AT A rally against Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last week, a pair of New York tourists disregarded the cops’ bored orders not to stop and parked their Birkenstocks on 42nd Street. The woman positioned her head with “Stop the Hate” signs in the background and grinned while the man snapped a picture that was certain to adorn her Facebook profile in a few days.

The protesters—particularly the one wearing a skeleton costume and wielding a scythe—took everything slightly more seriously. They were at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan, protesting the dictator’s presence at an interfaith dinner promoting lovely, noble things like “international dialogue” and “mutual understanding.” The day before, they’d protested Ahmadinejad’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

The startling thing about Ahmadinejad’s speech to the G.A. is just how lovely and noble it sounds, and how uncomfortably it proves that the world’s worst dictator can “reach out to the faith community.” If you don’t look past his rhetoric to his regime’s brutal oppression, you’d think you were listening to someone who was truly skilled at touching the heartstrings of solid, upright, faith-filled people.

Ahmadinejad’s introduction is redolent with love, kindness, faith and peace. He talks about “great hopes in the bright future of human society” and “achieving sustainable peace and expanding love, compassion, and cooperation.” His condemnation of efforts to “to shatter the sanctity of families, destroy cultures, [and] humiliate lofty values” uneasily echo the language of the American culture wars.

The Iranian president outlined a vision of the world in which justice reigns, oppressors are vanquished, and the strong defend the downtrodden. He mentioned God 32 times, praising him as a merciful, just, benevolent creator. He mentioned justice or injustice 21 times. He referred to love and beauty half a dozen times each and mentioned freedom 12 times. He condemned oppression as many times as he mentioned peace—seven. And he used this election’s buzzword,“hope,” five times, once more than Obama did in his Democratic convention acceptance speech.

They’re the words that rally people to voting booths and wars, because they tap our desire for change or our longing for hope or our admiration of experience, courage and strength. They’re emotionally-charged, not just for Iranians or for American Friends Service Committee members seeking “mutual understanding,” but for everyone, everywhere.

It is why intelligent people must refuse to be swayed by high-minded rhetoric, and must instead listen with surgical precision to sentence and paragraph, thought and worldview. Words like “peace” don’t float on their own, stripped of context. Ahmadinejad used the word “peaceful” to describe his nuclear program, and he used Israel to exemplify oppression. Words are meaningless without definitions. To Ahmadinejad, freedom isn’t freedom of speech or belief but obedience to Allah. In his speech he said freedom can only be achieved by “confessing to monotheism and obeying His commands, and [being free] from ungodly worship.” Definitions are also meaningless without applications. Ahmadinejad praised mercy, but he has over 100 children on death row. He talks about justice, but he imprisons activists, journalists, scholars, and peaceful dissidents.

Evangelicals ask that their political leaders speak the language of “faith” and “values,” but those words are warped when wrenched from their original context, and they become meaningless when batted about haphazardly in chicken-soup books and voter summits. “Faith” goes from a hope in something heavenly to a vaguely beneficent yearning to bring heaven to earth. “Values” become a special interest, and “peace” means interfaith dinners with dictators. Leaders–Republican, Democrat, or Iranian–twist and shrivel heavenly language when they employ it to legitimize earthly ends. They may “speak our language,” but the words don’t mean the same.

The application becomes more sobering because of our own earnest efforts to seek, in Ahmadinejad’s words, “the absolute truth, the absolute light, and the absolute beauty,” and to find leaders who seek the same. It’s easiest to assume the worst of Ahmadinejad—that he’s joyfully and self-consciously wicked and that he purposely manipulates the noblest words for the greatest evil. The more sobering and likely possibility is that he sincerely believes his perverted definitions of God, justice and love. Maybe he prays every day that God will guide him just before he hangs homosexuals and children. When he executed 29 men in one day last July, perhaps he went to bed at peace because he believed that he did the right thing. Suppose the number of executions increased 300% the year after Ahmadinejad took office because he was earnestly seeking justice. Suppose he’s imprisoning dissidents not to solidify his own power but to sincerely advance God’s.

A desire to advance God’s “kingdom” annihilates, rather than builds, when it appears in a person who behaves as if they were God’s earthly manifestation of himself: enforcing goodness, passing judgment on the heretical and ordering their sacrifice on the altar of righteousness and truth. Sincerity, passion, strength and courage aren’t admirable in a leader like this; they’re scary.

Ahmadinejad isn’t the only one to justify torture or terrorism for a greater good. While people chanted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel, one man passed out flyers like tracts and told each person who took one, “The Iranian embassy was just blown up in London. Thank God for the good news.” Someone took the flyer and said, “Nice to see it go the other way for a change.”

A more innocuous act of terrorism just because it targeted the innocent subjects of a less righteous leader? It’s too easy to act like lesser Ahmadinejads and excuse tiny atrocities in the name of truth. Anyone—including us and including our leaders—can manipulate the best words for the worst ends.

Alisa Harris is deputy editor of Patrol. She teaches journalism at The King’s College in Manhattan.

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Alisa Harris

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