So Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is forbidden by the United States to visit Ground Zero. Iran's president is to address the United Nations tomorrow, and while in New York, he had hoped to go to the World Trade Center site, as so many visitors do. New York authorities, together with the US State Department, said no. The prohibition was seconded by Hillary Clinton - she called the idea "unacceptable" - and by Rudy Giuliani, who blasted Ahmadinejad for his "threats against America and Israel."
What else might have happened here? Ahmadinejad is notorious for having denied the Holocaust, threatened Israel, and demonized America. He is also the elected president of a nation that stands, together with the United States, on the edge of an abyss. Does this action move us back from that edge, or closer to it?
No one can visit the World Trade Center site, even as construction daily transforms it, without a vivid sense of the staggering tragedy that took place there. Indeed, the event transcends mundane boundaries, even including old conflicts. In the days after Sep. 11, 2001, one of the first nations to express compassion for American pain was Iran. Then-President Mohammed Khatami, in an interview with CNN, sent, as he said, "deepest condolences to the nation of America and . . . sorrow for the tragic event of September 11. What occurred was a disaster . . . the ugliest form of terrorism ever seen."
The scorched acreage at what was quickly dubbed "Ground Zero" was, at first, a wound inflicted on the human family. All over the globe, especially through that constantly rebroadcast television footage, people experienced what had happened in New York as happening to them. One fact long gone down the memory hole is that, when the United States launched its military campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Tehran was supportive. The old enmity had been transcended, precisely, by the hurt that Iranians, too, felt after Sept. 11. "I would also like to add," Khatami told CNN that fall, "that the Americans were not the only ones who suffered." In that suffering, most of the world was united.
Ahmadinejad is no Khatami, but the United States has steadily treated Iran as if it is only an enemy. Today's rebuff to the current president is of a piece with a long history of omni-political denigration aimed at Tehran. After all, it was when the reform-minded Khatami was Iran's leader that George W. Bush, in 2002, hung that nation on the "Axis of Evil." Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia University, scheduled for today, has generated fierce controversy, but even when it was Khatami visiting Harvard a year ago, then-Governor Mitt Romney ordered state authorities to have nothing to do with protecting his security.
The extremist Ahmadinejad rode to power on Iranian reactions to the steady insult from America. This new insult reinforces him at home, just as moderate, relatively pro-Western opposition forces are jelling there. (One week ago, Ahmadinejad's chief rival, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was elected speaker of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that oversees Iran's Supreme Leader.)
It was George W. Bush who transformed Ground Zero from a site toward which the world looked with empathy for American pain into a hypernationalistic symbol of a singularly American victimhood. Sept. 11, 2001, became our wound alone, and New York's ravaged precinct became a restricted preserve, as global sympathy for the United States curdled into fear of it.
What if, instead of shunting Ahmadinejad aside as one unworthy to enter the sanctuary of our national trauma, we Americans had said, "Yes - stand here with us. Look at what threatens the universal future if we do not find other ways to relate to each other than with contempt. Relive that horrible September morning with us, when the rank evil of terrorism showed itself with such clarity that the human family, decidedly including the Iranian nation, stood together against it. Let solidarity be the meaning of this place."
If Americans, across the political divide, are still too traumatized by what Ground Zero memorializes to contemplate such a stance, it is because Osama bin Laden's crime remains unadjudicated. Bin Laden still at large, releasing videos, inspiring legions, is the living emblem of American paralysis.
Here is George Bush's most grievous failure: Instead of enabling his nation to reckon with the blow of Sept. 11, and move on from it, he has worsened that anguish immeasurably. Yes, Ground Zero is a holy place, but Bush is the one who desecrates it.