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(photo credit: AP [file])
There's an endearing moment in the movie The Incredibles when the superhero laments: "No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved, you know?"
The quote came to mind last week with the visit by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. The image that disconcertingly flashed in my head was not of the despotic Iranian president but of the late and (as far as I'm concerned unlamented) PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who stood at the podium with a gun and olive branch in 1974. So much for progress.
Skip to 2007: This time we had an arch-terrorist armed with a prototype nuclear weapon in one hand and a fig leaf in the other. The fig leaf came courtesy of Columbia University, of course, which invited Ahmadinejad in the name of academic freedom. The so-far free world should be more shocked by the statement by Dean John Coatsworth of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs that Columbia would have invited Adolf Hitler to speak than by anything the Iranian president said. It seems being "PC" is no longer just a matter of being politically correct but equally involves being "psychologically correct": taking the "let's talk about what's bothering you" approach instead of restraining a thug.
In a hostage situation , and the Western world is close to being the jihadists' hostage, you can send a police psychologist to talk nicely and try to end the stand-off without bloodshed, but if that fails you have to send in the SWAT team. Ahmadinejad will not be deterred by sweet talk any more than Hitler was mollified by the policy of appeasement. Just a few days before flying off to participate in the Columbia farce and the UN parley, the Iranian president was strutting his stuff at a military parade in Teheran where he announced: "Those [countries] who assume that decaying methods such as psychological war, political propaganda and the so-called economic sanctions would work and prevent IranÂ¹s fast drive toward progress are mistaken."
The guy definitely does not lack platforms for speaking his (unbalanced) mind. Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, insulted our intelligence as he insulted his guest, saying: "You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated."
It takes one to know one. Clearly Bollinger is not uneducated (no matter what alumni of rival universities might feel) so we are left with the impression that he, too, was provocatively trying to spark public debate for the sake of headlines rather than in a serious attempt to save the free world and its values.
As Prof. Shlomo Avineri, a Hebrew University political scientist and former Foreign Ministry director-general, noted on Israel Radio, it is far from certain that Columbia would have invited President George W. Bush to speak. But while much attention in Israel and elsewhere focused on Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia, we might have missed the point. The not-so-humble university is, after all, just that. An ivory tower. It has no policy-making power.
Not so the UN. That body also invited the Iranian president not as a publicity stunt, but as a world leader. It has been argued that it had no choice, given AhmadinejadÂ¹s official position as an elected head of state. But that just goes to show how ineffective and absurd the world body has become. Ahmadinejad, invited to such an august forum, could not be expected to turn it down, although it was hard to avoid the impression that despite his disappointment at not being permitted to visit Ground Zero (reminiscent of Arafat's trip to the Holocaust Museum?) he speedily sent an SMS to his mate Osama bin Laden with a "wish you were here"-style greeting. There is an inherent danger that Ahmadinejad's travels could grant him greater legitimacy. There is also a real risk that the more ridiculous he sounds (Iran has no homosexuals? Women have full rights? ThereÂ¹s a need to examine whether the Holocaust took place?) the less threatening he will seem and his rantings will be taken less seriously.
At the height of its popularity in 1996, Hahartzufim, the Israeli version of the Spitting Image satire show, was credited with changing the public perception in Israel of Yasser Arafat as a murderer. Familiarity, after all, breeds contempt. And the Iranian president, familiar with the ways of the West, is also full of contempt. Ahmadinejad has shaken off with a joke the UN's attempts to apply sanctions against him. Small wonder. Last year, shortly after hosting the infamous Holocaust-denial conference, supplying Hizbullah with the weapons it used in Lebanon II and vowing to wipe Israel (or the Zionist entity in his terms) off the map, he spoke to a rapt audience at the same UN General Assembly and addressed the Council of Foreign Relations. He narrowly missed out on a Columbia invite which was rescinded at the last minute. One year on, he can barely stop his smirk from spreading at every photo opportunity as he openly laughs at the world.
With all due respect to Ahmadinejad (nil), while he was in the US shooting off his mouth, here in Israel we were busy preparing for Succot and couldn't give him our undivided attention. Succot, The Feast of Tabernacles, recalls the 40 years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus and when your collective memory goes back that far it tends to give you a slightly different perspective of history. As they say in these parts, "Avarnu et par'o, na'avor gam et zeh" we got through Pharaoh, we'll get through this too. In the cinema world, a superhero could come crashing down and wipe out the bad guy before he could press the nuclear button. Wham! Bang! Crash!
In the real world, it is obviously more complicated. Even Mr. Incredible of the movie fame - and I'm not giving away much of the plot here - is forced to give up his global crime-busting career after a slew of lawsuits by the people he rescued. No wonder the film with its world-gone-mad sub-plot played in the background of my mind while I watched AhmadinejadÂ¹s performances. All last week we heard discussion of free speech and academic freedom. But our very freedom would become academic if Ahmadinejad had his way. The quote generally attributed to Voltaire is frequently invoked under these circumstances: "I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it."
Well, I'm not prepared to die for Ahmadinejad. Period. And the UN, whose mandate is to help preserve human rights and prevent war, should find a way to drop Ahmadinejad from next year's guest list before the Iranian president can drop anything of his own.
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