Opinion: Salman Rushdie attack should have prompted more support of intellectual freedom

On Aug. 12, author Salman Rushdie was attacked by a man with a knife at an event in western New York state, where he was giving a talk on his new book and an interview about violence against writers. Rushdie’s attacker did him grievous injury and came very close to killing him.

Those reading this are probably aware of these facts, but what they may not know is that the American Library Association — a national organization of librarians which professes to keep close tabs on censorship and intellectual freedom — has yet to issue an official statement on the incident, either in support of Rushdie or in condemnation of the stabbing, though it has been a month since the incident. I don’t know for certain the reasons for this hesitancy, but I suspect two-pronged fear is the reason.

First is the fear that such a statement might put libraries and librarians, already beleaguered by homegrown demands to suppress certain materials, further in harm’s way by people willing to do more than just badmouth librarians on Facebook or complain to library boards. To be fair, this fear may not be unfounded: Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death in Italy in 1991 for doing nothing more than translating Rushdie’s novel, "The Satanic Verses," into Japanese. Second may be fear on the part of an organization generally regarded as quite progressive that a statement of condemnation may be seen as Islamophobic, as it was a notable Iranian Islamic leader who, in 1989, issued the death sentence against Rushdie, his editors and publishers for producing a work thought by some to be mocking Islam’s founding Prophet.

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I think that both of those fears are what many of the would-be author killers of the world have counted on and continue to count on. Giving in to either fear is very dangerous for intellectual freedom.

At any rate, no matter what the American Library Association decides to say or not say about this attack and no matter why they have stayed silent, I will speak up now, a month later, on behalf of my fellow librarians concerned about intellectual freedom and condemn the attempted murder of Salman Rushdie as an evil act. I condemn it not on religious or doctrinal grounds, because history shows that most religions have the power to encourage murderous fanaticism. I condemn it not on political or ideological grounds, because history also shows most political ideologies can do the same. I speak up to condemn the murderous attack on Salman Rushdie on humanitarian, professional and civilizational grounds.

First, as a human, I don’t think it can be ignored or excused when mere expression or speech is met with violence. Speech itself is not violence, and those who hold that it can be are not rational. Writing the phrase “atomic explosion” can’t flatten a city, and saying “cigarette smoke” out loud, even repeatedly, can’t give anyone lung cancer. Responding to the writing of a novel or the creation of an artistic work with violence necessarily makes the violent actor the unjust aggressor and puts them in the wrong.

Second, as a librarian, I believe that inspiring fear in order to dissuade those who would express their beliefs, opinions, thoughts or creativity does harm to the collective progress of society towards possible betterment. Even the most egregiously offensive, ugly or disgusting writings or works of expression give individuals the opportunity to examine, respond to and, perhaps, defeat the mindsets behind them. Without the opportunity to hear or read what even the nastiest minds in society come up with, the best minds are robbed of the intellectual toughening that formulating a counterargument or opposing work affords them and by extension everyone else.

Moreover, I have yet to meet anyone I believe is so morally flawless that they should decide for me or any other adult (or child not being raised by them) what should be read, heard or viewed. Yes, I have at times agreed that the materials that bother those calling for some kind of censorship are probably harmful on some level, but I insist on the freedom to make that decision for myself, and assiduously defend that freedom for others. Librarians do that.

From a civilizational point of view, this attack happened in the United States and was perpetrated by an American. No matter how quick one is to dismiss as hypocrites those who wrote the First Amendment, we live in a nation where expressing oneself in an orderly manner cannot legally be met with governmental force. The same Enlightenment values that inspired that notion in our Constitution also demand that we each understand that, no matter how disgusted or bothered we feel ourselves to be, it is uncivilized to attack or KILL someone for their having merely arranged sentences or other artistic media in a way we dislike.

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My last thought: A professional organization speaking up or not speaking up about something doesn’t necessarily mean the individual members feel the same. Librarians are as varied as the books with which we load carts. In this case, however, I thought I needed to declare that most librarians are very intellectually consistent and rarely hypocritical on the matter of censorship and free expression.

Most of us feel we must speak out when someone wants LGBTQ+ books removed from the library, when someone thinks "Huckleberry Finn" is too racist to be read, when some college somewhere wants to “de-platform” a controversial speaker and we must — must — speak out when somebody tries to kill an author for blasphemy … or any other reason. To do otherwise is a grave ethical and professional failure.

Darryl Eschete
Darryl Eschete

Darryl Eschete is director of the West Des Moines Public Library.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Opinion: Silence after attack on Salman Rushdie is alarming