What the Chautauqua Institution attack means to me

One of the United States’ hidden gems is not at fault for the recent attack


Photo by Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau

Ethan Hurwitz, Sports Editor

When you meet me, I will talk your ear off about a few topics. The New England Patriots, Kanye West’s discography and “Billy Madison” —my favorite movie. But one thing in particular has a special connection to me, a place I call “heaven on earth.”

This place is Chautauqua Institution, a 750-acre lake resort within the town of Chautauqua, New York. I have visited Chautauqua with my family every year for as long as I can remember. There, I have met lifelong friends, worked one of my favorite jobs as a summer camp counselor and created memories that stay with me every day. I even wrote my college essay on how important this place is to me. So to see what happened in Chautauqua on Aug. 12 broke my heart. 

Famed author Salman Rushdie, the writer of “The Satanic Verses,” was stabbed in the neck and abdomen on Chautquaua’s historic Amphitheater stage. As he was being introduced, both Rushdie and Henry Reese, the event’s organizer, were assaulted in front of more than 1,000 viewers. 

Rushdie was rushed to the hospital and is currently on a ventilator with a damaged liver, severed nerves in his arm and an eye that he could lose. Reese suffered a head injury and is recovering. 

The attack is the opposite of the Chautauqua I love: a community located on a beautiful lake, known as a place for learning, dialogue and cultural exchange. The historic grounds have been visited by hundreds of important people, including sitting presidents, civil rights activists, artists and entrepreneurs. Chautauqua is nestled on a lake where kids are learning to swim and kayak, it is not a violent place.

“We were founded to bring people together in community, to learn and in doing so to create solutions, to develop empathy and to take on intractable problems,” Michael Hill, Chautauqua’s president, said in a statement. “Today, we are called to take on fear and the worst of all human traits: hate.”

Some who read about the attack say the event needed better security. The assault on Rushdie is awful and should never have happened, but introducing intensive security could erode the town’s embracing culture. 

Chautauqua is a location created to welcome people in, where gender, religion, political beliefs or any other factors in today’s world that may divide us do not matter. On a regular day, you can bike next to the lake, then go watch a concert with complete strangers. But the vibe that Chautauqua gives is unmatched. It taught me how to be independent and how to grow as an individual.  

Rushdie is one of the world’s most adamant proponents of free speech and did not bring a security detail of his own to the lecture. Why wouldn’t the Institution introduce an extra layer for Rushdie, who had a death bounty on his head in the 1980s? Because that is not what Chautauqua is and it has never been that. 

It is a place where you can bike home at night and stop to pet a stranger’s dog. It is a place where people will dance together, regardless of their age. It is a place where kids from all across the country can attend the oldest running summer day camp in the United States.

“Our mission is to build bridges across difference,” Hill said. “Mr. Rushdie is known as one of the most significant champions for freedom of speech. One of the worst things that Chautauqua could do is back away from its mission. I don’t think Mr. Rushdie would want that either.”

Why is this the Chautauqua that is now trending on Twitter? For anyone who attends the Institution, you will agree with me that it is safe. Would adding metal detectors prevent these incidents from happening again? Perhaps, but after surviving 150 years of peace and tranquility, the aura that Chautauqua emits would be tainted. The quaint style of living with old, rustic homes would be thrown to the side. 

Rushdie has previously complained about the levels of security that followed him, according to NDTV. Why would a place that welcomes inclusivity go against their own mission? It would not, because that is not Chautauqua. The suspect in this attack, who is now in custody, had a gate pass to enter the Institution, Hill said. It was the same level of clearance required for everyone else. 

That is what Chautauqua is about. It is not a dystopian place where terror reigns, nor is a place that should ever disallow anyone to enter the grounds. It is a place of love and understanding, a safe haven for those who are similar to us and those who are different.

This place has always been the highlight of my summer. Being able to feel like a child and enjoy life for what it is has always been my experience in the Institution. There is something for everyone in this magical place and is a place I plan to attend for the rest of my life. 

This is my conclusion: if you have ever set foot in Chautauqua, you understand my heartbreak, as well as my will to fight for this place. If you have never been, please do not let this incident push you away. It is a place everyone deserves to experience once in their life. 

Chautauqua is my home away from home, my special place. Please don’t let this attack ruin the opportunity to make it yours.