Commentary: Salman Rushdie is expected to recover. Freedom of expression may not

Author Salman Rushdie is transported to a helicopter after he was stabbed on stage before his scheduled speech at the Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua, New York, U.S., August 12, 2022, in this screengrab taken from a social media video. TWITTER @HoratioGates3 /via REUTERS

Salman Rushdie remains in serious condition after a brutal knife attack on Friday in western New York. Fortunately, he is expected to recover.

The prognosis for freedom of expression is not so certain.

The motives of Hadi Matar, the 24-year-old New Jersey man accused of attempting to murder the writer, remain unknown. But the fact that Friday’s assault took place at the Chautauqua Institution feels especially horrific.

This community prides itself on its exemplary tolerance and curiosity. The lakeshore campus contains a variety of places of worship and community centers sponsored by different organizations. Many talks are presented in the Hall of Philosophy, a venue modeled on the Athenian Parthenon. Since its founding in 1874, the institution has become a haven for wide-ranging intellectual, cultural and artistic exploration.

In short, Chautauqua is the ideal place for the public conversation that Rushdie and interviewer Henry Reese were scheduled to present about the importance of providing sanctuary to persecuted writers. For more than 30 years, Rushdie himself has labored under a widely publicized assassination order. In 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ruled that “The Satanic Verses” was so blasphemous that its author should be murdered. The decree felt like something civilized people had left behind in the Middle Ages, but the ayatollah’s words tore around the modern world, inspiring riots, bombings and killings.

For Rushdie, the fatwa initially meant almost 10 years of government protection, living in secret locations and, of course, remaining secluded from his readers. His gradual return to public life was a brave act of resistance not only against religious fanatics but against the forces of fear that would insist on crushing the way we interact with authors. I remember seeing him at the 2008 National Book Festival – a vast outdoor event with tens of thousands of people. His appearance was a thrilling affirmation of the importance of unfettered arenas of intellectual exchange. Likewise, his decision to speak at Chautauqua without a regiment of guards was not a foolish gesture of carelessness; it was a demonstration of the quality of life he’s determined to live.

We think of the human body as a fragile thing, but in many ways it’s more resilient than the atmosphere that enables vigorous debate, community talks and public readings. Friday’s assault not only wounded Rushdie, it dealt a grievous blow to such open spaces. While our limbs and organs can heal, our public places often remain shattered, splinted back to working order only with the grotesque apparatus of surveillance and security.

Predictably, there are already accusatory questions about the safety details at Chautauqua. Why were there no metal detectors or bag checks at the 5,000-seat open-air amphitheater? In light of the attack, the fence around the campus looks puny, even perfunctory. The cheery, unarmed person at the front gate couldn’t stop a heckler, let alone an assassin.

Chautauqua President Michael Hill may try to resist, but there will be intense pressure on this oasis of inquiry to make it secure, locked down, militarized like so many public schools and buildings. For years now, the design of our spaces of engagement has trended only in one direction: toward an airport baggage security checkpoint. How long before anyone attending a book talk will be required to remove their shoes, explain their knee brace showing up on the X-ray machine and throw out that bottle of water?

Friday’s assault on Rushdie at Chautauqua should jolt us into acknowledging that the presumption of danger has become the norm for many writers.

In response to the attack, novelist Chris Bohjalian tweeted that since 2016, almost every speech he’s given at a synagogue or Armenian church about the Armenian genocide or the Holocaust has required police protection.

In 2020, Roxane Gay revealed that she pays for security services to protect her, and Luis Urrea said that he and his family have been threatened many times. The list goes on and on. I’m no longer shocked to hear that writers in this newsroom routinely receive messages from people claiming they will rape and murder them.

Authors have contended with violence for millennia, of course. History shows that as soon as we were capable of expressing ourselves, we were determined to snuff out anyone who offended us. Freedom of expression is a fairly recent ideal, and it’s always been a delicate and incomplete one.

In 1644, John Milton published an essay called “Areopagitica,” which boldly argued against requiring authors to get preapproval from the government for their writings. The essay has come to be seen as one of the greatest defenses of free expression ever written. But wedged between Milton’s rousing statements, you’ll find him acknowledging that he’s certainly not defending books that contain “Popery, and open superstition.” For such “mischievous and libelous” titles, “the fire and the executioner will be the timeliest and the most effectual remedy.”

In one form or another, that’s the complicated, highly compromised position we’ve lived with for more than 300 years: freedom of expression, except when suppression is politically useful.

You can see that playing out now in fresh attacks on literature across America. In state after state, Republicans have introduced and often passed bills to limit what books can be taught and what titles can remain in libraries. But what’s even more alarming is the tenor of these schemes:

In Virginia, the governor ran a campaign ad in which a woman described her son’s high school reading assignment as “some of the most explicit material you can imagine.” (She was talking about “Beloved,” by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison.)

In Missouri, school librarians are reportedly pulling books from shelves to prepare for a new law that could subject them to fines and even jail time. A conservative group says it wants to “combat the perversion agenda that is being forced on our children.”

In Florida, teachers who disagree with new restrictions on books have been accused of “grooming” their students.

In Texas, the governor is demanding the removal of “pornography” from school libraries.

This lurid language is a cousin to the theological zealotry that inspires radicals to lash out against writers. After all, what wouldn’t you do to protect your prophet from defilement or your child from corruption?

We need to reject such incendiary words. And of course we need to ensure the physical safety of writers.

But the shape of our rhetoric inevitably influences our physical spaces. If we’re going to retain the kind of tolerant, curious culture we like to imagine we have, we’ll have to get better at resisting violence without turning our intellectual arenas into fancy prisons. If gathering together to hear an author requires a security barrier and an identity check and a bag inspection, we’ve already lost the battle for freedom of expression.



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