The president of the University of Pennsylvania, Amy Gutmann, hosted a Halloween party at her home last week. One of the revelers dressed up as an Arab suicide-bomber and posed for a picture with her. The student posted the photo, along with a number of other photos from the festivities (including mock executions of fellow students), on his Facebook page. There they were noticed by Winfield Myers, who drew attention to them on his blog at democracy-project.com [ed: and Campus Watch]. "An obvious question" occurred to Myers: "Would Gutmann have posed with a guest--or even allowed him into her house--if he'd dressed as Adolf Hitler or a Nazi SS officer? A KKK member?" No, he concluded. "But in modern liberal circles, posing as a Palestinian suicide bomber . . . is just fine."
A lively discussion ensued on other websites. Libertarian law professor Eugene Volokh of UCLA took the much-ado-about-not-much view:
For Pete's sake, this is a Halloween party, with a bunch of college kids trying to be creative, including trying to be creative with a theme of "dressing as scary evil things." Suicide bombers are scary evil things. Maybe they're too scary evil, or scary evil in the wrong way, or who knows what. But there's no rule book that he should have consulted on the subject; it's a matter of taste and judgment on which reasonable people can differ. Cut him some slack. . . . Even if he went over the fuzzy line, how much public outrage does it merit?
Many of the commenters at volokh.com were of like mind, arguing that this was just harmless mockery, a student poking fun at terrorists. The student himself later posted a statement expressing "condolences and sympathy to all affected by our costumes. We wish to make it clear that we do not support terrorism, violence, or anything that is against society. There is no agenda or statement associated with our behavior shown in these pictures."
No agenda? Among the captions written by the student himself for his photos were "Another hostage shot," "Influencing future Mujahideen," and "freedom fighter . . . pose[s] for a picture." We're picking up a vibe here, and it's not Charlie Chaplin dropping a banana peel in front of a goosestepping Hitler.
The images are, in fact, disturbingly familiar: Sympathizers of suicide-bombers in the Middle East routinely show solidarity with their "freedom fighters" by dressing children up in the same type of costumes, complete with plastic dynamite and fake AK-47s.
Amy Gutmann, for her part, is smart enough to recognize a bad career move when she finds herself in the middle of one. She released a statement on the Penn website:
Each year, the president hosts a Halloween party for Penn students. More than 700 students attend. They all crowd around to have their picture taken with me in costume. This year, one student who had a toy gun in hand had his picture taken with me before it was obvious to me that he was dressed as a suicide bomber. He posted the photo on a website and it was picked up on several other websites.
The costume is clearly offensive and I was offended by it. As soon as I realized what his costume was, I refused to take any more pictures with him, as he requested. The student had the right to wear the costume [!?!] just as I, and others, have a right to criticize his wearing of it.
A SCRAPBOOK friend notes, "This may clinch her appointment as the next president of Harvard University."