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Commentary -- Forget guns, I'll take a cell phone

By Donald Kaul

The Internet is a lot like the dreaded kudzu vine. Once introduced into a venue it doesn't merely grow, it explodes. It goes anywhere it wants, does anything it wants and generally takes over.

There are some bad things about this---it eats up newspapers like rabbits eat up vegetable gardens, for example---but there are good things too.

For one, it has made the police state, that staple of twentieth century governance, obsolescent. Not obsolete, mind you---there are still a lot of them around---but their job is much harder now and, in the long run, impossible.

We see it working its magic in Iran right now. Ten years ago the government would have stolen the election and immediately put a lockdown on information coming out of country. Some people would have protested and gotten beaten up, hardly anyone would have noticed and the world would have yawned. A three-day story, tops.

Instead we now have great numbers of people spilling into the streets to protest the fraudulent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, energized by the information fed to them through the Internet. And the world has noticed.

The police and the government's paramilitary thugs beat the protestors, shoot them, arrest them, but still they come. The government has banned foreign journalists from the streets. People with cameras are arrested and abused. Still the photos and stories of the government's brutality keep streaming out to the rest of the world.

It's enough to make a ruling despot long for the days when the Soviet Union could silence critics by confiscating all the mimeograph machines in Moscow.

The government has tried to stem the Internet tide but to little avail. Hundreds of photos of the protests have appeared on YouTube and thousands of messages from protesters have made their way to the outside world through text messaging, Twitter and all the other technologies I know nothing about.

Will it be enough to topple the government or at least to win new elections? Probably not. A police state still has formidable weapons at its command and the Iranian government seems quite willing to use them.

But its aura of invincibility has been breached, its moral authority fractured. It's become obvious that it's just another corrupt gang of thugs willing to do whatever it takes to hang on to power and damn the consequences.

The situation gives lie to the claim of the National Rifle Association and its fellow-travelers that the first thing "the Communists" do when they take over a country is to confiscate the guns.

Not true. The first thing insurgents do when they gain control is take over the radio and television stations. Then they close the newspapers. Guns are dangerous yes, but not nearly as dangerous as ideas.

Republicans are upset with President Obama for not making a more forceful protest against what's going on in Iran, but I'm not sure what they want him to do. Make faces at Iran's leaders?

Beyond that, interposing the United States in what is, after all, an internal matter would do nothing but make the protesters look like pawns of the United States and weaken their position.

He's playing it just about right, turning up the heat gradually.

The Republicans have gotten a lot of mileage out of talking tough to our adversaries, when they talk at all. Where has it gotten us? Pariah status in a part of the world we seek to influence.

What's happening in Iran now is important largely because Iran is a hostile country that is attempting to arm itself with nuclear weapons. Ideally, we'd like to get the rest of the world---countries like China, India, Japan---on our side in trying to prevent it from doing so.

For that you need not bluster but persuasion. And the Internet.

Don Kaul is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-losing Washington correspondent who, by his own account, is right more than he's wrong.