Salman Rushdie: Peace in idyllic New York resort ‘has been shattered’ by stabbing

·4 min read
Tearful locals at a vigil for Rushdie on Friday night. One person said their peace had been “shattered” - AP
Tearful locals at a vigil for Rushdie on Friday night. One person said their peace had been “shattered” - AP

The idyllic lakeside community of Chautauqua, in the far corner of western New York, was reeling on Friday night after the amphitheatre at the heart of the town was turned into a blood-spattered crime scene.

The picturesque resort plays host to an eclectic cultural program each summer, where writers, politicians and spiritual leaders gather to share their ideas, while opera singers and orchestras perform into the evenings.

Sir Salman Rushdie, described in the event’s pamphlet as “one of the most celebrated authors of our time” had visited before. A resident of New York, he was here to discuss “the United States as an asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression.”

On Friday night he was fighting for his life on a ventilator at a nearby hospital, unable to speak and likely to lose an eye after being stabbed repeatedly by an assailant who leapt from the side of the stage.

"I've been coming here 25 years, and I've never felt that safety was a concern," said Ed Klotz, who witnessed the attack.

"Obviously, I'm not so sure I would feel that way now."

"It just seemed so surreal, like it couldn't be happening," said Art Fritzson, who also saw the incident.

"I’m just in shock," said a woman who gave her name as Emily. "This kind of thing just doesn’t happen here."

Locals in Chautauqua gathered at a vigil for Rushdie on Friday night - AP
Locals in Chautauqua gathered at a vigil for Rushdie on Friday night - AP

Though just a short drive from Niagara Falls and the Canadian border, Chautauqua, with its population of 4,000 people, is quintessential smalltown America. Birthplace of the Chautauqua adult education and social movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the creative spark still shines bright today.

Jay Leno, the celebrated late-night talk show host and comedian, performed last month. Jamie Raskin, the Democrat representative who led the second Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump is due to speak on Monday.

Also coming up is a summer fete at the sculpture park, the town’s annual Gran Fondo bike ride, for all ages and abilities, and a boat parade on Chautauqua Lake.

So keen are the locals on their water that an article in the local paper on Friday began: “Chautauqua County - 29 per cent water, 71 per cent land. In summer, with so many water-related activities, we might be forgiven for thinking it was just the reverse.”

But there is also a strong religious and spiritual side to the area. Coexisting in town is the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua, the Episcopal cottage of Chautauqua, the Chautauqua Catholic Community and the Hurlbut Memorial Community United Methodist Church.

“This is a close-knit community,” said Emily, on her way out of the Chautauqua Institution on Friday evening. “This is the type of place where we leave our doors unlocked, where we don’t just say ‘hi’ to our neighbours but actually invite them round.

“The peace has just been shattered.”

Michael Hill, the president of the Chautauqua Institution, addressing the press on Friday - REUTERS
Michael Hill, the president of the Chautauqua Institution, addressing the press on Friday - REUTERS

Joshua Goodman, a reporter with the Associated Press had travelled with his family to the Chautauqua Institution for a peaceful week away from the news. Instead, the news found him.

"It was very surreal is the only way you'd describe it," Mr Goodman said. "This was the last place you'd expect something like this."

Mr Goodman was one of 13 family members who rented a house on the grounds for the week. He left his computer behind and ignored emails.

On Thursday night, he and his family roasted marshmallows while watching a full moon rise over Chautauqua Lake.

On Friday morning, he dictated words, took photos and sent video that told the world someone had attacked Rushdie.

"I don't take any satisfaction in witnessing tragedy," he said. "I do take satisfaction in informing others."

On Friday night, visitors without passes were not allowed to enter the grounds and events had been cancelled for the day. The alleged attacker, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, was in police custody in nearby Jamestown.

Michael Hill, president of the Chautauqua Institution, tried to calm worried locals.

Speaking at a police press conference, he said: “Chautauqua has always been an extremely safe place, and we will be working to keep that tradition going."