Years ago, when I was in my 20s, I was living in New York City. One day, I invited two young cousins over for some sightseeing. We were standing outside my apartment building, looking at a map, when a bottle came dropping from a window high above and smashed the pavement a foot away from us. It shattered into a hundred jagged pieces.
We froze. We looked up. We saw no one. I pulled my cousins close and ran across the street, never saying to them what I was thinking, that a few inches the other way and one of us might be dead.
To this day, I remember the feeling I had all afternoon, and for the rest of my life whenever I walked past that building. A vulnerability. Fear of public space. The paralyzing dread of random violence, that sudden harm can come when you least expect it.
I thought about that feeling when I read the news that the author Salman Rushdie had been attacked Friday on a stage in Chautauqua, New York. A 24-year-old man named Hadi Matar allegedly rushed the podium and stabbed Rushdie 10 times, leaving him in a hospital, on a ventilator.
Rushdie’s agent said the author will likely lose an eye, that the nerves in his arm were severed and his liver was badly damaged.
It happened out of nowhere.
But it is happening more and more.
No random act
Across the country, we are seeing numerous violent outbursts. Earlier this year, an Asian woman in New York City was attacked from behind by a man with a box cutter. A different woman in that same city died instantly when she was pushed in front of an oncoming subway by an unknown attacker.
In Chicago, one man randomly attacked four women in a matter of minutes. In Portland, an 82-year-old man was punched and stomped without provocation by a 29-year-old assailant. The older man later died from his injuries.
In all these cases, and many others like them, the victims did not know their attackers. But while the temptation is therefore to label them random acts of violence, I don’t believe that. No more than I believe that Matar, the man who has now been charged with attempted murder, did it because he just felt like hurting somebody.
Rushdie had been living with a bounty on his head ever since 1989, shortly after he wrote the book “The Satanic Verses.” That’s when Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie if they got the chance, because he considered the book blasphemous to the Prophet Muhammad. The bounty was a few million dollars.
As a result, Rushdie went into hiding for 10 years. Eventually, he decided not to live his life in fear. Believing he had the right to his opinion and his creative works — as we all should — he reemerged and began making appearances, eventually traveling without bodyguards or protection.
But the hate never stopped shadowing him.
On Friday, apparently, it caught up with him.
What’s driving all this?
And just as it is likely that Rushdie’s assailant was motivated by an inner anger, so too, I believe, are these seemingly random recent attacks fueled by something ugly within us. We are bitter. We are resentful. We divide the world into us and them. We feel the “others” in this country are gaining unfair advantage, or acting against our interests, or are undermining our beliefs.
Such feelings are not new, just as Rushdie’s enemies are not new. (In 1991, the Japanese translator for “The Satanic Verses” was murdered by stabbing, and two years later, the book’s Norwegian publisher was shot and seriously wounded.)
But there seems to be a hair-trigger response now. We are wound too tightly. We are beet red with rage. The squeeze of COVID-19, the ongoing political warfare, the border crisis, the Supreme Court abortion decision, and the economic crunch that further separates the haves and the have-nots, have all contributed to a boiling temper that appears dangerously ready to act.
Last week, a Navy veteran tried to enter an FBI field office in Cincinnati. He was eventually killed in a standoff with police. He reportedly posted online messages suggesting he was motivated by the FBI’s investigation of former President Donald Trump. There have been similar calls to action by extremist groups on the internet.
Is this who we are now? People who feel that our opinions, our politics, our dislikes or our religious beliefs somehow justify violence — even deadly violence?
It is not a way to live. Twenty-four years ago, I was in Chautauqua, too, giving a talk on a stage near where Rushdie was on Friday. I never once thought about someone attacking. Nor did it occur to me that a child would be born about that time who would grow up to allegedly try and murder another author there.
I think about that and I feel a rekindling of that helpless sensation on the street all those years ago, that things can came out of the blue — out of a window, out of the subway platform, out of the audience — and change your life forever. Rushdie has been living with this for decades. I cannot imagine it. Can you?