Editor’s Note: Lydia Strohl is an award-winning freelance writer based in Washington, DC. She has just completed her first novel, “Where I Left Them.” Her work can be found at www.lydiastrohl.com. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Friday, August 12, 10:40 a.m. I park my bike in a gravel patch near the Chautauqua Amphitheater, wedging a rock beneath the kickstand so it will not fall. The woman who checks my ticket at the gate is accompanied today by a state trooper and a police dog – not usual for this rural arts community, but warranted: today’s speaker, Salman Rushdie, has lived under threat since his book, “The Satanic Verses,” was published over three decades ago. I zigzag my way down steep stairs to the floor, noticing another trooper standing guard.
Minutes later, Rushdie and Henry Reese walk onstage, set to discuss the US as an asylum for writers and other artists in exile as part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series. The audience rises, clapping. I realize Rushdie will be seated with his back to me, so I move to get a better view, starting down the middle aisle to an empty seat in the third row just as the two take their seats.
Before I take mine, however, a man leaps onstage, hate on two feet, storming Rushdie with lightning speed. The author rises and steps back to evade him, but his black suit and polished shoes are unprepared for the youth in trainers, head wrapped like a ninja, a cyclone of anonymous fury.
Rushdie bends and twists away but the knife is unrelenting, arm raising and falling over and over and over, evading the author’s hands and those attempting to intervene. The crowd, gathered at a stage where civil discourse has been practiced for over 130 years, stands watching, frozen not with fear but with shock. After what seems like ages but I later learn was just seconds, the attacker is taken down by a few men and a state trooper. Rushdie and Reese have both fallen. Blood pools on the stage. A man runs by me, filming the chaos on his phone.
Freedom in retreat
“These are not good days for liberty. If you look around the world, you see that the idea of freedom, freedom which contains a sense of carefree-ness, seems everywhere in retreat, hounded by guns and bombs,” Mr. Rushdie told an audience at Emory University in 2015.
How ironic, that his attacker moved through tree-lined streets where children run free until peals from a bell tower remind them it is time for dinner, where bicycles are not locked and wallets are often returned with cash intact. This is a place where people let down their guard, only too easily. That is part of the charm, but in the days to come, we will surely grapple with that.
The crowd is mostly silent, except for the jagged cries some cannot, do not, still. The attacker is finally subdued, and the police dog stands over him. I wonder if it’s ghoulish to take a picture of the stage at this moment. But the ghoul is already here, I decide. Rushdie lies still on his back; someone has removed his shoes from his feet and lined them neatly beside him, waiting for him to fill them again. No one else can.
I cannot get back on my bike for shaking, so I walk home. Sirens wail.
By around noon, The New York Times has reported Rushdie was stabbed in the neck, with another witness saying he still had a pulse before he was airlifted to a hospital. I am astounded and relieved that he survived. When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, issued a call for his death in 1989, the author went into hiding, but continued to write his intricate and zany books. He says he must write to survive, or his dreams become increasingly crazy. Waiting for news, I wonder how much crazier a dream can get than this, more nightmare than fairy tale.
Texts pour in: “Are you there?” “Is it true?” A friend tells me she attended a dinner with Rushdie in February, and remembers him saying he was fairly certain someone, somewhere, would get him. Who knew this could happen in this utopian summer community, which tries to combat the dissension in the world with conversation. Words were no match today.
Later in the afternoon, Andrew Wylie, Rushdie’s agent, reports he is in surgery but has no other updates.
“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist,” Rushdie famously said. In Manhattan, where he now lives, he often appears in public without security. “Oh, I have to live my life,” he told an interviewer last year.
I begin to re-read Rushdie’s writing, seeing the ways he seeks to prove that our differences do not define us, a thread through my own work. In his words: “This may be the curse of human race. Not that we are different from one another, but we are so alike.”
Remembering the terror
“Are you ok?” reads the text chain. “Not really,” I reply. We meet, hug, walk the streets laced with new autumn leaves, documenting the emergency vehicles, the crime scene tape.
Everywhere we pass, people are gathered on porches, refreshing the news on their phones, waiting to hear of Rushdie’s condition. It is a gorgeous day, the sun with that almost-fall golden tinge that produces a long shadow. Like 9/11, we say. We will all remember where we were on this day.
Hours later, Rushdie is still in surgery. The world waits. His attacker’s name is known. He bought a gate pass to the grounds of Chautauqua Institution.
There I am in a video posted on Twitter, standing in front of the attack in a striped shirt, on my phone. I remember that I dialed 911. I did not know what else to do. I realize I still don’t.
That night, his agent says he is out of surgery, but “the news is not good.” He is on a ventilator. The nerves in his arm have been severed, his liver stabbed and damaged. And he is likely to lose an eye. Is this really the civilized world? When I think of the terror of this day, I think of living with this danger and choosing to thrive. It’s a choice we all have to make, now. Pray – or whatever gesture you make to your god – for him. Pray for peace. Pray for us all.