Bret Stephens writes:
John Coatsworth, acting dean of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, made the remark that "if Hitler were in the United States and . . . if he were willing to engage in a debate and a discussion to be challenged by Columbia students and faculty, we would certainly invite him." This was by way of defending the university's decision to host a speech yesterday by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad….
[I]n hosting and perhaps debating Hitler, Columbia's faculty and students would not have been "confronting" him, much as they might have gulled themselves into believing they were. Hitler at Columbia would merely have been a man at a podium, offering his "ideas" on this or that, and not the master of a huge terror apparatus bearing down on you. To suggest that such an event amounts to a confrontation, or offers a perspective on reality, is a bit like suggesting that one "confronts" a wild animal by staring at it through its cage at a zoo.
There is also the question of just what ideas would be presented by Hitler at Mr. Coatsworth's hypothetical conference, and whether they would be an accurate reflection of his beliefs and intentions. In his 1933 speech, [German] Ambassador [Hans] Luther made the case for Hitler's "peaceful intentions" in Europe, according to historian Rafael Medoff. Millions of Europeans believed this right up to September 1939, just as millions of Americans did right up to December 1941.
Let's assume, however, that Hitler had used the occasion of his speech not just to dissimulate but to really air his mind, to give vent not just to Germany's historical grievances but to his own apocalyptic ambitions. In "Terror and Liberalism" (2003), Columbia alumnus Paul Berman observes the way in which prewar French socialists--keenly aware and totally opposed to Hitler's platform--nonetheless took the view that Germany had to be accommodated and that the real threat to peace came from their own "warmongers and arms manufacturers." This notion, Mr. Berman writes, rested in turn on a philosophical belief that "even the enemies of reason cannot be the enemies of reason. Even the unreasonable must be, in some fashion, reasonable."
So there is Adolf Hitler on our imagined stage, ranting about the soon-to-be-fulfilled destiny of the Aryan race. And his audience of outstanding Columbia men are mostly appalled, as they should be. But they are also engrossed, and curious, and if it occurs to some of them that the man should be arrested on the spot they don't say it. Nor do they ask, "How will we come to terms with his world?" Instead, they wonder how to make him see "reason," as reasonable people do.
In just a few years, some of these men will be rushing a beach at Normandy or caught in a firefight in the Ardennes. And the fact that their ideas were finer and better than Hitler's will have done nothing to keep them and millions of their countrymen from harm, and nothing to get them out of its way.