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Published: Wednesday, 9/26/2007

How to host a dictator

FREE speech is not free when expression is denied to those with disagreeable views. But that doesn't mean distasteful ideas must be allowed to stand unchallenged, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad found out on Monday when he delivered a speech at Columbia University in New York City.

Columbia President Lee Bollinger, who had come under intense pressure to rescind the school's invitation to Mr. Ahmadinejad, chose instead to chasten the Iranian president face-to-face as a "petty and cruel dictator," listing Iran's human rights abuses and calling his questioning of the Holocaust "absurd comments" in defiance of historical truth.

Mr. Ahmadinejad was taken aback, perhaps most of all because he is from the Middle East, where the treatment of guests is a matter of family honor. Indeed, Mr. Bollinger's introduction is not likely to play very well in many parts of the Muslim world, where Mr. Ahmadinejad is considered a hero by many for bracing the United States over the Iraq war, Iran's nuclear program, and other issues.

But, if that means people who already refuse to accept the reality of the Holocaust, want to wipe Israel from the map, deny that radical Muslims were behind the 9/11 attacks, and think Saddam Hussein was a hero will now view Americans as bad hosts - so be it.

What Mr. Bollinger, legal scholar, free-speech advocate, and former University of Michigan president, knew is that the best way to expose the fact that the emperor has no clothes is to parade him down the street.

Here's a sampling of what the Iranian president had to say at Columbia and later by videoconference with the National Press Club in Washington:

"Our people are the freest in the world The freest women in the world are women in Iran In our country, freedom is flowing at its highest level In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country For hundreds of years, we've lived in friendship and brotherhood with the people of Iraq."

Mr. Ahmadinejad also said there ought to be more research into "who truly was involved" in the 9/11 attacks and, while not specifically denying the Holocaust, suggested that it, too, was in need of further research.

Comments like these only served to prove what Mr. Bollinger said in his introduction - that Mr. Ahmadinejad is either "brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated." And even though the minds of true believers would not be changed by exposing the paucity of Mr. Ahmadinejad's ideas, Mr. Bollinger was correct when he told his guest that "when you come to a place like this, it makes you quite simply ridiculous."

By allowing the Iranian president to speak, Mr. Bollinger reaffirmed the United States' commitment to the very principles of freedom such petty dictators suppress in their own countries and allowed Mr. Ahmadinejad to display before Americans - and the rest of the world - just how bankrupt his views are.



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