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
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 January 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
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
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.