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Chautauqua Institution re-examines security after Salman Rushdie attack

Visiting the storied Chautauqua Institution in western New York, with its narrow streets winding past gingerbread-trimmed Victorian houses, can sometimes feel like taking a journey into a quieter, gentler past.

It's a friendly, earnest place for serious conversation and quiet contemplation, where crime is practically non-existent and the realities of the outside world can seem a long way off.

But on the morning of Aug. 12, reality came crashing in.

Author Salman Rushdie was brutally stabbed in an attack of extremist violence as he was preparing to give a talk at the Chautauqua amphitheater. A New Jersey man has been charged in the attack.

"It was all over in, you know, 20 or 30 seconds. I couldn't see a knife from where I was sitting but I could see the attacker pummeling the victim over and over again with his fist," said Rich Lewis, a retired teacher who attended the talk.

The attack on Rushdie, who has long been the target of a fatwa, first by the Iranian government, for his depiction of Muhammed in The Satanic Verses, has forced Chautauqua to reconsider how open it wants to be.

Chautauqua has long placed a premium on intellectual curiosity, offering its visitors a daily schedule packed with concerts, classes and religious services.

The list of famous people who've spoken at Chautauqua is long and impressive, including Booker T. Washington, Margaret Mead, and Susan B. Anthony. In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt gave a major address at Chautauqua on the impending war in Europe, which became known as his "I hate war" speech.

Artists who've performed at Chautauqua include Duke Ellington, Yo-Yo Ma, Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross, as well as the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Chautauqua has its own symphony orchestra.

"It's a place that restores our souls because of the music and the dancing and the lectures. It just enriches our lives everyday," said Kim Hartney, of New Albany, Ohio, whose family members are longtime visitors.

Visitors are free to spend their time as they wish, swimming, boating or just lounging on their porches. But most people take advantage of the daily activities.

"I max out at about nine a day. If I go to the morning service and end up at the amp at night, it's from 9:00 in the morning 'til about 10 at night. You're exhausted when you go to bed," said Liz Kolken, a full-time resident.

Chautauqua was started in 1874, by a Methodist bishop and an inventor, and soon became a popular vacation spot for Protestant families. It was an abstemious place, where alcohol was banned and dress was on the formal side.

"Our founders imagined that, as this idea of leisure time was emerging for the middle class, that they wanted to find a way for people to make purposeful use of that time," said Chautauqua senior vice president and chief brand officer Emily Morris.

Over the next few decades, Chautauqua sparked a movement, with hundreds of imitators springing up, bringing arts and culture to rural Americans.

Most have gradually closed, but the original Chautauqua survives, hosting thousands of guests each year.

Today, alcohol is no longer banned, and all faiths are welcome. Renting a private home on the grounds can be expensive, which may be one reason why the clientele skews older. Gray hair is common at Chautauqua.

Police search some guests coming into the Chautauqua amphitheater to hear Rhiannon Giddens. Since the attack on Salman Rushdie, people now have to pass through metal detectors to get into some events.
Jim Zarroli / NPR
Police search some guests coming into the Chautauqua amphitheater to hear Rhiannon Giddens. Since the attack on Salman Rushdie, people now have to pass through metal detectors to get into some events.

In the wake of the Rushdie attack, Chautauqua has temporarily stepped up its security measures. Visitors to the amphitheater where Rushdie was stabbed now have to pass through metal detectors, for example.

But officials are still struggling to decide how open Chautauqua should be long-term.

"Chautauqua would not be Chautauqua if it turned into what looked like a police state. It would rip at the very fabric of who we are and what we believe about the world," said Michael Hill, Chautauqua's president.

Barbara Cassetta has been coming to Chautauqua off and on for years. As a young single mother, she loved the fact that she could let her children roam the grounds unsupervised, without having to worry about them.

She views the Rushdie attack as "an aberration. I don't think that it's something I would expect. But, then, in America today you don't know what to expect."

Chautauqua remains a very safe place, she said. But it can't always prevent the chaos and controversy of the outside world from seeping in.

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Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.