Point/Counterpoint

Stephen X. Flynn

Please excuse my World War II comparison, but what if Lawrence University had invited Adolf Hitler to its 1939-1940 convocation series? That would obviously be seen as a black mark on our institution’s history. I feared that result for Columbia University’s own when the university invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to address its student body at a prestigious university forum.
Free-speech advocates at Columbia and around the country defended Columbia’s controversial decision. The freedoms of speech and assembly are fundamental rights in this country, they argue, and I agree, but exercising freedom irresponsibly is the issue here.
President Ahmadinejad represents a country that allowed radical students to storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran 28 years ago, holding 63 Americans hostage for over a year. Iran backs a terrorist organization that was responsible for the bombing of a U.S. barracks in Lebanon, killing 241 American servicemen.
High-level military officials have accused the Iranian military of fanning the flames of insurgency in Iraq, and we can say for certain that the Iranian government has done nothing to prevent Iranian vigilantes from entering Iraq to help fight American forces.
Iran is also a country that doesn’t respect basic human rights. Earlier this year, eight student leaders of an anti-Ahmadinejad protest were sent to the notorious Evin Prison, Iran’s gulag where other political prisoners reside, such as Ahmad Batebi, a student protester who in 1999 bravely waved a blooded t-shirt representing his friend who was beaten by Iranian security forces. The image of that event circulated around the world, and Batebi is now serving a 10-year prison term, merely for challenging the Iranian censorship regime.
Allowing Ahmadinejad to address a forum at one of the great American universities in a way legitimizes his role as the leader of a country that epitomizes what America shouldn’t be. Columbia University president Lee Bollinger used the occasion to correctly identify Ahmadinejad as a “cruel and petty dictator,” but the Iranian president took advantage of the cynical student audience, receiving cheers and claps when he criticized United States policy in Iraq.
None of those cheering students and faculty were later arrested and sent to Guantanamo Bay; I suspect they didn’t fully understand how the Iranian regime would have treated the same kind of dissenting enthusiasm. Ahmadinejad shouldn’t be handed a legitimizing forum in the United States when the same forum wouldn’t be permitted in Iran.

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