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Commentary: Columbia Does the Right Thing with Ahmadinejad

Saturday, September 22, 2007

New Yorkers are choosing up sides over Columbia University’s plan to hold a forum on Monday with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. WNYC’s Brian Lehrer says in his opinion, Columbia is doing the right thing.

Full disclosure: I’m a Columbia alum. That said, here are five reasons why the forum is for the good:

The biggest reason? Ahmadinejad has agreed to subject himself to questions for half the event. He doesn’t do that in Iran. Columbia President Lee Bollinger will begin the questioning himself with what he calls “a series of sharp challenges.” The world will see a free society at work, where demagogues get exposed.

Reason Two: Columbia is using the forum to kick off a series of lectures about Iran. This serves an educational purpose, Columbia’s primary mission. The students will benefit from seeing Ahmadinejad then others deconstruct and contextualize him. Denying students the opportunity would prepare them less, not more, for life in the real world.

Three. Some people ask, “Would you have let Hitler debate whether there should be a Holocaust?” Actually, I wish there would have been the chance. Most people learned about the Holocaust after the fact. If Hitler had to defend the plan, maybe global outrage would have stopped or lessened it. What happened without that debate certainly could not have been worse.

Four: Are we so insecure about the wrongheadedness of Islamist extremism or Holocaust denial that we think they can’t be discredited in debate? To Ahmadinejad’s core supporters, he would win just as many points by being denied the forum as for anything he says in it. For everyone else, I can’t wait to see the YouTube videos that’ll be posted for all the world to see of Ahmadinejad evading the specific questions from the Columbia crowd.

And Five. The United States stands to look strong, not weak, by showing the world our values: seeking truth and accountability based on FREEDOM of speech, not denial of speech. Denial, as we know, is Ahmadinejad’s claim to fame.

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