See Update at Bottom of Post
The story of the photos appearing below, in which Penn president Amy Gutmann posed with a student attending her Halloween party dressed as a suicide bomber, has continued to grow, and I've received a very large number of emails from angry readers and Penn alums along with several calls from reporters.
Around noon today, Ms. Gutmann issued a 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.
Claiming that the student had the right to wear the costume is, I believe, a dodge and a moral cave-in to the very forces that made possible his entrance into the party and her subsequent acceptance (at least initially) of his costume. This is not a question of rights, after all, as Penn is a private university and can regulate what its students wear. No one is allowed to attend class or stroll across campus in the nude because such actions would be universally seen as morally unacceptable (or, at the least, socially disruptive). It would violate agreed-upon norms of public behavior. I also doubt students would be welcomed if they wore transparent clothing or pants with the crotch cut out.
What's missing from President Gutmann's statement, and from the larger academic community of which she is a part, are moral parameters within which every member of the community must act, short of the prohibition of criminal acts, which this of course is not. This applies particularly to statements or actions concerning terrorism, the war on Islamism, and the representations of those actions.
Had Mr. Saadi, or anyone else, shown up dressed in as Hitler, Pol Pot, David Duke wearing his Klan garb, Bull Conner, Sirhan Sirhan, John Wilkes Booth, a slave trader with a whip, a rapist, or any such person, he would have been identified immediately as representing someone, and perhaps some force, that is evil. Neither Ms. Gutmann nor anyone else would have objected to having him barred from her home and party; indeed, to have failed to act in such a way would have invited opprobrium.
But in the modern university, especially in anything relating to Middle East studies, the guardrails are down. After years of scholarship that consistently fails to investigate thoroughly, much less condemn, terrorism or jihadism, or which misrepresents both these historical actors and the consequences of their actions, can we be surprised at President Gutmann's lack of shock? With moral equivalency between bombers and the bombed, especially regarding suicide bombers, a mainstay of modern scholarship and pedagogy in Middle East studies, why wouldn't a young man presenting himself as a killer of innocents be laughed at rather than set straight by his intellectual and moral superiors--i.e., women like Amy Gutmann?
Apologias for terrorism and extremist politics breeds an atmosphere in which the intolerable becomes the everyday. I shudder to think where this will take us.
Update: KYW TV carried a brief story on the controversy earlier today.
Update II: Cross-posted at Democracy Project.
A bit of research turns up this Wednesday article from the Daily Pennsylvanian, the student paper at the University of Pennsylvania.
It reveals two pieces of information that those of you following this story may find interesting. The first is that Saad Saadi's costume was mentioned yesterday morning, before I broke the story of Penn president Amy Gutmann's stunning photograph with Saadi dressed as a suicide bomber. But no photo accompanied the story, and within the Penn community, no one objected--at least not sufficiently to draw any attention to the story.
Engineering senior Saad Saadi came dressed as a suicide bomber, or, as he alternately titled the costume, a "freedom martyr."
Secondly, Saadi wasn't the only person there sporting a costume that most people would consider utterly inappropriate, even vulgar:
Some more infamous figures were also in attendance.
There was, for instance, an impersonator of Scott Ward, the ex-Wharton professor who is awaiting trial for importing child pornography earlier this year. The costume was complete with a fake boy whose head was at the level of the impersonator's crotch.
Pedophiles, suicide bombers--that was some party, eh? This further illustrates the "anything goes" atmosphere that prevailed at the president's house Tuesday night. No boundaries, no adult supervision, and, apparently, no sense of shame.
I'd asked earlier at Campus Watch what the reaction would have been if anyone had shown up costumed as a rapist. I have a feeling we now know: there would have been no reaction. Until outside pressure was applied via this blog and some news organizations that picked up the story, nothing happened.
Kudos to the three major networks' Philadelphia affiliates, all of whom covered the story in their local evening broadcasts this evening. KYW, the CBS affiliate, even sent a reporter to Penn's campus to check out local reaction.