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Dinner with Ahmadinejad

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

The Columbia Spectator is the student newspaper at Columbia University, the school I was once proud to call my alma mater. A report in that newspaper raises the following question: Are leading American universities producing moral illiterates?

According to the Spectator, a group of students who are members of the Columbia International Relations Council and Association has been invited to attend a private dinner with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he travels to New York for the United Nations General Assembly meeting next week. A student spokesman for the group, when asked whether the invitation had provoked controversy within CIRCA, seemed surprised by the question. "Everyone was really enthusiastic," said Tim Chan. "They're thrilled to have this opportunity."

Ahmadinejad represents everything that campus liberals profess to hate. In order of importance, those things would be: 1) persecuting homosexuals; 2) cruel and abusive treatment of women; 3) brutal treatment of minorities; 4) shooting opponents of the regime in the streets; 5) restricting free speech; 6) building nuclear weapons; and 7) sponsoring terror worldwide. Tehran provides materiel and moral support for Bashar Assad's murderous regime in Syria, which has mowed down protesters by the thousands in the past few months. The Iranian regime is also guilty of fetid anti-Semitism and has the blood of many American soldiers who served in Iraq on its hands -- though it isn't clear that the latter two offenses rate very highly with Columbia students.

Even as members of CIRCA were eagerly anticipating dining with one of the world's true fiends, the Iranian government was refusing to release American hikers Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, who recently were convicted of espionage after a secret trial and sentenced to eight years in prison. Both Bauer and Fattal are graduates of the University of California, Berkeley and believers -- if you can extrapolate from their backgrounds in "sustainable development" and freelance photography for leftist outlets, such as Democracy Now! -- in liberal causes. Even if members of CIRCA feel no particular solidarity with the hikers as fellow Americans, they might at least feel something for fellow members of the liberal clerisy. But apparently not.

College students are old enough to be responsible for their own moral decision-making, but the faculty and administration of Columbia University certainly provided an appalling example in 2007, when they invited Ahmadinejad to speak. Oh, the university's president, Lee Bollinger, tried to quash some of the controversy the invitation had sparked by calling Ahmadinejad a "cruel dictator" to his face. But those insults only made Bollinger seem an ungracious host and did little to mitigate the damage that issuing the invitation in the first place had done to Columbia's reputation. The invitation, Bollinger insisted, arose out of Columbia's "almost single-minded commitment to pursue the truth." Simple-minded might be closer to the mark. As for truth, how exactly does offering the prestigious forum of a famed university to a Holocaust denier advance the search for truth?

There is a world of difference between tolerating and respecting differences of opinion within a university (notably absent when it comes to conservative ideas, by the way) and tolerating actual despots with the blood of innocents on their hands. Ahmadinejad's regime has presided over executions of young homosexuals. Two were hanged in a public square just 24 months before Ahmadinejad stepped to a podium at Columbia. Here is how Human Rights Watch describes the current situation:

Since Iran's crackdown against anti-government protests resulting from the 2009 presidential election, the human rights crisis in the country has only deepened. Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about the broad-based targeting of civil society activists, including lawyers, students, women's rights activists and journalists, and a sharp increase in the use of the death penalty. Yet the government's record of cooperation with international institutions, particularly with U.N. mechanisms, remains extremely poor.

Something is inoculating Ahmadinejad from the total contempt members of the university community would ordinarily feel toward someone with his views and his behavior. It is impossible, for example, to imagine the university inviting fellow Holocaust denier and racist David Duke to speak to the students and faculty. And it's equally impossible to imagine that students would be "thrilled" by a dinner invitation from the Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church.

My suspicion is that the harshly adversarial pose of the university toward American society and culture leads to a misplaced benefit of the doubt toward enemies of this country. It is Ahmadinejad's very hatred of the U.S. that makes him intriguing to Columbia.


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