Holy War at Columbia

Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, at ColumbiaYou get jaded living in New York but still, it is not every day that the President of Iran comes to your neighborhood. This is the holocaust-denying, America hating, nuke bomb building, evil, despicable madman who was denied entrance to ground zero (“Access of Evil” decried the NY Post ) and should rot in hell, according to a vocal contingent of politicians, religious groups, self-righteous academics and others who want to draw a line in the sand where free speech begins and ends. They are appalled that we should hear whatever evil sputum might dribble from Ahmadinejad’s mouth and insist he should be denied any opportunity to speak to us directly.

I live eight blocks south of Columbia University and spend a lot of time in and around the campus. Columbia has a strong presence in the surrounding neighborhood – through people, culture, commerce and real estate. Columbia is not a walled off ivory tower; the community flows through it, the higher reaches of the Upper West Side of Manhattan and the lower reaches of Harlem are strongly impacted by it. Columbia has a long history of progressive academic struggles and social confrontation that persists today, with strong dissention concerning the University’s current expansion plans into the community.

My first sight of Low Plaza, the area in the center of Columbia where Monday’s demonstration is scheduled, was when Mark Rudd and Bernadine Dohrn were exhorting students to shake the very foundations of the institution to end the Vietnam war. You see no such urgency or commitment to protest today. One day before the ringleader of the Axis of Evil is scheduled to appear the great majority of students are lolling about enjoying a fine late summer day, more concerned with iPods than a holy war.

On the periphery, spilling out on to Broadway, is where the action is. Incensed local Jews who are understandably angry and want to ban Ahmadinejad argue with those who want to hear what he has to say and have an opportunity to question him directly.

I am in the latter camp. If he wants to condemn America and Israel, fine, let’s hear it. Maybe this is all a PR stunt but is it any worse than George Bush proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” before another 3,000 American troops die in Iraq? Ahmadinejad wants to answer questions, meet with 9/11 survivor families, he has repeatedly challenged Bush to a debate. He desperately wants to connect (has he tried Facebook?). How evil can that be?

We did business with Saddam Hussein before we decided to war against him. Nixon had the foresight to reach out to Mao. Reagan reached out to Gorbachev. We don’t have to love or even understand our enemies but we will never get anywhere unless we are speaking to them.

As a signal that the United States would like to engage in dialogue Bush should offer to go to the University of Tehran and answer questions directly from the Iranian people. It is harder to demonize someone you see up close and personal. It is impossible to connect through  threats and rhetoric and condemnation delivered from great distances. Officials at Columbia should be praised for bringing Ahmadinejad to the University.

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