, I was driven to rage and devastation as my reputation and career were destroyed, and had I not been a mother, may well have taken my life as I was shunned and so cruelly accused. But at no time was I ever violent or made threats of violence, as the university well knew when it continued to employ me on campus throughout its specious investigation. Homeland Security conducted what it described as “an aggressive investigation” before fully exonerating me, and the Faculty Senate wrote that the university had irreparably damaged my career and made multiple violations of its own procedures. A lawsuit filed against the university was settled in my favor, but not before destroying my reputation and livelihood, and leaving me a single mother, unemployable in mid-life and wholly shunned by my friends and colleagues of two decades. To date, I have been unable to secure any employment, despite a twenty year record of accomplishment, multiple references to my work in textbooks, and a prior record of excellence in teaching, research and service to my university.
As one former friend and colleague once wrote, “I know you never did any of these things, but when I think of what it was you were accused of, I have to ask myself how well I really know you.”
That is the power of accusation—it provokes such fears in those who hear the charges that, as Joseph Goebbels well understood, they will distance themselves from the accused rather than risk the possibility of supporting someone who might be guilty.
The more an accusation strikes fears among society, the more likely it is not only believed, but the more likely a mob mentality will take hold, uniting people to act aggressively and without restraint against the accused. When that happens, logic, reason and compassion are abandoned in favor of sheer violence and total destruction as the emotional fervor escalates to unite the mob in what it perceives not as violence, but as “justice.” And should the accused be found innocent, none among the mob will reflect on their own actions, but they will instead point to others—including the accused—as the source of violence. They will blame the accused for whatever fallibilities they may have had, they will blame authorities for whatever actions they may have taken, but they will never look to their own actions in destroying the life of another. Like a firing squad executing the condemned, all will have pulled the trigger, but none will have fired the lethal shot.
I have moved on from my own downfall and now no longer seek the approval of those who unjustly judged me, nor do I extend my approval or respect their way. Yet my experiences have left me acutely aware of how easily we all so often base our judgments not on reason or on evidence, but on our own emotions. The cruel and tragic death of Bijan Ebrahimi cannot be undone, nor can the excruciating pain he must have felt as he burned alive. Yet from the ashes of his flesh and soul, let each of us gain greater awareness of our own actions. Let us give pause to passing judgment on others who are accused, whether in the media or in our own lives. To do any less is to reproduce our nation’s tragic history of lynchings, witch burnings, Red Scares, and the sex abuse hysteria of the eighties which saw so many lives destroyed through accusation and social hysteria. Joseph Goebbels may have been right that the bigger the lie the more likely it will be believed, but that doesn’t mean that in our own daily lives and actions, we cannot as individuals prove him wrong.