A tall man with white hair, wearing a US-flag print shirt and pants, patrolled the sidewalk at 116th and Broadway. He waved a huge American flag as he marched, in movements that were nearly metronomic in their consistency. Stacks of brochures sat on a bare and rickety table, waiting to be handed out to anyone who didn’t look away quickly enough. Bystanders stared.
I hadn’t been back to my former school almost since I graduated. Returning as an alumna of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), the school that sponsored Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s talk here on Monday, I felt the puff of pride that Columbia had not backed down in the face of media pressure. I also felt just a little bit cheated that it was happening now, when I was attending as an outsider, rather than the first time his talk had been announced, in 2006, when I was still a sleep-deprived student.
The police officers stationed in and around the university, beginning at the platform of the subway that I had taken to get there, looked at everyone suspiciously. Women in dark, severe suits monitored the entry of the press, taking signatures and examining credentials. Everywhere, people in uniforms directed the human traffic and at certain entrances demanded identification. Fliers lined the walkway to the main quadrangle and littered the brick paths. Students milled around the campus, talking excitedly in tight groups or listening to the speakers outside Low Library. Homemade placards offered silent counterpoint to some of the speeches delivered at the podium. “Ahmadinejad Is not Iran Just Like Bush Is not America,” said one. “We Say No to War on Iran,” proclaimed another. And a third, my favorite, in black paint on a wood sheet: “Free Speech for All, Even Douche Bags.”
Representatives of various organizations were eloquent in their denunciation of Ahmadinejad’s professed views on Israel and the treatment of women and homosexuals in Iran, yet many supported his right to speak at the university. Many declared that they had never felt prouder to be associated with Columbia. Some said that they had never felt more ashamed.
Matteen Mokalla, an Iranian-American student at SIPA studying the Middle East, spoke of the mood on campus. “Before the talk, the entire campus was electrified,” he said. “Everybody was talking about it. When we were standing in line, we joked, ‘Is this the line for the Rolling Stones?’ Because it felt like that.”
But that pride and excitement was tarnished by the opening remarks of Columbia President Lee Bollinger. In his statement, combative and unduly vicious, Bollinger accused his invited guest of being nothing more than a “petty and cruel dictator,” of having a “fanatical mindset.” He claimed that this exercise was valuable in knowing one’s enemies and understanding “the mind of evil.”
These words were prefaced by his describing the invitation to Ahmadinejad as the “right thing to do.” As abhorrent as Bollinger’s parroting of Bushisms is, the invite was the right thing to do. Not because the Iranian president has a right to share some of his more odious views but because of “our right to listen. We do it for ourselves.”