University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann expected a parade of ghoulish figures to enter her West Philadelphia mansion on Halloween night.
Still, when a student dressed as a suicide bomber posed with the costumed president — and then posted the picture online — the incident caused more than just a holiday scare.
To many in the Jewish community, in particular, the photo tested the limits of appropriate behavior — and good taste.
In the photo, engineering senior Saad Saadi stood with sticks of fake dynamite strapped to his chest. He grasped a toy gun, and donned an Arab headdress and camouflage pants. A smiling Gutmann — dressed as Glinda the Good Witch from "The Wizard of Oz" fame — stood by his side.
Other pictures posted by the student on his Web site and facebook.com profile that night displayed Saadi reading from a faux Koran and pretending to shoot a child. The captions he affixed to the photographs read: "Another hostage shot," "Influencing future Mujahideen," and "Freedom fighter … pose[s] for a picture."
Within a matter of hours, these images began to circulate on the Internet, eliciting strong reactions from Penn students and faculty alike.
A forum in the online version of The Daily Pennsylvanian had racked up more than 200 posts as of Monday. Some bloggers called for Gutmann's resignation; others defended Saadi's right to free speech. One father wrote in that "the University of Pennsylvania is now off the list" of schools he would consider for his son.
A statement released by Hillel's student executive committee called the incident "not only offensive to Jewish students, but to all humanity."
Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, attributed Saadi's actions to what he called "the 'South Park' generation."
"There's a desensitization going on," he said, "that needs to be addressed. It's symptomatic of the problems of a generation … in which humor is intended to offend and the more over the top the better."
Moreover, Muslims voiced their condemnations as well.
Khalid Usmani, president of the Penn Muslim Students Association, described the costume donned by Saadi — who is Arab, but not Muslim, according to news stories — as surprising and offensive.
"By bringing the religion in — using the Koran as a sacred text — he was associating it with something that is the antithesis of the religion," explained Usmani. "When I saw him yelling out phrases from the Koran … I felt a bit offended as a Muslim."
Usmani also expressed concern that students would automatically assume Saadi to be Muslim — and read his prank as an expression of violence.
"We're working to dispel those thoughts people have," said the Wharton junior.
Gutmann, who is Jewish herself, issued a brief apology on Nov. 3 — and a notably longer one two days later.
In these statements, she explained that when Saadi first approached her for a photograph, she didn't comprehend what he was wearing. According to her, Saadi had been one of approximately 700 students to shuffle through the president's Walnut Street residence that night.
Still, she contended that "as soon as I realized the full extent of his costume, I refused his request for additional photographs."
She went on: "I abhor terrorism, suicide bombers, and everything they do. My record is unabashedly clear on this point.
"Some images are too horrific, even for Halloween."
A note posted by Saadi on his site also tried to set the record straight. He wrote that "the costumes are meant to portray scary characters, much like many other costumes on Halloween."
"There is no agenda or statement associated with our behavior shown in these pictures," he wrote, speaking for himself and a friend, who wore similar garb. "We are deeply sorry for anyone who has been hurt or upset."
But some Jewish groups say these words don't constitute an appropriate olive branch.
Barry Morrison, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, called Saadi's actions "odious, distasteful, disgusting."
He also said that Gutmann's initial statement seemed "somewhat tepid, considering she was faced with something as egregious as this."
"We think her language could have been stronger. Whenever anybody shows sympathy for or makes light of suicide bombers, forceful language needs to be used to rebut it," he said.
Leaders of the Zionist Organization of America also wrote to Gutmann, indicating that they were "shocked and appalled by [her] gross error of judgment."
"Would you have done the same if he had come dressed as the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan?" they posed.
Others seemed more placated by the university response.
"We are satisfied that they understand why the photographs taken at the president's house were offensive to many students in the Penn community," the Hillel student committee statement read after the group had been invited to meet with the university chaplain and the president's assistant.