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Candide's Noteboooks

Ahmadinejad Does New York

Pierre Tristam

In an interview with the BBC's Newsnight in 2006, Philip Roth was asked about 9/11 and the Bush administration. This was his answer: "This I think criminal administration has hijacked the event to bankrupt the country financially, to go to war needlessly. What could be more criminal than that? To destroy every social program they possibly could that gave aid and comfort to people in need. To make lying, which is only half of politics, 90 percent of politics, to alienate America from most of the world, to utterly destroy whatever moral prestige America still had. It's hardly a pure country, but there were things it stood for that were pretty good, but that's utterly destroyed, so now the president of Iran can write a letter to the president of the United States, and when I read it, I shake my head in agreement with this monster. This monster writes a letter to our monster, and I think the other monster has some points to make, you know? So it's a catastrophe."

I wonder how many of the protesters attending Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's talk at Columbia University on September 24 had the courage to see event from that perspective. That's not to say that Ahmadinejad isn't outrageous, that he doesn't abide the fanatic's follies: you needed only hear what he had to say about homosexuals, who apparently don't exist in Iran (Ahmadinejad having killed them all), to see that he has a couple of screws loose in his smiley face. But when it comes to loosened screws, can he really compete with the Bush junta?

Do I mean to say that Bush is a man as dangerous as Ahmadinejad? Am I making that relativist leap? No. Of course not. What I am saying is that Bush not only is a more dangerous man than Ahmadinejad has ever managed to be, but that Bush has the record to prove it. Ahmadinejad is all bluster where Bush is all bombs. Ahmadinejad is all bombast and posturing where Bush is actual hubris in action, with Iraq physically and socially demolished by his doing (and in ways even Saddam Hussein hadn't managed) and the United States fiscally and constitutionally demolished. As for stupid statements like Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial, it's not as if Bush's I'm-on-a-mission-from-God rhetoric is any less stupid, although it has been a lot more destructive than any denying on Ahmadinejad's part.

Philip Roth was right: for all of Ahmadinejad's stupid statements, half or more of which are mistranslated anyway, you hear what he says, and you have to shake your head and agree with his monstrosities, because we have a monster of our own we've been dealing with. Even before getting that far into the debate oover Ahmadinejad's words, it's utterly stupid to debate whether he should or should not be making appearances on a university campus in New York. Why should he not? He was invited (to Columbia's credit), then insulted (not to Columbia's, nor to Columbia University president Lee Bollinger's credit). "In Iran, tradition requires that when we invite a person to be a speaker, we actually respect our students and the professors by allowing them to make their own judgment" Ahmadinejad said through a translator, "And we don't think it's necessary before the speech is even given to come in with a series of claims and to attempt to provide a vaccination of sorts to our faculty and students." What's there to disagree with?

But even assuming that Ahmadinejad was the enemy (which, incidentally, he is not: the very Americans who call him a terrorist don't mind gassing up on Iranian petroleum products, even if the United States doesn't buy directly from Iran), that's only more reason to speak with him face to face, not less, or at least to hear him out. The guy had the guts to submit to open questions from a hostile university and New York audience. When's the last time George W. Bush had that courage? Bush never goes within a mile of an audience that hasn't been filtered, interrogated, pre-screened and pre-judged by his goons. Yet here was Ahmadinejad knowingly entering the maw of the dragon, as far as he was concerned, and taking questions.

Under international law he had the right to travel within twenty-five miles of the heart of Manhattan. He spoke of his wish to go to Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. An insult to some, maybe, although nothing Ronald Reagan fans should be unfamiliar with, Bitburg-wise: Reagan, remember, visited the German military cemetery near Bitburg to lay wreaths on the graves of American and German soldiers even though Eli Wiesel and a few hundred thousand others had implored him not to do that at Bitburg, where SS soldiers were also buried. Now the New York City Police Department is taking it on itself to act like the enforcer of international law, making it plain that it wouldn't allow Ahmanidejad to visit Ground Zero.

Tough guys, those NYPD cops. They don't know what they're missing. They'd feel right at home as enforcers of Ahmadinejadism in Iran.

Pierre Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at or through his personal Web site at .

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