At about 5 in the morning on Feb. 28, 1989, two men emerged from a compact car parked on Broadway, crossed the street, and hurled three Molotov cocktails at the unprotected front windows of The Riverdale Press.
The ensuing blaze was so fierce that the computers and telephones in the newspaper’s front office vaporized.
The crew of an ambulance headed for the then-Hebrew Home for the Aged saw the terrorists throw the firebombs, run back to their car and speed north to the Henry Hudson Parkway, making their escape.
A short time later, a man called 911 and said, in an accent the FBI later identified as Pakistani, “Can you please listen to my message very carefully. Very very important. You know that British author who wrote the book The Satanic Verses. For to protest I throw the bomb. I’m sorry but we got to do more bombs pretty soon if they don’t stop from publish that book. That’s it.”
Two weeks earlier, the novelist Salman Rushdie had gone into hiding when Iran’s “supreme leader” Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a death sentence on him for writing a novel that questions the founding myth of Islam. Khomeini’s fatwa offered a bounty of more than $5 million to anyone who could kill the author. It also threatened “all those involved in its publication.”
In the Feb. 23 issue of The Press, which was still on the newsstands that terrible Tuesday, an editorial headlined “The tyrant and his chains” denounced the decision of Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble and B. Dalton, which responded to Khomeini’s threat by removing the book from the shelves of their 2,500 stores. It contrasted their cowardice to the courage of Paperbacks Plus, the little Riverdale Avenue bookstore that had decided to sell the book, despite fear of retaliation.
The editorial defended our right to make up our own minds. “To suppress a book or punish an idea is to express contempt for the people who read the book or consider the idea,” it argued. “In preferring the logic of the executioner to the logic of debate, the book burners and the Ayatollah Khomeini display their distrust for the principle on which self-government rests, the wisdom and virtue of ordinary people.”
Fire engulfed the first floor of the paper’s two-story building, leaving it a dank cave. Celia Stein, who founded the paper with her husband David, wept at the sight of the shattered building the couple had been so proud to purchase.
Then a reporter asked her what was going to happen next. “Next,” she snapped, “we’re going to put out a paper. We’ve never missed a deadline, and we’re not going to start now.” The next day a new issue did come out. It carried a front-page editorial headlined “We will not be silenced” that reasserted the paper’s fundamental conviction — its “confidence that people who can share information and opinions with their neighbors can unite to make the decisions that affect their lives.” The Press, it promised, “will be there, for as long as we need one another.”
On the day of the bombing, a helicopter ferried Mayor Ed Koch to Van Cortlandt Park, where he offered his sympathy and a $10,000 reward. The city’s daily papers put up $10,000 a piece.
Hundreds of Riverdalians stood in the rain that weekend at a rally in front of the burned-out office to show their solidarity with their newspaper. Hundreds more celebrated with the staff when the paper’s renovated office re-opened seven months later.
Newspapers around the world published excerpts from “The tyrant and its chains.” Newsday published it in its entirety. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan inserted it in the Congressional Record. And, with real courage, some 100 community newspapers in New York State reprinted it, although many feared they, too, would face retaliation for doing so.
All told, the full editorial reached a million readers, surely a defeat for the terrorists.
For the next 10 years on the anniversary of the bombing, The Press published an editorial about Rushdie. It did so to remind readers that the author remained in danger and in hiding. And, even more important, it did so to say to the bombers: “You didn’t win. You haven’t intimidated us.”
Much has changed in the two decades since the firebombing. Salman Rushdie is now Sir Salman, and is again free to live openly. The Riverdale Press has new publishers. Many of those reading this did not live in Riverdale then.
But what has not changed is the commitment of Riverdalians to the principles that led so many to open their hearts and voice their support for their newspaper — their commitment to the principle that every author is entitled to think new thoughts and imagine new worlds, and every reader is entitled to make up his own mind.
“We’ve never missed a deadline, and we’re not going to start now.”
— Press Co-founder