President Lee C. Bollinger of Columbia University and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran met Monday on a field of rhetorical battle at Columbia.
Bollinger opened the proceedings, to which he had invited Ahmadinejad, by presenting a series of sharply-worded questions. Bollinger, normally a genial, soft spoken man who is always courteous and deferential to his guests, was in a totally different mode. His voice was hectoring and bullying. He included in his litany of questions provocative and insulting statements about his guest.
Bollinger’s change of style was, I believe, to blunt the enormous criticism that ensued following Columbia’s invitation to Ahmadinejad to speak there. In his defense, Bollinger’s supporters constantly invoke the concepts of free speech and the First Amendment. But in this case they simply don’t apply.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
No government action was taken to stop Columbia and Bollinger from extending the invitation and holding the event as they did. I watched it on television, 600 people watched it from within the auditorium and thousands of Columbia students sat outside watching and listening to a giant TV screen.
The right of free speech — Bollinger and Ahmadinejad were exercising it before, during and after this controversy — was never in question. What was in question was Bollinger’s judgment. Why provide the president of Iran — who supports terrorism and whose government provides bombs to Iraqi insurgents and terrorists who use them to kill American soldiers — with the prestigious platform at a great American university?
Isn’t it a fact that Ahmadinejad has been and will continue to be interviewed by journalists every day during his stay in America?
What he got at Columbia was a special platform where he could, in an academic setting, disseminate his views to the world. Yes, the attention of the world, particularly the Islamic world, was focused on Columbia and Ahmadinejad. And what did they see?
They saw Columbia University’s president, Bollinger, who had invited Ahmadinejad to his school, do what should never be done — insult the person who is a guest in your home, office or shared podium and stage. Bollinger had said of Ahmadinejad, “Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” adding, “You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.” Bollinger went on, “It’s well-documented that Iran was a state sponsor of terrorism.” The final insult was, “I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions.” Ahmadinejad understood this immediately and referred to Bollinger’s insults in his speech, saying, “I shall not begin by being affected by this unfriendly treatment.”
I am also distressed that the heart of Bollinger’s objections related to Israel and Ahmadinejad’s call for its destruction. Of course, that is important, especially to Jews and certainly to me, and to the world as well. But I would have preferred a question on Ahmadinejad’s call for the destruction of the United States.
Bollinger could have said, “with respect to the U.S., shortly after your election in October 2005, you called for a global jihad aimed at destroying the U.S., saying ‘Is it possible for us to witness a world without America and Zionism?’ You went on to say, ‘You should know that this slogan can certainly be achieved.’” Bollinger, a Jew himself, gave Ahmadinejad ammunition to be used among Islamic supporters that the battle at Columbia was primarily a battle between Islam and the Jews, and Ahmadinejad had bravely stood up to the mocking of the Jewish Bollinger.
The Daily News reported, “Ahmadinejad has also revived an old slogan of the Khomeinist movement that had fallen into disuse in the '90s: ‘Death to America!’ Every meeting he addresses in Iran starts and ends with this cry — chanted by professional demonstrators working for the regime.” Bollinger should have asked Ahmaninejad about his role in the Iranian hostage taking of American consular officials during the Carter administration.
Barry Rosen, one of the hostages held for 444 days and released on Jan. 20, 1981, the day President Reagan was inaugurated, recently wrote, “Ahmadinejad was one of those outrageous Iranians who took me and more than 50 other Americans hostage for 444 days, violating international law and making us suffer indescribable moments of terror.”
If Ahmadinejad were not protected by diplomatic immunity, he could be arrested for a host of terrorist and criminal activities.
As important as it was to stand up for the rights of homosexuals, who are hanged or stoned to death in Iran, standing up for the U.S. and the American soldiers being killed daily by Iranian-supplied bombs was particularly relevant and in need of greater emphasis than that given by Bollinger.
All in all, it was a fiasco for America and a blunder by Bollinger, as well as a coup for Ahmadinejad. His goal was not to respond to Bollinger, the Columbia students or Americans seeing him on television. His goal was to talk over their heads to the Islamic world and its terrorists and show how he bearded the Columbia lion in its own den.
President Bollinger, as an encore, why not invite Hugo Chavez? I think he’d come. You could provide him with a platform to enhance his reputation.
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