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The Chautauqua Institution's role after the Salman Rushdie attack


A spokesperson for the author Salman Rushdie said he is continuing to recover from a knife attack on Friday as he was about to begin a speaking event in upstate New York. In an update on his recovery, Rushdie's agent told the Associated Press that the author is now off a ventilator and able to talk again, although he remains seriously wounded. The attack was shocking on many levels. Although Rushdie has been a target of violent extremists since the publication of his novel "The Satanic Verses" more than 30 years ago - a controversy that required him to take extreme security precautions for more than a decade - Rushdie has made many public appearances since, in defense of his own work and of artistic expression more broadly.

But the attack also pierced the serenity of the Chautauqua Institution, where Rushdie was about to appear. It's a retreat center that has hosted artists, writers and thinkers for a summerlong program of lectures and performances and relaxation since the 19th century. And by extension, the attack has reignited questions about how to balance freedom and security in an era when violence is on the rise in any number of environments.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we called Emily Morris. She's the senior vice president of the Chautauqua Institution, the organization that hosted the event, and is in charge of communications there. She says Rushdie was there as part of a series about what home means in America.

EMILY MORRIS: And so we examine that from multiple perspectives - from the perspective of homelessness, for example, and many other topics. And Mr. Rushdie and Mr. Reese were here to talk about home - when it is asylum, when people are seeking a place where they can find safety and, in this case, safety to pursue their voice in an environment that supports free speech.

MARTIN: Well, obviously, the question that arises is, like, what kind of security standards are in place for events like this? I mean, obviously, the whole sort of point of Chautauqua is to have a sense of engagement with the world but remove from the world at the same time...


MARTIN: ...Right?

MORRIS: Correct.

MARTIN: It's - be relaxing and very open but also to allow people to kind of think their big thoughts and relax but also to engage with the world. But you - it cannot have escaped anyone's attention that violence is on the rise in any number of communities around the world - in neighborhoods, you know, certainly political violence. So the question that obviously arises is, did you think about that when you invited him?

MORRIS: Well, certainly, we obviously recognize that the world is changing. And we have a comprehensive security plan that is created not only in consult with experts but with our regional and state law enforcement agencies as well as the FBI. And we have plans specific to the events, and that was the case on the day that Mr. Rushdie was here.

MARTIN: Did - do you - I mean, anyone can second-guess these things in hindsight, but there have been reports - albeit anonymous reports in the media - that suggest that there have been employees there who've suggested that your security precautions were inadequate, that - in essence, that your heads were in the sand about the environment that we are now in.

MORRIS: Yeah. I've heard those reports, and I can tell you they couldn't be further from the truth. I don't think that the FBI and the New York State Police or our regional Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office would have agreed to a plan that they weren't supportive of and in collaboration with us. So I'm not really sure where those accusations are coming from. But with that said, I can tell you, obviously, no one's second-guessing this more than we are and certainly looking at what we've done and what we need to do moving forward and, at the same time, keeping our focus on Mr. Rushdie and his continuing recovery as well.

MARTIN: So as I said, this is a very new experience, and I'm sure that you all are still processing it. I understand that there was an event on Friday evening, a - I don't know how you would sort of describe it - a...

MORRIS: A community vigil, yes.

MARTIN: ...A community vigil in support of Mr. Rushdie's recovery, as well as, of course, acknowledging this event in the community. I notice that there's a notice on your website suggesting that some speakers may wish to change their programs and that you will be respectful of that if they do. But I wonder what else this brings up for you as a community of people who are explicitly there to think big thoughts.


MARTIN: Does it - what does this bring up for you? And I - recognizing, as I said, that this is very new and you're still processing this.

MORRIS: Sure. Well, the first thing that it brings up to us is that our mission is more important now than ever. And certainly pursuit of that mission needs to happen in an environment of safety and security. And so those are the things that we're thinking about. We're thinking about how important it is for us to continue. It was important for us to return to the amphitheater stage last night. And we will pursue our conversations about new profiles in courage with a number of people who are going to join us to help bring new meaning and understanding to that and what courage means in the modern day. And we don't think there's anything more important for us to do other than make sure that we can do that in an environment of security and safety. And those are our areas of focus.

MARTIN: That's Emily Morris. She's senior vice president of the Chautauqua Institution. Emily Morris, thank you so much for talking with us. And, of course, our best wishes for the continued recovery of Mr. Rushdie and of those of the community who were affected by this.

MORRIS: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.