Ahmadinejad to Visit Ground Zero, Speak at Columbia University

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is coming to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week, and plans to lay a wreath at Ground Zero and speak to students at Columbia University while here. This, not surprisingly, has caused quite an uproar.

The visit to the former site of the World Trade Center is, as one might expect, drawing the most attention. The presidential candidates are tripping over themselves, on a bipartisan basis, to denounce it.

Hillary Clinton:

It is unacceptable for Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who refuses to renounce and end his own country’s support of terrorism, to visit the site of the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil in our nation’s history.

Rudy Guiliani:

Under no circumstances should the N.Y.P.D. or any other American authority assist President Ahmadinejad in visiting Ground Zero. This is a man who has made threats against America and Israel, is harboring Bin Laden’s son and other al Qaeda leaders, is shipping arms to Iraqi insurgents and is pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. Assisting Ahmadinejad in touring Ground Zero — hallowed ground for all Americans — is outrageous.

Mitt Romney:

Ahmadinejad’s shockingly audacious request should be met with a vehement no. It’s inconceivable that any consideration would be given to the idea of entertaining the leader of a state sponsor of terror at ground zero. This would deeply offend the sensibilities of Americans from all corners of our nation. Instead of entertaining Ahmadinejad, we should be indicting him.

But he’s a sitting head of state visiting our country to address the world’s chief diplomatic body. On what basis would we arrest him?

Fred Thompson’s spokesman:

It is an insult to the memories of those who died on 9/11 at the hands of terrorists, and those who have fought terrorism for years, to allow the president of the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism to step foot at ground zero.

Either we have diplomatic relations with Iran, and allow its head of state to visit, or we don’t. But it’s rather silly to deny him access to public areas out of pique. As BooMan observes, “Maybe it is just a stunt to make [Ahmadinejad] look good. One thing is for sure…denying him the opportunity doesn’t make us look good.”

The safety angle is more reasonable:

A law enforcement source says the Iranian mission to the United Nations has informed the Secret Service that the Iranian president intends to visit Ground Zero Monday at 10 a.m. The source says regardless of the NYPD’s rejection of the request for a Ground Zero tour, Iran’s president and his entourage will be accompanied by a Secret Service protective detail, a detail provided to all heads of state when they visit the United States.


The request was rejected Wednesday afternoon in a meeting which included NYPD, Secret Service and Port Authority officials, who said the site is closed to visitors because of construction. They said requests for the Iranian president to visit the immediate area would also be opposed by the NYPD on security grounds.

Of course, the harranging by candidates and even our State Department spokesman, who echoed the “hallowed ground” line, makes it hard to sell as the primary rationale.

Meanwhile, Columbia University has invited Ahmadinejad to speak to its students in a forum that provides for a long Q&A, including some tough questions by university president Lee Bollinger.

    · the Iranian President’s denial of the Holocaust;

    · his public call for the destruction of the state of Israel;

    · his reported support for international terrorism that targets innocent civilians and American troops;

    · Iran’s pursuit of nuclear ambitions in opposition to international sanction;

    · his government’s widely documented suppression of civil society and particularly of women’s rights; and

    · his government’s imprisoning of journalists and scholars, including one of Columbia’s own alumni, Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh.

Scott Johnson sees this as an outrage.

Columbia and President Bollinger are a disgrace. They welcome to their campus a man who is a ringleader in the seizure of American hostages, a terrorist, the president of a terrorist regime, and the representative of a regime responsible at present for the deaths of American soldiers on the field of battle. Columbia’s prattle about free speech may be a tale told by an idiot, but it signifies something. And President Bollinger is a fool who is not excused from the dishonor he brings to his institution and his fellow citizens by the fact that he doesn’t know what he is doing.

Bollinger, though, posits that:

It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas, or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas. It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open the public forum to their voices. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible.

That such a forum could not take place on a university campus in Iran today sharpens the point of what we do here. To commit oneself to a life—and a civil society—prepared to examine critically all ideas arises from a deep faith in the myriad benefits of a long-term process of meeting bad beliefs with better beliefs and hateful words with wiser words. That faith in freedom has always been and remains today our nation’s most potent weapon against repressive regimes everywhere in the world. This is America at its best.

Indeed, highlighting Ahmadinejad’s crazy, evil ideas and forcing him to defend them is the most surefire way I can think of to make students throw off the silly notion that all regimes and ideas are equal.

UPDATE: Of course, as Dan Drezner points out, the idea of free and lively debate is becoming less popular in some academic circles.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Either we have diplomatic relations with Iran

    Er, we don’t have formal diplomatic relations with Iran, do we? Under the circumstances we’re required to allow him access to landing in the country, to some kind of accommodations, and to go to the UN but no more.

    However, I think it’s churlish to deny him access to the former site of the WTC if his intent, as has been claimed, is to pay his respects.

  2. Anderson says:

    Columbia’s prattle about free speech

    What a repulsive thing to write, and to think.

    Shouldn’t we be proud of what distinguishes us from Iran?

  3. Michael says:

    Is there any chance we can get that University of Florida student up to Columbia in time for the Q&A?

    I’m just saying, it’ll make for some good youtube video.

  4. legion says:

    No, you’re all missing the point – this is the administration’s latest Bold Step Forward. It’s not Iraq that was behind the 9-11 attacks, it was Iran.

    I say this jokingly, but it would not surprise me at all if one of the more egregiously stupid talking heads, like Glenn Beck or Tucker Carlson, were to actually try to float this before the visit…

  5. Jim Henley says:

    Does it violate the posting guidelines to call Scott Johnson a whiny little girl who can’t write for shit? Because if it does, I won’t say it.

  6. Alex Knapp says:

    It’s nice to see that our Presidential candidates are validating my cynicism that it’s better to “look tough” than to think strategically. As a country, we should be taking advantage of this opportunity to be gracious and welcoming hosts to Ahmadinejad. We should want him to enjoy his time here and enjoy the people that he meets. We should try to make him have second thoughts about what appears to be his belief about the U.S. being the Great Satan, not making him feel unwelcome, spitting on him, and basically making him feel justified in his hatred of Americans.

    One thing that I have learned in my life is that people are generally far more inclined to punch you in the face if you’re asshole than if you’re a nice guy.

  7. Anderson says:

    Also, ask yourself this: who is more likely to appear at Columbia and accept tough questions from the audience …

    … Ahmadinejad, or Bush?

    Indeed, not all regimes *are* equal.

  8. yetanotherjohn says:

    Contrast Columbia’s defense of freedom of speech with the University of California’s refusal to allow Summers to speak. While these are two different entities, it shows that tolerance seems to be extended more to those who bash America than those who dare question the politically correct positions.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    What Alex said. Also, might we think about hospitality?

  10. Resolved: This University will not fight for its ideals or its country.

    Let the debate begin…

  11. chiefpayne says:

    Hospitality is to allow him to visit this country, go straight to the UN to do his business and to leave unaccosted. We owe Ahmadinejad nothing more.

    We do not have relations with Iran…that sort of went away when they took over the embassy under Jimmy Carter. Now THEY are the ones sabre-rattling yet WE must be the good host and WE are the assholes? We owe him courtesy but NOT respect!

  12. Michael says:

    It is not the University’s job to fight for the country. It’s job is to provide an education to it’s students. I don’t see how allowing a foreign head of state to speak will diminish a student’s education, or how denying him would improve it.

    Hospitality is to allow him to visit this country, go straight to the UN to do his business and to leave unaccosted.

    That isn’t hospitality, that is something that we, being the host country for the UN, are obligated to do.

  13. Anderson says:

    Resolved: Scott Johnson has no clue about this country’s ideals. No debate needed.

  14. C.Wagener says:

    If students stormed the stage, as they did with the Minutemen, would there be serious consequences for those students? I’m guessing Columbia’s administration would be apoplectic and profusely apologising to Iran and the students would be expelled.

    It would be great if universities were serious about free speech, but time and time again they prove otherwise.

  15. carpeicthus says:

    As someone who actually has first-hand knowledge (am I allowed on a comments board?) and has actually seen foreign leaders from controversial national speak at Columbia, it is refreshing and surprising how frank and stark the questioning can be. Musharraf was raked over the coals in ways you just don’t get in public diplomacy. Obviously the best thing is for democracy to flower in Iran and everyone to get a pony, but otherwise the opportunity to confront Ahmadinejad’s wort ideas and make him defend them will be a fantastic opportunity.

  16. Kathy says:

    James, sometimes you really surprise me. This is an excellent post, but it’s a position I would not have predicted you would take. I agree with everything you wrote, but especially the part at the end about free and lively debate becoming less popular in some academic circles.

    This is such an important point. Universities are supposed to be places where controversial issues and people can be engaged and discussed. Scott’s post, in particular is a disgrace. If you can’t invite a man like Ahmadinejad to a university to defend his ideas against vigorous challenge, then where on earth CAN you do so?

    My daughter is a freshman at Barnard College; I am hoping to find out more about Ahmadinejad’s visit from her.

  17. Dale says:

    If it weren’t so dangerous for the unfortunate Secret Service Agents escorting him (Who’d they piss off?) I’d suggest giving him back the explosively for penetrators that his government seems to have lost in Iraq.

  18. “Either we have diplomatic relations with Iran, and allow its head of state to visit, or we don’t.”

    I don’t think we do have diplomatic relations with Iran. Iran’s president is coming to the U.N., not to the U.S. Since we’re the U.N.’s “host,” he gets a pass.

  19. Tano says:

    Maybe we can get beyond the stupidity of both sides by staging a debate at Columbia, between Ahmadinejad and Larry Summers.

  20. Anderson says:

    Maybe we can get beyond the stupidity of both sides by staging a debate at Columbia, between Ahmadinejad and Larry Summers.

    Maybe there would be more women science professors if they wore veils?

  21. Kori says:

    is there any possible way to get in for this speech? anybody selling the tickets? if yes, contact me via my email address. Thanks!

  22. Dan says:


    Just some FYI:

    WASHINGTON, Sept. 21 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — Friday

    Freedom’s Watch President Bradley A. Blakeman released a statement and a copy of the print advertisement it has requested to be run in the Monday edition of the New York Times.

    “Freedom’s Watch could not sit back and allow a terrorist to come to
    America masquerading as a world leader. We have an obligation to warn the
    world of the dangers of a nuclear Iran and to uncover the true intent, that
    being, the destruction of the United States and the State of Israel.

    Let’s be clear, Iran today kills American soldiers in Iraq and they will not stop
    there,” said Bradley A. Blakeman, President of Freedom’s Watch.

    The text of the advertisement follows:

    Ahmadinejad Is A Terrorist

    Columbia University is wrong to give him a platform.

    Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatens our nation and the
    freedoms we value. He has supported attacks on our soldiers and our allies.
    He should be treated as the terrorist that he is.

    Yet, while Columbia gives a terrorist like Ahmadinejad a platform to
    speak, they refuse to allow the ROTC on campus.

    What has happened to this prestigious university?

    People who support killing Americans are welcome. But the military that
    defends them is not.

    Columbia should be ashamed of its actions.

    Freedom’s Watch knows that America and the forces of freedom are right.
    We know the threat of terrorism is real. And we know Democracy must

    The terrorists and their appeasers are wrong.

    “And God willing, with the force of God behind it, we shall soon
    experience a world without the United States and Zionism.”
    — Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
    (CNN, 10/27/05)


    Thank You Freedom’s Watch For Taking A Stand For OUR Country And Troops!


    General David Betray Us

  23. Francisco R. says:

    From my point of view, i think its horrible to have a person like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in our country! We dont know anything about him, we dont know if he is coming here to investigate the American Land. We dont know is he is planning something agains us the Americans later on in the furture! I think Colombia is doing wrong accepting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has never done nothing for us, nothing!