University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutman, right, threw a costume party at her place Halloween night. Entertained a little controversy.
At left is Saad Saadi, who came dressed as your basic suicide bomber, with plastic dynamite belted to his chest and a toy automatic weapon, according to Winfield Myers, director of Democracy-Project [Ed: and Campus Watch], which posted the photo, as well as pictures of mock executions.
My friend, Jason, and I express our 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. The costumes are meant to portray scary characters much like many other costumes on Halloween. Additionally, we strive for all societies to instill healthy and non-violent values.
An outrage? A costume party, for goodness' sake?
Myers took the outrage position. On Campus Watch, a Philadelphia-based, conservative site that monitors the teaching of Middle Eastern studies at U.S. colleges and universities, Myers asked:
But what was President Gutman thinking when she agreed to pose with him? Would she have allowed anyone dressed as Adolf Hitler, or a Nazi SS officer, to enter or remain in her house?
The Volokh Conspiracy took another view:
But this is a Halloween party, no? In recent years, people dress up as positive things for Halloween, too (my boys were Pooh and Tigger) but I had thought the tradition was to dress up as scary, often nasty people. One of the kids in the neighborhood this year was dressed as a '20s gangster, complete with a plastic machinegun. Pirates are pretty common.
You're told to dress as someone scary. A suicide bomber is scary. It should probably be scarier than a skeleton or a ghost. Sounds like you did your Halloween duty. And I don't think that wearing a costume for Halloween endorses the likely sentiments of the person being depicted, be he pirate, bomber, gangster, or zombie.
Now there is a more complex argument, I suppose, that could be made: wearing a costume suggests that the depicted person's activity is a laughing matter. I take it that this would be a possible objection to people's dressing as Nazis for Halloween. I should say that I wouldn't object myself to people's dressing as Nazis for Halloween; still, I assume the sensible argument wouldn't be "by dressing as a Nazi you're endorsing Nazism" but "by dressing as a Nazi you're suggesting that it's OK to use Nazis as a subject of light-hearted fun." Yet even this isn't that persuasive an argument in my book. There are contexts in which light joking about suicide bombers or Nazis might be strikingly inapt; a Halloween party, on the other hand, doesn't seem to me to be one.
One of his commenters, ex-fed, was predicting fire from all sides:
I'm waiting for the perfect PC storm -- where the right is OUTRAGED at a costume that minimizes or supports suicide bombers and the left is OUTRAGED at a costume that suggests brown people are suicide bombers.
UPDATE: At noon, Penn's president issued this statement:
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 Daily Pennsylvanian article about the party attracted this comment from someone writing as a "Penn professor:"
Of course no one writes about the several students at the party dressed as Native Americans (which is exactly as tasteful as dressing in blackface), the students I saw dressed as crackheads, or the many women dressed in demeaning skimpy french maid outfits. Let's face it--whatever Mr. Saadi's judgement, his costume has been hijacked by others with their own agendas. Pick your costume and get worked up about it--there's no shortage of things to be offended by. But in the end, your own political agenda is the source of your upset--not one 21 year old student's choice of costume.
Amy Gutman is, after all, a representative of the entire University- had she refused to take the picture, it would have sent the message that the University finds it acceptable to quiet the voices of students who make any controvercial noise. While she certainly would be justified in refusing to take a picture had she personally been very offended herself, she made no error in failling to act according to the above poster's individual version of "moral clarity."
I personally saw a few of these guys walking around in costume and thought it was distasteful as well...but my second thought was that I sure as hell am glad to be a part of a campus where free speech is respected- even when applying to the distasteful.