There was a big struggle on Broadway yesterday. It was a collective attempt among U.S. citizens to figure out what exactly is meant by this freedom of speech they had heard so much about.
I was curious, too. So I asked people protesting a speech by Iran’s president at Columbia University whether they agreed with New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind’s statement that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "should be arrested when he comes to Columbia University, not speak at the university, for God’s sake."
About half gave an instinctive yes. Some recanted, either after talking themselves through the arrest scenario or having someone standing near them do so.
When one man said Ahmadinejad should be arrested "for crimes against humanity in Iran," an acquaintance disagreed.
"Arrest him for what? That’s not what this country’s about," said Stephen Detherage, an ironworker from Detroit who had worked at "Ground Zero" after 9/11. He had a U.S. flag bandana tied around his head. While he was for Ahmadinejad’s right to speak, that didn’t mean he liked him. "Islam is trouble," he said. The other man nodded and they were back on the same page.
As small circles of protesters chanted, "Don’t talk with terror" and "Free speech in Iran" and "Shame on Columbia," Nina Bursky-Tammam, 22, a student at New York’s Yeshiva University, told me, "There’s a limit to what people should be allowed to say. He’s just a terrorist."
When I asked her how he qualified as a terrorist, she said he wanted to destroy Israel.
"Does someone have to do something rather than say something in order to be a terrorist?" I asked.
"If he’s saying he wants to commit terrorist acts, doesn’t that make him a terrorist?" came her reply.
But her friend Talya Barth, a 22-year-old student at Queens College, referred to actions. She said in Iran one receives lashes 71, she had heard — for speaking against the government. If there’s no freedom of speech in Iran, why should we give him freedom of speech here? she wondered.
Many people had signs saying, "Hitler Lives?", with Ahmadinejad’s body torqued into a swastika. I’m noticing that ubiquitous caricatures of Ahmadinejad seem to dwell on those upturned eyebrows of his, whereas somehow Bush’s angled brows conveyed to people the utmost sincerity after 9/11 when he declared himself to be a "peace-loving guy."
Some of the Ahmadinejad sobriquets that I heard: "I’m-a-dick-in-the-head"; "I’m-mad-bi-jad"; "Ahmadi-jihad," and simply, "Ahmad-a-whatever the fuck his name is."
Moshe Grussgott, a rabbi at Ramath Orah, an Upper West Side synagogue, said, "He should be arrested. He wants to nuke Israel. This person is really an enemy."
When I asked if one could be arrested for wanting to do something, he amended his answer to say that Ahmadinejad is guilty of actions as well as words. His two main crimes are "supporting the insurgency in Iraq and killing Iraqi civilians" and "funding Hezbollah," Grussgott said.
Two new acquaintances who saw eye-to-eye were protesters David Zucker, a 30-year-old Manhattan attorney, and Colleen Barry, a small business owner from Great Neck, N.Y.
"We’re at war with (Ahmadinejad)," Zucker said. "It doesn’t make sense you would talk to him."
He was holding a sign with a color picture of a young, pretty girl. It said, "My name is Shiri Negari and I would like to speak at Columbia too, but I was murdered when Iran gave money to Hamas to blow up the bus I was on." He said he had e-mailed her family to ask about using the picture.
Zucker continued, "We can’t arrest as many as we’d like to, because the UN is here. If the UN weren’t here I’d have no problem with (arresting Ahmadinejad). … He’s actively murdering our boys and girls in Iraq. They have shrapnel in their backs and faces because of him."
Barry agreed. "He’s saying what I was going to say," she said.
When I asked what their evidence for this supply line was, Zucker said, "CNN," and Barry said, "General Petraeus." When I asked if there were credibility issues with the U.S. military after the Iraq War, she said, "I trust the military."
Assuming the supply story is true, does that mean the United States should be held accountable for all the uses to which the weapons they supply to the world are put? I wondered.
"That’s different," Barry said. "(Ahmadinejad) knows who the weapons are being used against."
The foreigners I talked to were not struggling with the idea of free speech so much as the fact that Americans seemed so resistant to it. "It’s very strange," said Jonathan Abranyos, 38, a physicist from Ethiopia. "I don’t understand this idea that, ‘I’m not going to talk to somebody I don’t like.’ It’s like kids."
Havovi Cooper, a Pakistani graduate student in journalism at Columbia, didn’t get it either. "Okay, (Ahmadinejad) is stupid, because he keeps provoking the U.S. and he doesn’t think about the consequences for his own people, but he’s not a terrorist. Which country has he bombed?"
Inside the gates the same struggle was going on, except that the battle was inside the head of Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger. In a talk before Ahmadinejad spoke, Bollinger praised his own commitment to free speech. Then he launched a preemptive strike on Ahmadinejad that, had he been addressing a U.S. instead of a foreign leader, might have concluded with him pinned to the floor yelling "Don’t Tase me, bro."
Bollinger was doing a good job heeding Assemblyman Hikind’s call on New Yorkers "to make the life of Ahmadinejad as he is in New York miserable."
In addition to calling Ahmadinejad "ridiculous" and a "cruel dictator," Bollinger launched a series of accusations at his guest speaker. "Your government is now undermining American troops in Iraq by funding, arming and providing safe transit to insurgent leaders," he said.
It was a common charge outside the gates as well among those who wanted Ahmadinejad either gagged or arrested.
Is freedom-of-speech really such a difficult concept to grasp? Or might it be that U.S. Americans are showing once again how susceptible they are to propaganda? Official demonization of Ahmadinejad, after all, has been in full-swing for quite awhile as the Administration prepares to make the case for another invasion (taking August off, of course, because "you don’t introduce new products in August," as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said five years ago of a different product, same fragrance.)
And can you fully blame the people, when what they see on TV and read in the paper are reporters who are paid to think critically about their government but who show no inclination to do so? I mean, I found it interesting upon visiting Beijing 13 years ago that I couldn’t find anyone who thought blood had been spilled at Tiananmen Square, but I can’t say I blamed individuals for believing what they read in the People’s Daily.
In a story in yesterday’s New York Times, Helene Cooper proves once again that the Times’s reporters have a hard time detaching themselves from admin propaganda. By most accounts Bush has espoused not a few bewildering ideas over the years, but that adjective would be reserved for the editorial page rather than a hard news story. Yet the second sentence of her news story editorialized about Ahmadinejad’s "bewildering thoughts."
She goes on to describe John Coatsworth, a university dean and moderator of the event, asking Ahmadinejad, " ‘Do you or your government seek the destruction of the state of Israel?’
"’We love all people,’ Mr. Ahmadinejad dodged."
Does Bush dodge questions at press conferences? Would a hard news story say, "Bush dodged"?
Reporters have already bought into the Ahmadinejad-as-mad-monkey narrative, and so there is no risk for them in getting silly with their reporting. Examples like this are run-of-the-mill; Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald has already done an excellent job of exposing the NYT’s Michael Gordon as an admin stooge. (The piece is here)
If we devoted the same attention to all of the world’s leaders, we could probably find dozens with views we would regard as objectionable or preposterous. But those views should have nothing to do with whether we bomb those countries.
Mike Hunter, an African-American hip-hop artist, sees right through the smoke. The fact that Ahmadinejad’s speech was so contested "shows you how draconian America has become," he said. "It’s propaganda. They want to create a despot so that they can have the American people behind them for an invasion."
A guy helping set up the evening shoot for the Fox TV crew declined to give his name but said, "It’s interesting how our government calls (Ahmadinejad) a terrorist"basically they should be shot sight unseen"and we’re letting him speak."
A few yards away, Hunter had a different notion of the word terrorist. "This country’s a terrorist to me," he explained. "They hung black people from the trees here in New York."
Meanwhile, a heated debate broke out between a couple students and Woodley Rosier, a 34-year-old Bronx security officer. "America’s the one that’s used nuclear weapons," Rosier said. "Why can’t (Iran) have it?"
Rosier was all for open communication. "The same way you negotiated with Stalin, why can’t you negotiate with him? Except Stalin did bad things. (Ahmadinejad) hasn’t done nothing wrong."
"Where do terrorists factor in here?" said one student.
"How can we learn if we don’t listen?" shouted Jacob Sabat, raising a fist in the air. In the other hand he held up a sign saying, "Free Speech in USA" on one side and "NeoCons are enemy number one" on the other. A beefy Fox employee kept him from holding it in the background of the broadcast.
"Everyone in America is walking around with blinders on," Hunter said. "You won’t be able to say anything in America pretty soon."
BRENDAN COONEY is an anthropologist living in New York City. He can be reached at: email@example.com