By 3:30 pm, the only traces of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's address at Columbia University were the blowing mounds of flyers denouncing human rights abuses in Iran and a lone speaker on the podium in front of Low Library preaching the rhetoric of censorship to the by then largely dispersed choir.
The specter of the President of Iran had been hanging over the city for a week, and nowhere was his presence more keenly felt than at Columbia. Late the previous week, posters had appeared on campus with gruesome pictures of Iranian public executions. Columbia's Jewish student group, Hillel, used various Ahmadinejad quotes — most of which were taken out of context — on posters and flyers advertising an outdoor rally against the visit and, more specifically, against the Ahmadinejad's public Holocaust denial and desire to destroy Israel. The Daily News published a scathing editorial denouncing John Coatsworth, Acting Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), one of the men responsible for inviting Ahmadinejad to Columbia.
The on-campus debate was about everything except the real issue: the run-up to an overt (instead of merely covert) war between the US and Iran. The fact is that the majority of Columbia students seemed to know nothing about Ahmadinejad and less than nothing about the country he leads. I overheard two students speaking on the subway on Sunday evening. One asked the other what they were supposed to be protesting. The other replied "Oh, just the human rights stuff. Nobody knows anything about his foreign policy." These were SIPA students: graduate students in international affairs who knew nothing about Iran's foreign policy. Somehow I couldn't quite convince myself that all the lead dust in the air at the 96th street station had caused a temporary memory lapse.
What might be the loudest opening shot yet in this round of our run-up to war with Iran was fired by Lee Bollinger, President of the university, in his introductory remarks. "PresBo" — as the students warmly call him — pulled no punches. The remarks were a mixture of hypocrisy and provocation. Early on, he equated Columbia with Israel and asked Ahmadinejad, "Do you plan on wiping us off the map too?" However the "money statement," as the student newspaper the Columbia Spectator called it, was this: "Let's, then, be clear at the beginning, Mr. President. You exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator."
The irony in this statement is that Bollinger denounced Ahmadinejad for actions similar to those that President Bush has undertaken: the arrest and imprisonment of people for no good reason, perversions of freedom of the press, and the perennially popular capital punishment. Obviously, PresBo is not a big fan of the US cleaning its own house before it presumes to dictate to a sovereign nation. Maybe it's easier to face the dictator "over there" than the dictator right here. After all, considering the CIA's toppling of Iranian President Mossadeq in 1953, history is on Bollinger's side. It's a shame, though, that a noted First Amendment scholar like Bollinger — who teaches Columbia's premier seminar on freedom of speech and the press — couldn't refrain from expressing his hope that Ahmadinejad would soon be ousted and called him an enemy and evil while delivering a long discourse on the glories of free speech. The students went wild with rapturous applause at each denunciation, and the room resembled a WWF smackdown until Bollinger left the podium.
Despite the lambasting, Ahmadinejad kept his cool. He did not, as Bollinger had hoped, "exhibit [a] fanatical mindset" or otherwise make a fool of himself — at least until the question and answer session at the end. His first order of business was to deliver a short excerpt from the Koran and give Bollinger a well-deserved piece of his mind. "When we in Iran invite someone to be a speaker, we respect the students and professors enough to allow them to make their own judgment and do not think it is necessary to come in before the speech is even given and make a series of claims and provide inoculation to the students and professors," he said to applause louder than any that Bollinger had received. Lest that applause give anyone an impression that free speech by politically inconvenient individuals is actually tolerated at Columbia, some of his later innocuous comments garnered a disproportionate number of boos and catcalls. Columbians are nothing if not fickle.
After a long tangent on the divine nature of science and reality (par for the course with any professor), Ahmadinejad hit back against the United States and its rulers. "Did those who in the course of human history wage wars not understand that lives, properties, dignity, territories, and the rights of all human beings should be respected, or did they understand it but not abide by it?…They in fact wish to justify their own wrongdoings, though. By creating nonexistent enemies, for example, and an insecure atmosphere, they try to control all in the name of combating insecurity and terrorism. They even violate individual and social freedoms in their own nations under that pretext. They do not respect the privacy of their own people. They tap telephone calls and try to control their people. They create an insecure psychological atmosphere in order to justify their war-mongering acts in different parts of the world."
President Bush might want to hire Ahmadinejad's speechwriter, whoever he is. Couldn't have said it better myself.
Meanwhile, outside the auditorium, protesters were cordoned off in "free-speech zones," which looked more like corrals enclosed by police barricades. The protesters — being of all ideological stripes, from Orthodox Jews to anti-war protesters — fought at least as much with each other as against Ahmadinejad. Especially unpopular with the Hillel protesters was a sign held by members of the anti-war coalition that stated that Iran has the highest Jewish population in the Middle East and that Jews have representation in parliament and are allowed to worship freely. The feminists were united in dislike of the sign mentioning that 60% of Iran's college students are female and — unlike in our beloved ally Saudi Arabia — women are allowed to drive and otherwise move about without a male family member as chaperone. There's no pleasing some people.
Back inside, it was time for the question and answer session. He did very well considering that he was set up to fail by Messrs Bollinger and Coatsworth, who asked only the most inflammatory questions. Did Mr. Ahmadinejad believe that Israel should continue as a Jewish state? The president, not mentioning Israel by name, said that the Palestinian (used here as an inclusive term meaning all religious groups living in the area of Palestine) people should hold a referendum and decide that for themselves. Why does Mr. Ahmadinejad believe that more research needs to be done into the Holocaust when everyone agrees that it happened? Because, said he, it is ludicrous to think that we can debate 800-year-old proven mathematical principles, but we cannot do any research or hold any debate about an event which happened a little more than 60 years ago, even if that debate would broaden our understanding by allowing new perspectives a chance to develop. Why does Iran deny basic human rights to its women? It doesn't, said Mr. Ahmadinejad, who pointed out that women hold top positions in government, there are celebrated female scientists and academics, and women are allowed education and freedom of movement unheard-of elsewhere in the Middle East.
Here is where the conversation broke down. Coatsworth asked Ahmadinejad why homosexuals were persecuted and killed in Iran. Ahmadinejad stated quite clearly that there are no homosexuals in Iran, and he has no idea where anyone could have gotten that fallacious notion. This is where he lost all of his previous cachet with the audience. His statement was met with extreme derision and the booing and catcalls went on for quite some time. He looked slightly nonplussed.
The Iranian president regained his stride, however, when asked why he was seeking weapons-grade enriched uranium. He stated that even the IAEA reports showed that his country was doing no such thing, that Iran's nuclear program conformed to international law, and furthermore, that Iran was submitting to monitoring by international agencies. But, he said, some nations have a monopoly on science and technology and wish to use that monopoly to prevent other countries from taking their rightful place in the world. Iran is a peaceful nation, he continued, and believes that nuclear weapons are an abomination which no country should possess and Iran would not seek. This statement was met by loud cheers from the students. The speech ended and Ahmadinejad was given a mixture of applause and boos by the students for his troubles.
In the end, Ahmadinejad's address at Columbia University devolved into the sorry spectacle of President Bollinger making an utter fool of himself and his university on national television. The Iranian president came out looking much better than the university president. But both of them (and we) would have been better off had they (and Geraldo) stayed at home.
A.C. Bowen [send her mail] is second-year student at Columbia University.