Contrary to what you may have heard, Iran doesn’t “believe” in nuclear weapons. And pay no heed to reports of young Iranian women being stoned to death for adultery. Actually, Iranian women are among “the freest in the world.” In addition, further research is needed to determine whether the Holocaust happened, and to discover who was really responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Oh, and there are no homosexuals in the Islamic Republic.
These and other pearls of wisdom were brought to you by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as he took the stage yesterday at Columbia University to deliver a rambling and often incoherent speech that should never have taken place.
But grant the genocidal maniac this: he knows how to make the most of an occasion. Surrounded by running cameras and a rapt audience, Ahmadinejad delivered a memorably opposite-world rendition of Iran’s political activities. Typical in its sinister absurdity was his lofty judgment that in “a university environment we must allow people to make up their own mind.” Coming from the head of a regime that has launched vicious crackdowns on universities, students, human-rights activists and political dissidents, the statement might almost be amusing, were it not tragic. Ahmadinejad seemed all too aware of the fact, and throughout his remarks he wore a sly grin that seemed to say, “Can you believe I’m getting away with this?”
That he has gotten away with it is principally the fault of one man: Columbia president Lee Bollinger. To give Bollinger his due, he was impressively severe in introducing Ahmadinejad yesterday. “Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” Bollinger said, pressing him to account for Iran’s successive crackdowns on dissent, for its funding of terrorist groups, and for waging a proxy war against the United States in Iraq. Addressing Ahmadinejad’s doubts about the destruction of European Jewry, Bollinger appropriately called it “illiterate and ignorant” and “dangerous propaganda.”
There were some stumbles. Bollinger’s strained attempt to defend the invitation as a victory for free speech was feeble and unconvincing. By what obscene standard is the participation of a Holocaust-denying Islamic zealot a prerequisite for “vigorous debate” about any subject? Even so, his reference to the need to “confront the mind of evil” at least cast the guest in his proper light. If not quite a proud moment in Columbia’s history – the mere fact that Ahmadinejad was accorded a platform precluded the possibility – it was at least not another embarrassment.
Alas, the damage has been done. Simply by appearing at Columbia, Ahmadinejad could claim the unearned legitimacy imparted by the esteemed location. As one might expect, Iran’s government-owned media were quick to pounce on the propaganda coup. In its account of the speech, Iran’s official news agency gleefully recorded the “standing ovation of the audience” and its “repeated” applause for the president. They needn’t have bothered. Why waste energy singing the president’s praises when a modern university, in the heart of the Great Satan no less, is happy to provide free publicity?
Not the least destructive consequence of Ahmadinejad’s appearance is that it has humanized the leader of a rogue regime that has the blood of American soldiers on its hands and the murder of Israeli Jews on its mind. Bollinger seemed to anticipate the possibility. In his introduction yesterday, he revealed to Ahmadinejad his “yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better.” Here is some novel advice for Bollinger. For future reference, the best way to show your complete and utter disdain for a fanatical dictator is not to offer him a forum for his hateful views.