Last week I came face to face with evil, as I stood just a few feet away from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We were both staying in the same hotel in Geneva. He was there to be the opening speaker at Durban II, a review and reprise of Durban I, the United Nations sponsored conference on racism that had turned into a racist hate fest against the Jewish people and the Jewish state. I was there—along with Elie Wiesel, Irwin Cotler and others who have devoted their lives to combating bigotry—to try to prevent a recurrence of Durban I.
I first set eyes on Ahmadinejad when he walked into the hotel and waved in the general direction of where my wife and I were standing. We looked back contemptuously as my wife let out an audible hiss. He was about to be welcomed to Geneva by the Swiss President who made a special visit to the hotel in order to greet a man who denies the Holocaust while threatening another one, this time with nuclear weapons.
When the Swiss President was widely criticized for his warm and uncritical embrace of one of the worlds most evil and dangerous tyrants, he offered two justifications. First, because Switzerland was the host nation for the conference, he was obliged, as the president of the host nation, to greet a fellow head of state. This is patent nonsense. American presidents do not greet heads of states invited by the United Nations, unless they have also been invited by the United States. No American president has greeted Ahmadinejad when he spoke at the UN. Nor would President Obama—certainly without publicly and privately expressing disdain for his bigoted and dangerous views.
This leads to the Swiss President’s second purported justification, namely that Switzerland represents the United States interests in dealing with Iran, with whom it has no formal diplomatic relations. In other words, when the president of Switzerland extended a hand to Ahmadinejad, it was not only the hand of Switzerland, but also the hand of the United States. This too is nonsense compounded by overreaching. The United States had no interest in extending a hand of legitimacy to Ahmadinejad. Indeed the Obama government—along with many other democratic governments—refused to legitimate this conference by its attendance. Other democracies, which chose to attend, publicly walked out of Ahmadinejad's bigoted tirade.
The Swiss president had no authority or right to act on behalf of the United States in the way that he did. The US should find another government—one that understands the difference between good and evil and knows how to confront the latter—to represent it in its dealings with Iran. By his craven actions, the Swiss president has disqualified himself from serving in this important role. Neutrality should not be confused with legitimating evil and being complicit with bigotry, as the Swiss have been guilty of since they served as Hitler’s banker during World War II.
Not only did the Swiss president legitimate, the Swiss security services protected him from the media. It was certainly appropriate for security to protect Ahmadinejad from physical threats, but they also sought to protect him from being embarrassed by difficult questions from the press, as evidenced by the following incident.
A bank of television cameras and reporters were waiting to interview Ahmadinejad’s after his meeting with the Swiss president. He was still in the meeting, and so I approached the reporters and suggested that they put several specific questions to him. The press was anxious to hear from me, but the security services physically removed me from the hotel, even though Ahmadinejad was nowhere to be seen.
My second encounter with evil occurred on the day of Ahmadinejad’s speech. We, who were there to respond to Ahmadinejad’s bigotry, were told that we could listen to his speech in a special room set aside for those who could not enter the actual room in which he was speaking. Several hundred people watched on a television screen as he walked up to the podium to rousing applause by many of the delegates. But the UN purposely decided not to translate his speech into English. All other speeches were translated but we were required to listen to Ahmadinejad in Farci. I complained that the right of free speech goes both ways: it not only includes Ahmadinejad’s right to express his horrendous opinions, it also includes his critics’ right to listen to his words so that we can rebut them in the marketplace of ideas. When the UN authorities refused to translate his speech, I led a walkout from the overflow room toward the room in which he was speaking. I entered the room and took a seat several rows away from where he expressed some of the most horrendous views I had ever heard. To their credit, many of the European delegates walked out in disgust. I joined them, urging other delegates to leave as well and telling them that “silence in the face of evil is complicity.” But most of the delegates remained and applauded Ahmadinejad when he made his extreme statements calling not only for the end of Israel but the end of all liberal democracies around the world.
It was then that I understood better how Hitler had come to power. Hitler rose to a position where he could commit genocide not as the result of anti-Semites, but rather because otherwise decent people put their own self interests before the need to condemn his bigotry. As Edmund Burke observed many years ago, “all that is required for evil to succeed is for good men [and women] to remain silent.” In that room, on that day, I came face to face with Ahmadinejad’s evil. I expected that, but I also came face to face with a different kind of evil: the evil of a president of a great nation extending a hand of friendship to Ahmadinejad; and the evil of delegates of many nations applauding some of the most bigoted statements ever uttered from a United Nations lectern.
In the end, the forces of hate and bigotry were confronted by students, professors and political figures who stood against Ahmadinejad and everything he represents. Ahmadinejad and the conference that reflected his world view lost this round, but the battle against bigotry never stays won.