What I’m Reading: Taken Hostage

January 18, 2016

I read books every week — books I’ve assigned my students for class, books I’m reviewing before publication, books we’ll be discussing on my MSNBC show, and books for no other reason than the pleasure of reading. Every week (or so) I share the books I’ve been reading and my reflections. Sign up here.


I am stunned by my book pick this week. I thought I would be offering you a selection on King or Civil Rights. Instead the news cycle forced me to spend Saturday night devouring David Farber’s (2005) Taken Hostage: The Iran Hostage Crisis and America’s First Encounter with Radical Islam. It fills in vaguely recalled details of my childhood — evening news reports on the status of “the hostages.” But Farber claims it was the United States itself that was taken hostage in the 1979-1980 crisis. The book reveals a nation gripped with fear of its own decline and anxious about its own power for which the capture of American citizens abroad is simply the most tangible manifestation. Farber recasts American failure in the hostage crisis, identifying not weakness, but failed moral and human imagination, as the critical stumbling block.

“Khomeini was not crazy,” writes Farber. “But what he wanted was so inimical to American government officials’ understanding of how the world did and should work that he might as well have been, at least from the stance of American negotiators.”

That insight is just the beginning of a paradigm-shifting text. Farber goes on to trace how the Iran hostage crisis initiates decades of America’s inability to see, manage, or respond to changes in how Islam operates within the politics of the Mideast and North Africa.

And, although this book was published more than a decade ago, I am pretty sure that in explaining how Reagan emerges in 1980, Farber may have just made a case for how Donald Trump could win the 2016 election.

Agree or disagree. This book is worth reading.

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