Columbia to be punished for hosting the new Hitler enemy

The behavior of our media and political institutions toward Ahmadinejad demonstrates that nothing really has changed since 2002.

By Glenn Greenwald
Published September 24, 2007 7:05PM (UTC)
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All of the hysteria over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speaking at Columbia University is so tiresome for so many reasons, beginning with the fact that it is all rather transparently motivated by exactly what Juan Cole says: "The real reason his visit is controversial is that the American right has decided the United States needs to go to war against Iran. Ahmadinejad is therefore being configured as an enemy head of state."

In their minds, we are at war with Iran -- even though, in reality, i.e., according to our Constitution, we are not -- and all of the ensuing hysteria is rooted in the fantasy world they occupy in which Iran is our Enemy at War. By their nature, such fantasies cannot be reasoned with.


This desire to prevent people from speaking when they express views that one finds offensive is just always baffling. That is true in general, and includes even pettier though still inane suppression efforts such as this one, which recently resulted in the recission of an invitation to Larry Summers to speak at an event for the University of California regents. Other than converting the individual into a martyr and dramatically elevating their importance, what do people think is accomplished when a person with a certain viewpoint is denied a forum?

In any event, there is not much new worth saying about the "debate" over whether Columbia should have invited Ahmadinejad to speak. People either believe in the value of having academic institutions be a venue for airing all viewpoints or they do not.

Exactly as is true for the First Amendment, it is so often the case that those who claim to believe in this principle when it comes to ideas they like suddenly find all sorts of reasons why the "principle" does not apply when it comes to ideas they hate most. And -- as is true for Osama bin Laden -- nobody has done more to inflate the importance and power of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who, just by the way, is not even the leader of Iran, let alone the WorldWide Evil Axis of Hitlerian Dictators) than those who have focused on him obsessively.


But what is new, and what most certainly is worth commenting upon, is this extremely disturbing report from The New York Sun regarding the threats made by Democratic State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to use state power to punish Columbia for inviting a speaker whom Silver dislikes. Silver -- who, among other things, has long been a leader in efforts to free convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard from prison -- did not even bother to disguise the threats he was making:

As the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, prepares to address Columbia University today amid a storm of student protest, state and city lawmakers say they are considering withholding public funds from the school to protest its decision to invite the leader to campus.

In an interview with The New York Sun, the speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, said lawmakers, outraged over Columbia's insistence on allowing the Iranian president to speak at its World Leaders Forum, would consider reducing capital aid and other financial assistance to the school.

Lawmakers warned about other consequences for Columbia and its president, Lee Bollinger, who has resisted campus and public pressure to cancel Mr. Ahmadinejad's appearance today, arguing that Columbia's commitment to scholarship requires the school to directly confront offensive ideas.

"There are issues that Columbia may have before us that obviously this cavalier attitude would be something that people would recall," Mr. Silver said. "Obviously, there's some degree of capital support that has been provided to Columbia in the past. These are things people might take a different view of . . . knowing that this is that kind of an institution" . . .

"It's not going to go away just because this episode ends. Columbia University has to know . . . that they will be penalized," an assemblyman of Brooklyn, Dov Hikind, who also attended the rally, said. The lawmaker said Mr. Ahmadinejad should be arrested when he sets foot on campus.

Silver sounds like two-bit hooligan making not-so-veiled threats to Columbia ("Obviously, there's some degree of capital support that has been provided to Columbia in the past. These are things people might take a different view of") for committing the crime of inviting a speaker whom Silver finds offensive. Is there anyone who fails to see how dangerous and improper this is -- not to mention unconstitutional -- that government officials threaten and punish universities for hosting speakers whom the officials dislike? Do we want our universities to be able to provide speaking venues only to individuals who are approved by the likes of Sheldon Silver and Dov Hikind?

What this really illustrates more than anything else is the true danger to our national character and basic liberties from being in a permanent state of war fighting. When we become a society that just leaps from one New Ultimate Hitler Enemy Who Must Be Destroyed to the next, we ensure that all of our political values and institutions become infected by this bloodthirsty mentality. When we have one Enemy after the next to annihilate, who really cares about dreary luxuries like due process or restraints on government power or the First Amendment? Saddam/binLaden/Ahemdinijad/Assad is Evil, a Hitler, and all power must be vested without limits in our Leaders so they can destroy him/them.


Along those same lines, this "interview" of Ahmadinejad by Scott Pelley of "60 Minutes" has to be read to be believed. As Ezra Klein says: "Pelley declined to interview Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and instead popped off aggressive statements as if he were a White House press release with a cardiovascular system."

It would be perfectly appropriate for Pelley to pose aggressive and challenging questions to Ahmadinejad. That is actually what reporters in general are supposed to do when questioning any government officials, not merely the Foreign Muslim Enemy du Jour. Fathom how elevated our political discourse would be if "reporters" like Pelley were even a fraction as adversarial and challenging when interviewing Bush officials as Pelley was when yelling at Ahmadinejad.


But Pelley did not question him so much as make a series of highly dubious war-fueling statements as fact. And far more revealing than Pelley's tone were the premises of his "questions" -- ones which blindly assumed every accusation of the Bush administration towards Iran to be true -- such as these:

PELLEY: Sir, what were you thinking? The World Trade Center site is the most sensitive place in the American heart, and you must have known that visiting there would be insulting to many, many Americans.

AHMADINEJAD: Why should it be insulting?

PELLEY: Well, sir, you're the head of government of an Islamist state that the United States government says is a major exporter of terrorism around the world. . . .

PELLEY: But the American people, sir, believe that your country is a terrorist nation, exporting terrorism in the world. You must have known that visiting the World Trade Center site would infuriate many Americans, as if to be mocking the American people.

AHMADINEJAD: Well, I'm amazed. How can you speak for the whole of the American nation?

PELLEY: Well, the American nation . . .

PELLEY: Mr. President, you say that the two nations are very close to one another, but it is an established fact now that Iranian bombs and Iranian know-how are killing Americans in Iraq. You have American blood on your hands. Why?

AHMADINEJAD: Well, this is what the American officials are saying. . . .

PELLEY: Mr. President, American men and women are being killed by your weapons in Iraq. You know this.

AHMADINEJAD: No, no, no.

PELLEY: Why are those weapons there?

AHMADINEJAD: Who's saying that?

PELLEY: The American Army has captured Iranian missiles in Iraq. The critical elements of the explosively formed penetrator bombs that are killing so many people are coming from Iran. There's no doubt about that anymore. The denials are no longer credible, sir. . . .

AHMADINEJAD: Very good. If I may. Are you an American politician? Am I to look at you as an American politician or a reporter? . . . .

PELLEY: Mr. President, you must have rejoiced more than anyone when Saddam Hussein fell. You owe President Bush. This is one of the best things that's ever happened to your country.

Scott Pelley wants Ahmadinejad to know that -- like all of us -- he "owes President Bush." Almost every word out of Pelley's mouth was a faithful recitation of the accusations made by the Bush White House. Ahmadinejad obviously does not watch much American news because he seemed genuinely surprised that someone he thought was a reporter was doing nothing other than reciting the script of the government.

Apparently, among the American press now, it is unchallengably true that the Iranian Government has the Blood of American Soliders on its hands and is a "terrorist state." I guess our "journalists" have decided that "only a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman -- could conclude otherwise." After all, even the left-wing Michael Gordon and the NYT admit this, and they couldn't be wrong about such matters.


And besides, our Top Military Commanders in Iraq are making these accusations, and we all just learned last week from Our Senate that we must never question "the honor and integrity . . . of members of the United States Armed Forces." Our media, of course, has been diligently following that Rule for many, many years.

Skepticism of government officials? Media objectivity? First Amendment freedoms? Due Process and Habeas Corpus and diplomacy? Ahmadinejad is Hitler, Our Enemy, and We are at War -- with him and forever. That's all we really need to know.

Glenn Greenwald

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