Rushdie Stabbing Brings Terror to an Idyllic Retreat for Earnest Inquiry

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    Over the past week, life at the Chautauqua Institution continued much as it had for 148 summers.

    Adults wiled away days attending church, playing badminton, taking pottery classes and listening to music on the shores of a picturesque western New York lake. Children attended camp and roamed free even as the sun set.

    Why would the thousands of families inside the 750-acre gated compound suspect that an attacker was among them?

    Then on Friday morning, a knife-wielding man stormed the stage as the author Salman Rushdie was preparing to give a talk about the United States as a safe haven for exiled writers.

    The assailant stabbed Mr. Rushdie repeatedly, bloodying the stage of an amphitheater that is the central forum at one of America’s most storied spiritual and cultural retreats.

    Mr. Rushdie remained hospitalized Saturday after having been put on a ventilator the night before with wounds to an eye, arm and his liver from what prosecutors said were 10 stab wounds. The New York State Police identified the suspect in the attack as Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old New Jersey man who was arrested after being wrestled to the ground by onlookers. He was charged with second-degree attempted murder and was arraigned on Saturday afternoon.

    Authorities have not indicated a motive, but in 1989 Iran’s supreme leader issued a religious edict known as a fatwa, ordering Muslims to kill Mr. Rushdie, after the publication of his novel “The Satanic Verses,” which some of the faithful found heretical. Social media accounts associated with Mr. Matar suggest he is supportive of Islamic extremism.

    The spasm of violence brought the specter of Islamic terror into an American institution at the heart of mainline Protestantism, one that in the 1800s engendered a grass roots movement of earnest intellectual inquiry and self-improvement. The attack on Mr. Rushdie shattered the pervasive sense of calm at Chautauqua, which many families felt to be a rare refuge from the troubles of the modern world.

    “Chautauqua feels like this escapist utopia,” said Gillian Weeks, 37, a screenwriter from Santa Monica, Calif., who was there with her family and was watching a livestream of Mr. Rushdie’s event when the attack occurred. “It’s a place where kids can be free and take leaps of independence, more so than anywhere in the regular world.”

    Founded in 1874 by Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent as an educational experiment in “vacation learning,” Chautauqua began as a Methodist retreat but quickly grew into a community for other Protestant denominations as well.

    Salman Rushdie’s Most Influential Work

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    Salman Rushdie’s Most Influential Work

    “Midnight’s Children” (1981). Salman Rushdie’s second novel, about modern India’s coming-of-age, received the Booker Prize, and became an international success. The story is told through the life of Saleem Sinai, born at the very moment of India’s independence.

    In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the institution flourished and spawned a movement, with other Chautauqua centers cropping up in Colorado, Ohio, Michigan and beyond. Over the years, the institution has featured prominent writers and thinkers stretching from Mark Twain to former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

    Today, the Chautauqua Institution, which is about an hour south of Buffalo, is largely unchanged from its heyday a century ago. The manicured grounds feature lawn bowling courts and art galleries, and string quartets play in the grass outside a stately hotel.

    A few hundred residents stay on the grounds year-round, and the population swells during a nine-week summer season, when homeowners and guests flock to the institution for a feast of cultural programming, ranging from Sheryl Crow to Ballet Hispánico. Mr. Rushdie was the featured speaker for the 10:45 a.m. lecture on Friday.

    Though Mr. Rushdie had lived in a fortified safe house in London for the 10 years after a price was put on his head, he has been making public appearances for many years, often with minimal security.

    Moments after Mr. Rushdie took the stage on Friday, the assailant rushed down an aisle of the amphitheater, pushing aside startled guests. The attacker faced no apparent resistance as he took the stage and began stabbing Mr. Rushdie, who was seated and waiting for the talk to begin.

    As the attack unfolded, audience members rushed the stage and separated the assailant from Mr. Rushdie. A New York State Police officer eventually reached the scene and handcuffed the attacker.

    As Mr. Rushdie lay bleeding on the stage, doctors who had been in the audience put pressure on his wounds and called for medics. He was eventually taken by helicopter to a hospital in Erie, Pa.

    Security at the Chautauqua Institution is minimal. While all visitors to the community must have a pass to enter the grounds during the summer, which costs at least $200 for two days, there is scant police presence inside the campus. Most events are staffed by yellow-shirted “community safety officers,” who are unarmed, while some higher-profile events have a uniformed officer on site.

    But even at the main amphitheater, which regularly hosts popular musical acts and celebrity speakers, there are no bag checks or metal detectors.

    More than a dozen eyewitnesses said they were stunned at the ease with which the attacker reached Mr. Rushdie.

    “There was a huge security lapse,” said John Bulette, 85. “That somebody could get that close without any intervention was frightening.”

    Another eyewitness, Anita Ayerbe, 57, said the police were slow to respond. “The amphitheater is a soft target,” she said. “There was no obvious security at the venue, and he ran up unimpeded. The cops were not the first ones onstage.”

    Chuck Koch, an attorney from Van Wert, Ohio, who owns a house in Chautauqua, was seated in the second row when the attack began and ran onstage to help.

    “I remember when ‘Satanic Verses’ came out, and the fatwa was put on him,” he said. Nonetheless, “the only security I saw was a sheriff outside the gate. Down by the stage there was no visible security at all.”

    In recent years, some former Chautauqua employees called on management to implement stricter security, including bag checks, metal detectors and closer screening at the amphitheater, according to two people familiar with the discussions who requested anonymity to divulge sensitive information. They said that executives had dismissed the suggestions for fear of disrupting the community’s tranquil atmosphere.

    Michael Hill, president of the Chautauqua Institution, disputed the suggestion that management had resisted calls for enhanced security.

    “There has been no resistance or no refusal to listen to the counsel of experts on how we think about securing Chautauqua,” he said in an interview on Saturday.

    Mr. Hill said that the institution tries to provide security while preserving a bucolic peace that encourages relaxed reflection and thought.

    “The only way to guarantee nothing ever happens at Chautauqua is to lock it all down and make it a complete police state, and that would, in essence, render what we do at Chautauqua irrelevant,” Mr. Hill said. “I’m not convinced that lining the place with a small army was going to change what happened.”

    The head of security for the Chautauqua Institution retired last year, and the job remains unfilled. But Mr. Hill said that his staff consulted with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, state police and the county sheriff this year to discuss potential threats and that there was additional security for Mr. Rushdie’s talk on Friday.

    “Questions of security were critical and important to us even before yesterday,” Mr. Hill said. “Naturally, after what happened yesterday, we will continue to examine that in light of what was so unspeakable.”

    Mr. Matar spent several days roaming the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution before attacking Mr. Rushdie, according to several people who saw him there as early as Tuesday. Multiple guests, including Ms. Ayerbe, said they had seen him at the amphitheater.

    The attack shattered the sense of calm at Chautauqua, leading longtime guests to question what would become of a retreat that seemed like a rare haven from modern life.

    “We started bringing our children here, and now we bring our grandchildren,” said Dennis Ford, 72, a longtime local resident. “We did have the sense that this place was separate from the real world. But that’s the way everywhere is now, I guess.”

    That the attack may have been motivated by an assault on free expression was all the more troubling to visitors, given the Chautauqua Institution’s long history as an intellectual melting pot.

    “It represents the better angels of our nature and the best of what Western culture has to offer,” Ms. Weeks said. “This is a place where people are supposed to be able to disagree with each other. There is a deep irony that Chautauqua is where this happened.”

    In the hours after the attack, scenes of small-town charm were juxtaposed with reminders of the violence. In the community’s main plaza, a craft fair sold yard art, as a police officer with a bomb-sniffing dog inspected backpacks. The waterfront was closed as police searched the woods, and programs were canceled as rumors of further threats spread among families.

    On Friday night, Chautauqua residents gathered for a vigil at the Hall of Philosophy, a mock Roman forum not far from the amphitheater where Mr. Rushdie was stabbed. Hundreds attended, many cried, and a pastor invited those in attendance to shout out their thoughts.

    “Everyone’s important in the eyes of God,” one voice cried.

    “God bless Chautauqua,” another exclaimed.

    “Hate can’t win.”

    On Saturday morning, Mr. Hill said that he was committed more than ever to fulfill the institution’s mission of creating an inclusive forum for free expression.

    “We’ll do our soul-searching at Chautauqua,” he said. “We’re going to return to our pulpits and to our podiums and keep doing this work.”

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