Each fall as children prepare costumes and ready spooky decorations for Halloween there is a real parade of frightening adults that make their way to New York City for the opening of the UN General Assembly.
This year the UN gathering has garnered even more attention due to the request by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit Ground Zero and the decision by Columbia University to extend to him an invitation recently not available to ROTC recruiters — the opportunity to speak on campus.
While presidential candidate Fred Thompson suggested we deny a visa to the Iranian leader, the United States is obligated under treaty and federal statute to allow heads of state and government representatives from the member countries to visit the U.N. (Thompson spokesman Todd Harris did not respond to repeated requests for comment as to how Thompson would propose we contend with those obligations.) Nevertheless, all the GOP presidential contenders and Hillary Clinton as well expressed outrage that he would be allowed to visit ground zero. Last week, New York City officials denied the request.
However, Columbia University’s invitation remained open despite calls from public officials to revoke the invitation, as Columbia did last year. For example, New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn in a letter to Columbia’s President wrote: “Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier, here for one reason — to spread his hate-mongering vitriol on the world stage. His need to incite violence has found its way to our shore, through his unabashed armament of militia forces in Iraq. His actions are taking the lives of our soldiers on a daily basis. His twisted rhetoric makes him worthy of our scorn.” Former Mayor Ed Koch responded to our inquiry by a succinct email: “Columbia’s decision is shocking and I have denounced President Bollinger on several TV and radio interviews.”
(Mayor Bloomberg meekly said it was up to Columbia University whether to invite him.)
Senator McCain issued a statement imploring Columbia to reconsider the invitation, declaring: “A man who is directing the maiming and killing of Americans troops should not be given an invitation to speak at an American university. Rather than rolling out the red carpet for the leader of a terrorist-sponsoring regime, Columbia should be welcoming the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) back on campus to honor the men and women who put their lives on the line every day defending our freedom.” On CNN on Sunday Hillary Clinton allowed that she would not have invited a Holocaust denier but offered that she respects “the right in our country to make different decisions.”
Rudy Giuliani in a radio interview declared: “I think it’s highly inappropriate that Columbia University asked him to speak. … [H]is government of Iran is considered to be the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. There is very, very strong evidence that they are giving materials and arms and smuggling people that are leading to the slaughter of American troops and others who are fighting for freedom and democracy. He’s denied the Holocaust; he’s threatened the future survival of Israel. I believe he’s even threatened at various times American interests and he keeps threatening to develop nuclear capacity. So this is not even a close question.”
Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League sent a letter calling on Columbia to revoke the invitation and explaining in a statement: “"Columbia University has no moral imperative, no legal imperative, no social imperative to give Ahmadinejad a platform, which he would not give them in Tehran. Why give him the credibility and the respectability of a major institution of higher learning? What message does that send to the students? This is not what the First Amendment is all about."
Conservative commentators pointed out that although Columbia University denied access to ROTC recruiters because of discrimination against gays in the military the Iranian government considers homosexuality a crime punishable by death. Others remarked on the contrast between recent decision by University of California at Davis to deny an invitation to speak to former Harvard President Larry Summers (based on the controversy surrounding his suggestion that gender differences might be responsible for lower numbers of women entering science professions) and the decision to extend an invitation to the head of the Iranian government which routinely denies Iranian women basic civil liberties.
Michael Leeden, AEI Freedom Scholar and noted expert on the Middle East and terrorism, in response to our inquiry stated: “Columbia is following its long tradition of welcoming tyrants, as with the Italian fascists in the twenties, and I see a Columbia dean has proudly declared they would welcome Hitler on campus, which I am sure is true. Meanwhile they don’t allow an ROTC program. Why do they receive Federal funding?”
As if the invitation itself was not a sufficient to enrage critics of Columbia, Dean John Coatsworth then upped the ante saying that Columbia would have been happy to host Adolph Hitler. Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center responded: “This is not about free speech. This is about attaching Columbia University’s seal of approval upon the greatest mass murderer in the history of mankind. It is an insult to the tens of thousands of Jews in New York City whose families were murdered in the gas chambers to hear that such a prestigious university would be honored to have Hitler as their guest. To say that there are no lines to be drawn, no consequences for bigotry, that every tyrant and killer is welcome at any podium, as long as he’s willing to answer questions, negates everything that democratic countries stand for. For at the end of the day, when the visit is over, another great American institution has conferred a degree of respectability on an outlaw.”
Sheldon Silver, Speaker of the New York State Assembly threatened to look at Columbia’s funding and denounced Coatsworth’s comments by declaring “What makes it more outrageous is the fact that some dean yesterday said he would have invited Adolf Hitler. It’s totally outrageous. This is not a matter of academic freedom. This is a matter of legitimizing people, one who was the perpetrator of the Holocaust and one who denies its existence.”
Following a rally at Columbia on Sunday protesting Ahmadinejad’s visit, protesters gathered at the UN on Monday. Rudy Giuliani’s statement was read proclaiming in part: “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an enemy of America, Israel, and the entire free world. We should never remain silent when evil makes an appearance. We will not allow a nuclear Iran. Period. We will work with our allies and use every tool at our disposal to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power. That is not a threat. It’s a promise. Iran is the leading state-sponsor of terrorism, the host of Bin Laden’s son and other top al-Qaeda leaders, and the supplier of weapons being used to kill American soldiers in Iraq. His promises to destroy America and Israel should not, can not, and will not be ignored. It is a sad reflection on the United Nations that the General Assembly and Human Rights Council have ignored these actions and instead focused attention on demonizing the State of Israel.” (Mitt Romney used the occasion to remind voters in a new radio ad of his refusal to provide a police escort to former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami when he spoke at Harvard University.)
Large numbers of protestors gathered at Columbia University. Ahmadinejad’s appearance Monday afternoon was as one would expect. University President Lee Bollinger did castigate him on his record of Holocaust denial, support for terrorism, violating UN resolutions and civil rights abuses but Ahmadinejad was unmoved, proclaiming his country’s treatment of women, announcing evidence of the Holocaust needed more “research” and declaring not to have homosexuals in his country. A smattering of applause from the audience indicated that he had succeeded in presenting himself to an American audience willing to consider his views.
But to a greater degree than Ahmadinejad Columbia University was really front and center yesterday. Far better than any conservative commentator the University leadership conveyed to the public at large not to mention legislators, alumni and students that they see no reason not to afford those with views repugnant to civilized society and who are contributing to the deaths of American soldiers a forum to spout their rubbish, enjoy the applause of the crowd and gain acceptance for their falsehoods as merely an “alternative point of view.” In that regard, Columbia University exposed itself as incapable of making the intellectual and moral distinctions its students will need to make in the real world. In that regard this was an immensely “teachable moment.”