Rules must be applied equally

Editorial

It’s easy to understand the large protests that greeted Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s long-anticipated speech Monday at Columbia University, less easy to understand those who tried to stop the event or who even want to punish Columbia for holding it.

The New York Sun reported on efforts by the Democratic state Assembly speaker of New York to withhold public funds from the university for offering an official invitation to the Iranian leader.

We’re always for cutting government funding from any institution, yet this threatened action shows the degree to which some politicians went to try to squelch Ahmadinejad’s speech.

It was more instructive and entertaining to listen to him answer some rather direct questions from the Columbia audience. After the Iranian leader was asked about unequal treatment of women and about executions of homosexuals in Iran, Ahmadinejad rambled on about the importance of capital punishment in dealing with drug dealers and hardened criminals.

When pressed about treatment of gays, he sparked widespread laughter when he said, through an interpreter: “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that like in your country. … In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have this.”

He was asked whether his regime wanted to eliminate the state of Israel. He refused to answer directly, saying: “Our proposal to the Palestinian plight is a humanitarian and a democratic proposal. What we say is that to solve this 60-year problem, we must allow the Palestinian people to decide about its future for itself.”

The apparent translation: Iran wants a direct vote from all those living in Israel and its territories to vote on the country’s future, which, given the demographic reality, would mean the end of the Jewish state.

Ahmadinejad was pressed about his reported Holocaust denial, yet he again rambled on ridiculously, arguing that there’s a need for “more research” into the Holocaust, as if there is any question about the death camps and other atrocities.

Clearly, there is no threat to America in giving Ahmadinejad — or any leader of any country, no matter how noxious — a podium and a chance to answer questions. It’s quite illuminating, especially for college students. This was, after all, a university event. Ahmadinejad could be charming, and he did — as would anyone — make some reasonable points, although they were surprisingly few in number. He was cheered at times, but he also was booed and laughed at.

Columbia President Lee Bollinger called him a “petty and cruel dictator,” which we assume is not something he hears much of in Iran. He got a good taste of America and its emphasis on open and unfettered political debates, and Americans got to hear Islamic radicalism presented in the words of one of its leading practitioners.

Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton told Fox News that Ahmadinejad “spoke in a forum no American will ever get in Iran, and I think it’s a sad commentary.”

That’s the point, though, isn’t it? No American would get such a forum there, but an Iranian can get a forum here. That’s not a sad commentary, but a wonderful one.

Bolton worried that this forum would help legitimize Ahmadinejad’s message, but news reports before the speech showed that, in much of the Middle East, Ahmadinejad already is highly regarded for his willingness to stand up to the Great Satan.

It’s far better to allow Americans to hear him in his own words, and by doing so upholding the ideals upon which this nation was founded. A tradition of free and open debate is of little value if that tradition doesn’t apply to those whose views are considered noxious and bizarre.