This morning I was bombarded by a series of phone calls from the press. Breathlessly, they all asked how I felt about Ahmandinejad, the president of Iran, visiting Ground Zero.
Wasn't I outraged?
Didn't I want to protest such a flagrant act of disrespect by this world outcast toward one of our country's most sacred sites?
How could a "terrorist leader on the level of UBL" have the audacity to visit Ground Zero?
By the third call before 9 a.m. I was fairly irritated. Mostly because the only news show that has made any real effort to get the American people to better understand Iran is The Today Show, which sent Matt Lauer to Tehran last week. (Incidentally, we should all commend Today Show producers for that effort -- this was the best morning television programming that I have seen in years, largely because it was not about "reprogramming" Americans for yet another war.)
So, no, I wasn't angry that Ahmandinejad wanted to visit Ground Zero. I was angry, however, at the "pack mentality" of our leading journalists. I was also dismayed -- but not surprised -- at the similar mentality of our current crop of political officials and presidential candidates, several of whom provided the same predictable, politically-correct sound-bite: "We are OUTRAGED!"
What I would have preferred was some real statesmanship.
Real statesmanship would be a presidential candidate with the courage to encourage potentially dangerous, misinformed leaders like Ahmandinejad to visit Ground Zero, in the hopes that they might learn something.
Real statesmanship would mean proposing a new dialogue with Ahmandinejad and other Iranian leaders, searching for some common ground between America and Iran while there's still time to avert disaster.
Real statesmanship would not be intimidated by the O'Reillys and the Ann Coulters of the world. Real statesmanship would not view this kind of diplomacy as weak, but wise. Real statesmanship would not be based on knee-jerk reactions, but on long-term vision.
So far not one presidential candidate has seized the opportunity to do something "out of the box" and important on Iran -- like actually meeting Ahmandinejad at Ground Zero and challenging him to a real dialogue.
Can you get the visual? Extending hands like an olive branch -- saying to the world that it is high time for Iran and the U.S. to join together to end terrorism, root out rogue extremist groups, and combat the injustice that nurtures them? That would be bold action, not cheap, tough talk. It would show the world that we are strong and confident enough to deal directly and squarely with our enemies, inviting them to join these common battles.
Imagine Rudy or Hillary actually engaging Ahmandinejad in a dialogue at Ground Zero, asking him tough questions about what his real intentions are, explaining the pain that Ground Zero represents to Americans, and why we all must work together to root out terrorism.
Of course, if Ahmandinejad really wants to walk in freedom around the freest city in the world he should also be prepared to address to the legitimate concerns of Americans and the world. So, as a quid pro quo, real leaders (like Rudy and Hillary claim to be) should also demand that Ahmandinejad answer the following questions:
1. Will you continue to crack down on illegal drugs flowing out of Afghanistan? Would you be interested in collaborating with the U.S. in this?
2. How can we secure adequate UN inspections of your nuclear facilities? What guarantees are you willing to give the world about your nuclear intentions? Do you really not understand how concerned we are about them?
3. What role is Iran currently playing in Iraq? Are you aware that the military aid you've reportedly been providing may only be prolonging the U.S. presence?
4. What is the status of the half-dozen American citizens that Iran is holding under arrest? How soon can we secure their release? More generally, why does Iran hold so many political prisoners in its jails, and why is your government so reluctant to allow any real political opposition?
5. Just last week you reportedly stated that you "hated" Americans. Do you really feel that way? If so, why have you decided to visit a place that Americans hold dear in our hearts?
Would Ahmandinejad answer these questions truthfully? Probably not -- that's not what any political leaders have much practice at. But that is beside the point. The point is that there is a strong case to be said for looking the man directly in the eye, precisely at a place like Ground Zero, demanding answers to these questions, and demonstrating that we are also capable of answering his tough questions.
The fact is, people are transformed by visiting the open wound of Ground Zero. Perhaps it is naïve to hope for this when it comes to Ahmandinejad. By September 2007, however, we have come to understand a few things. We can no longer go it alone as a nation, when it comes to fighting terrorism and making our world a safer place. We need a global approach. This necessarily means talking to scoundrels, rogues, and unsavory characters that we don't like.
Maybe President Ahmandinejad's trip to Ground Zero could provide a first step toward forging a new relationship with Iran. Maybe not. But this is, after all, Ground Zero. To me, there could be no better place for the dialogue to begin.
(And, frankly, if it weren't for President Bush, this dialogue (and many others like it) might have commenced six years ago in the wake of 9/11. But then again I digress...)