Opinion: In safest place I know, Rushdie was attacked

Atlantan describes witnessing assault during forum designed to connect people around ideas.

The peace and tranquility of the Chautauqua Institution was broken at mid-morning, and in a way that violated everything Chautauqua has stood for the last 148 years.

As Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation calls it, “this magical, majestic setting, the community of Chautauqua” was the scene of the sudden attack on our morning speaker, Salman Rushdie.

I was sitting on the ground level, even with the stage. I like to go up close to see the speakers and had just thought how relaxed Rushdie looked, happy to be here.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Just as introductory remarks were starting, a young man leapt to the stage, in a direct line of sight from where I was sitting and began pummeling the author. I quickly realized the attacker must have a knife, seeing the rhythmic arm movements repeatedly striking Rushdie, who fell back and attempted to get out of the way.

The first reaction, of course, is shock. This is the safest place I know, a place where we do not even lock our doors. To have a stabbing happen right in front of your eyes is incomprehensible. To have it happen here still seems impossible.

The attack was short, maybe 20 seconds according to media reports, but it seemed interminable, a surreal nightmare in our utopian space, a place I and thousands of other Americans from all walks of life love and trust.

The national press has described Chautauqua as an intellectual retreat. The Chautauqua Institution describes itself this way: “Every summer, over the course of nine weeks, more than 100,000 people visit Chautauqua Institution in search of respite, community and personal growth.”

I jokingly call it nerd camp. Not everyone wants to spend a week or several of them discussing the U.S. Constitution, or the future of capitalism, or “More than Shelter: Redefining the American Home,” all topics I have relished in the 13 years I have been coming here for a part of every summer.

I do not think of this place as a retreat. I think of it as a place of intellectual vigor where you come to encounter new ideas, meet people who think in ways you do not, be in dialogue with others at a level of honesty our daily lives rarely allow. It’s a place I come to advance, engage, exercise my brain, open my mind and, hopefully, enlarge my heart. In addition, there is excellent theater, opera, orchestral and chamber music, ballet and vocal music.

It is a place to immerse yourself in excellence and renew your aspirations for our country and the world.

The awful irony of the attack is that Salman Rushdie was here to talk about shelter – about the United States as a place of refuge for writers and creatives from all over the world whose freedom of expression is threatened in their home countries. With him on the podium, and wounded in the attack also, was Henry Reece, president of City of Asylum, whose mission is just that: to create safe spaces for talent to flourish. Rushdie, president of the International Parliament of Writers, is perhaps the most famous example of a writer who needed asylum. He has lived with death threats since 1988 and the publication of “The Satanic Verses.”

A remarkable thing happened when those sitting up front in the amphitheater saw the attacker grab Rushdie; they leapt to the stage to stop him, physically restraining him until security arrived. Doctors and medical personnel also ran to help and with the brave interveners probably saved Rushdie’s life.

Another remarkable thing has happened since, and I see it every day. After a community vigil and a day of reflection, programming resumed. In the several days since, I see a renewed spirit around me. We are all more passionate about Chautauqua and the work that goes on here.

We began another week’s programming, centering on the theme of “New Profiles in Courage”, a topic curated by Darren Walker, a frequent Chautauqua speaker. We were all energized by U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland and his comments on the state of our democracy, and deeply touched by his honest telling of the mental illness of his son Tommy, who took his life six days before the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

We heard from two remarkable women, Atiya Aftab and Sheryl Olitzky, one Muslim, one Jewish, who have come together to form Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom that works to build trust and relationships between Muslim and Jewish women of all ages. Acknowledging the attack on Rushdie, Olitzky said, “We are here today to reinforce that love is stronger than hate.” That message was an echo of the words of New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who came here after the attack to say that the pen is mightier than the knife and truth will win in the end.

We all understand that the week on courage really began Aug. 12 when Salman Rushdie came here to speak. Rushdie has been living openly in the United States for the last 20 years; not, he said earlier, because he thought the threat was over but because he refused to live his life in hiding. The Chautauquans who leapt to his defense also exemplified courage.

Security is much more visible here now, with local police from the small towns around us and New York state troopers on the grounds and at events. Federal officers were here for Rep. Raskin and metal detectors are in place. While there is an obvious sadness that those measures are necessary, I welcome the security presence and will gladly comply with the new rules.

There is something precious on these grounds, this sacred space, and it is worth everything we can do to preserve it.

Ann Q. Curry is chairman and chief client strategist at Coxe Curry & Associates, a firm she owned for many years and where she continues to serve clients.

ExploreSalman Rushdie’s life and work on display at Emory University