Most, if not all, of the derogatory things Lee Bollinger said about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were indisputable. Nonetheless, the decision to let Ahmadinejad speak -- and answer questions from students -- at Columbia University was a refreshing exercise in democracy.
Bollinger, Columbia's president, ushered Ahmadinejad onto the stage with a scathing introduction, accusing him of behaving like a "petty and cruel dictator." Bollinger also took aim at Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust, saying it might fool the the illiterate and ignorant, but "when you come to a place like this, it makes you simply ridiculous."
While Bollinger might be accused of being the ungracious host with his hour-long harangue, Ahmadinejad was overdue for the sort of criticism that would not be permitted in his own country. Furthermore, his country is supplying Iraqi dissidents with material to make roadside bombs; arresting foreigners in his country on trumped-up charges of preaching revolution; developing a nuclear program despite U.N. sanctions; and generally tamping down dissent and denying basic rights to the people of Iran.
But the invitation to Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia was a demonstration that we do things differently in the United States, where freedom of speech is an inalienable right even for scoundrels. The occasion also exemplified the difference between nations that nurture academic freedom and those that never would allow students to engage in such open discussion.
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The students did not shy away from asking tough questions about the Holocaust denial, about oppression of women in Iran, about Ahmadinejad's questioning whether al-Qaida was responsible for the 9-11 attacks and about the execution of homosexuals in Iran. His answer to the latter question -- "We do not have homosexuals like in your country" -- drew derisive hoots from the audience.
Ahmadinejad was given a chance to defend the indefensible. And if he had thought beforehand that he might win friends with his performance, he must have regretted his miscalculation.
Denying him a chance to speak merely would have given him the mantle of martyrdom. So, he was allowed to rant. And those who listened were allowed to challenge what he said and mock his transparent lies.
After all, it's the American way.
Allowing Iranian president to speak at Columbia was a demonstration of democratic values.