Sound and Fury

The fear of terrorism hits the heartland with the postponement of a visit by Salman Rushdie at Washington University

Salman Rushdie won't be coming to Washington University anytime soon, says a spokeswoman for the school, as a result of "extra security measures." The writer's scheduled Nov. 14 visit has been postponed, maybe until spring, "when things are hopefully a bit calmer," the official adds. The brief pleasures of normality have once again been rescinded from the author's life. The roar of extremism that once afflicted him singularly affects us all now, even on a Midwestern campus far from Manhattan's Ground Zero.

Until the recent terrorist attacks, Wash. U. had had reason to feel secure in bringing Rushdie here; he had managed to move from human-rights symbol to celebrity-tabloid fodder in a stunningly brief amount of time. Under the fatwa imposed by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini since Feb. 14, 1989 -- a decree that included the offer of $1 million to any brave Muslim who would kill Rushdie (whose novel The Satanic Verses stank in the nostrils of Allah, supposedly) on sight -- any public appearance by the author was an act of courage by all those involved. Although Rushdie received protection from the British government, extremists reached out to punish others tainted by the blasphemer, murdering his Japanese translator and wounding his Norwegian translator. The Satanic Verses was re-released by a consortium of publishers so that no one house could become a target.

The fatwa has not been lifted -- apparently only the one who orders such a decree can rescind it, and Khomeini died months after issuing the death sentence -- but in 1998, the Muslim clerics in charge of the Iranian government backed off from encouraging Rushdie's murder. Just over a month ago, the British foreign secretary visited Tehran, causing the Daily Telegraph of London to announce the "Rushdie crisis" over.

Salman
Salman

Rushdie has been quite famously out and about, moving to New York City; dating a va-va-voom cookbook author/model, Padma Lakshmi, nearly half his age; and traveling from city to city on a book tour promoting his latest novel, Fury. The book has been excoriated by British critics as if they've been lying in wait to impose a fatwa of their own. The babe, the exodus from England (which spent about $3 million per year protecting his ungrateful hide) -- the joie de vivre of Rushdie's out-of-hiding lifestyle has been too much to take. A cameo in Bridget Jones's Diary is unbecoming of a human-rights symbol. Once again, Rushdie was a marked man, marked for tabloidization.

The nagging worry about a few Muslim extremists who still wanted to pitch Rushdie into hell didn't mean much to the British press, nor did it seem to mean much to Rushdie anymore. St. Louis' pre-eminent man of letters, William Gass, chuckles drolly about Rushdie's "cutting a wide swath" in Manhattan. When Gass was director of the International Writers Center, he'd attempted to bring Rushdie to Washington University while the fatwa was still being sanctioned by Teheran. That visit didn't come off, but Gass was anticipating Rushdie's appearance on Nov. 14 ("He was supposed to come to the house for dinner"), when "A Conversation with Salman Rushdie" was to be held in Graham Chapel, with Professor David Lawton engaging the author in an onstage interview. Security issues "didn't seem very serious to Rushdie," says Gass of the planned visit, "at least before the 11th."

The rage of a few Muslim extremists fuels our fear now. Rushdie is off the celebrity-sightings page and back in the op-ed section. "How to defeat terrorism?" he wrote in the New York Times. "Don't be terrorized. Don't let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared." Other writers have made the same assertions, even in this paper, but their homilies ring hollow with a smug, secure self-importance. Rushdie's call for courage has been validated by the example of his own.

Last week, Wash. U. asked Rushdie to postpone his visit after security concerns -- and costs -- grew significantly. When the RFT first contacted the university's public-affairs office, three weeks before the scheduled event, the meaning of "appropriate security" had not yet been defined. A week later, however, after the head of campus security had consulted with the FBI and "other national agencies," says Fred Volkmann, vice chancellor for public affairs, it was determined that the campus police "would not be able to provide sufficient security for a visit of this type. We would have to involve significant external support."

Volkmann would not put a dollar figure on the cost of that additional security, but those who were involved in the planning have given a figure of around $10,000, saying that Rushdie's appearance would have been treated with the vigilance exercised over the presidential debates. Volkmann says there have been no specific threats to harm Rushdie or those in attendance: "This is strictly based on advice received from law-enforcement authorities who track these issues and who provide suggestions on what might be a prudent way to proceed."

The Rushdie event was to serve as the reopening of the International Writers Center, which had gone into hibernation since Gass' retirement. The center's new director, Professor Gerald Early, contacted in North Carolina, where he is on leave, says, "The security concerns are legitimate.

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