Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Who could have imagined that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would meet his match in the Ivy League?

After Official New York had treated the Iranian fruitcake like a visiting potentate, denying him a visit to Ground Zero only because of “security concerns,” a university president stood up to tell the piggish Mr. Ahmadinejad, the celebrated Holocaust denier, would-be destroyer of Israel and Public Enemy No. 1 in America, to crawl back under his rock. Security had nothing to do with it.

“Mr. President,” President Lee Bollinger of Columbia told him, “you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.” And how about this: “When you come to a place like [a university], it makes you simply ridiculous. The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history.” Or this: “You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.”

Mr. Bollinger may have felt under pressure from rich alumni after his brazenly provocative and astonishingly uneducated remarks earlier about his eagerness to invite Hitler to speak on campus, if only der fuehrer were not still dead. But whatever the why and the wherefore, he gave Mr. Ahmadinejad ample reason to wish that he had slept late in his suite at the Barclay. Such contempt is usually heard in the Ivy League only for George Bush, soldiers, Israel, churchgoing Christians and others with whom they have differences of opinion.

President Bush, smarting from the diplomatic necessity to allow Mr. Ahmadinejad into the United States, applauded the outcome at Columbia. His appearance on Morningside Heights “speaks volumes about the greatness of America,” and if Professor Bollinger considers Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit an educational experience, “I guess it’s OK with me.”

The invitation certainly smacked of showing off, and if Mr. Bollinger actually thinks inviting the “petty and cruel dictator” to lecture his students had anything to do with academic freedom, as he says it did, someone should keep the Columbia president in after school to explain the First Amendment and the concept of academic freedom. Mitch McConnell, the Republican senator from Kentucky, maybe.

“There’s a world of difference between not preventing Ahmadinejad from speaking and handing a megalomaniac a megaphone and a stage to use it,” he said.

Joe Lieberman, the independent Democrat senator from Connecticut, could tell him why the invitation was a sorry spectacle of misguided generosity. “He comes, literally, with blood on his hands.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad tried to smile through the introduction, but before long, a discerning observer could see smoke rising from his ears. When he finally got up to speak — to far more applause than the occasion actually required, diplomatic nicety or not — he clearly couldn’t believe how he had been treated. But he would rise above insult.

He didn’t take back his insistence that the Holocaust never happened, exactly, but he did “grant this happened.” Still, he has a duty to defend Holocaust deniers who have been prosecuted in Austria and Germany. “There’s nothing known as absolute,” he said, slyly. He repeated his desire to visit Ground Zero and dropped a hint as to why, invoking a popular refrain on our own Democratic loony fringe: “Why did this happen? What caused it? What conditions led to it? Who was truly involved? Who was really involved and put it all together?”

The famous Iranian medical researcher finally took a question about his regime’s treatment of homosexuals. The Iranian judiciary system merely executes violent criminals and high-level drug dealers, like doctors killing microbes in a Petri dish. “In Iran,” he said, “we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.”

Outside on a gorgeous early autumn afternoon, dozens of demonstrators who couldn’t get in the lecture hall linked arms and sang songs about peace, brotherhood and other good stuff. A two-piece jug band played riffs on the old Jimmie Davis campfire ballad, “You Are My Sunshine.” It clearly wasn’t about the visitor. The Ivy League, if only for a day, was tough.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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