When Emily Sack saw a young man leap to Salman Rushdie on the stage at a cultural center in Western New York, it happened so suddenly she barely realized she was attending an attack on the author’s life, AFP reported.
Like many other residents of the Chautauqua facility — a retreat that hosts educational and cultural programs in a huge park dotted with quaint colonial homes and perched on the shores of beautiful Chautauqua Lake — his memory of the attack is a bit hazy. .
And yet she was there on August 12 in the outdoor amphitheater for a lecture featuring Rushdie when police said Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old New Jersey from Lebanon, carried out the shocking attack much of the world.
“It was so fast,” the octogenarian told AFP. “You know, it was almost over before it started.”
Subsequently, the Chautauqua Institution canceled its events for the remainder of the day.
“Everyone here was completely disgusted, including me,” Sack said with tears in his eyes.
The Chautauqua Institution stands as a beacon of diversity, tolerance, and cultural, community, and religious life in the northern United States.
Founded in 1874 by two Methodist clergymen, the institution has become a famous venue for contemplative activities and lectures on the arts, education and religion.
The center’s website says it is “dedicated to exploring the best in humanity”.
US President Franklin Roosevelt gave a famous speech here in 1936, just a few years before the outbreak of World War II, offering “every nation in the world a good neighbor’s handshake”.
The non-profit institution Chautauqua operates with the support of its members and the 100,000 – mostly older – visitors who attend its summer festival.
Residents and visitors stroll or cycle its verdant grounds through a village-like community that includes its own streets and homes, beautifully manicured gardens, and even its own police department and postal service.
“Indeed, this was a shock to our entire community, and I think the entire region and anyone who knows about the Chautauqua facility,” said Emily Morris, the center’s senior vice president, pushing back the sobs.
“We’ve been around for almost 150 years and nothing like this has ever happened.”
Resident David Wilson said: “It’s a shame, and unfortunately I think it’s emblematic of what’s happening all over the world. Too bad it happened here.”
For most residents of this peaceful, scenic area — including the county seat of Mayville, where Matar appeared in court Thursday for a hearing on assault and attempted murder charges — no one expected an attack that would stun the world.
Prosecutor Jason Schmidt builds the case on the attack on Rushdie, who has lived since 1989 under an Iranian death threat because of his book “The Satanic Verses”.
But Schmidt admitted to the press that his office lacked the resources to handle such a case, which is also being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Sack had never imagined such a thing could happen to Chautauqua.
“I hadn’t thought of that before,” she said. “But you know, it happens all over the world. Well, why not here? I mean, as horrible as it sounds.”
Barbara Warner, a retired Chautauqua resident, also in her 80s, agreed.
“Unfortunately these things are happening in many different places across the country,” she said.
Wilson called the attack “quite a shock” but said he felt no less safe as the institution continued with its remaining range of summer activities.
The center has come under fire in the US media for the apparent lack of safety measures for someone as obvious as a potential target like Rushdie, who is slowly recovering from his injuries at a hospital in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Morris, Chautauqua’s vice president, said the center has deployed security measures around the amphitheater, including metal detectors and a bag ban.
Guards now visibly patrol around the structure, with tight controls at entry points.
Security around Rushdie had become less stringent during his 20 years of living in the United States.
But Morris said the institution “wouldn’t have gone ahead if we didn’t think we had a proper plan for this event”.
“And we are looking at that very closely.”