A lesson from the ashes: Freedom needs defending


Thirty years ago, I watched flames consume the two-story building on Broadway that housed The Riverdale Press.

Two men had hurled Molotov cocktails through the plate glass window of the building my parents had been so proud to purchase. I couldn’t imagine why — until a fire department lieutenant asked me: “Written anything about Salman Rushdie lately?”

The issue on the newsstand that week included an editorial that condemned threats from Iran’s ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini, against Rushdie, and defended our right to read his novel “The Satanic Verses.” When I wrote it, I never imagined that it would make my newspaper an early victim of terrorism.

The editorial criticized the national bookstore chains for pulling the book from their shelves. Its central argument was: “To suppress a book or punish an idea is to express contempt for the people who read the book or consider the idea. 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.”

I thought that was motherhood and apple pie. I took our ability to think as we please and say what we think for granted.

We’ve all learned differently since then — and not only about the danger of offending some Muslims.

To cite just a few examples: In Birmingham, England, Sikhs who regarded Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play “Dishonour” as an insult to their religion stormed a theater to prevent it from being performed.

In Israel, Ultra-Orthodox Jews have attacked women who pray at the Wailing Wall.

In India, Hindu fundamentalists drove the painter M.F. Husain into exile for portraying goddesses unclothed.

Violence is not the only threat to free expression, nor are religious zealots the only people who threaten those with whom they disagree.

New York’s mayor tried to close the Brooklyn Museum over the portrayal of the Virgin by artist Chris Ofili.

Protest from members of Congress led the Smithsonian to banish David Wojnarowicz’s film “A Fire in My Belly” from its “Hide/Seek” exhibition on sexual difference in American portraiture.

School boards around the country regularly faced demands from African-Americans to ban “Huckleberry Finn” from classrooms and school libraries. Many Jews object to assigning students to read “Oliver Twist” and “The Merchant of Venice.” Some college students don’t want to permit right-wing speakers to address them or to read books they consider racist or sexist.

Thirty years ago, the President of the United States denounced the firebombing of The Riverdale Press and two California bookstores. “This country was founded on the principles of free speech and religious tolerance,” declared President George H.W. Bush. He said the United States would not tolerate violence directed against the novelist and his defenders.

Can you imagine a similar statement coming from the Oval Office today — from the president who shrugs off the state-sponsored murder of a Washington Post columnist as of less importance than preserving arms sales to Saudi Arabia? The president who routinely calls journalists enemies of the people? The president who thinks it’s amusing to tweet memes of himself pummeling a news organization?

There’s a paradox about views with which we disagree — even those that are loathsome: In challenging us, they force us to hone our own views, to forge them in argument so that we hold them as well-thought-out ideas, not lazy preconceptions.

That’s why it’s so important to refuse to accept the contention that in perilous times, there are visions that must not be imagined, and thoughts that must not be uttered. If we curb our appetite for knowledge, for argument and for advocacy, we surrender our ability to work toward common goals, which is to say, we cease to be a democracy.

Surely that’s what Oliver Wendell Holmes meant when he defended the principle that we are free only so long as those with whom we disagree are free — and wrote that free thought requires, above all, “freedom for the thought that we hate.”

For 10 years on the anniversary of the firebombing, until the novelist emerged from hiding, The Riverdale Press published an editorial about Salman Rushdie.

Those editorials were harder to write than the one that unleashed the firebombs. I felt no sense of danger in February 1989. In the ensuing years, I knew the danger.

But it was important to remind readers that a death threat still hung over the author, and he needed the support of public opinion and government pressure.

Even more important, those editorials were intended to send a message to the terrorists who wanted to frighten a little newspaper into silence.

You didn’t win.

The author was the co-publisher and editor of The Riverdale Press on Feb. 28, 1989, when the newspaper’s offices at 6155 Broadway were firebombed. He is now a publisher emeritus.

Bernard L. Stein,