In 1989, the offices of my neighborhood newspaper were firebombed by a terrorist. Molotov cocktails ignited a blaze that gutted the first floor of the building, incinerated furniture, and left computers and telephones all but vaporized.
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.
The bombing of The Riverdale Press occurred shortly after the editors published “The Tyrant and His Chains,” a scathing criticism of America’s largest bookstore chains for responding to the Ayatollah’s threat by pulling all copies of The Satanic Verses from their shelves.
The chain store executives excuse their surrender to the Ayatollah by expressing concern for the wellbeing of their employees, but by knuckling under they’ve put others at risk. If a threat can knock the books from the shelves of the Big Three, terrorists may reason, think what a bomb in an uncompliant bookstore could do.
Moreover, terrorism feeds on its successes. What will Waldenbooks do when a homegrown would-be tyrant demands the removal of a politically controversial book from its shelves? And how will it handle the next step, a demand that stores stock a particular book?
The day after the firebombing, the Press published its weekly issue on schedule. Headlining the front page was an editorial titled “We Will Not Be Silenced.”
Mayoral candidates Ed Koch, David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani gathered with hundreds of community residents to offer their support for the Press, and newspapers around the country reprinted “The Tyrant and His Chains.” As “a statement of solidarity with the publishers of the Riverdale Press,” Democratic Senator Daniel Moynihan asked that the editorial be printed in the Congressional Record alongside a resolution “condemning the threats against the author and publishers of the Satanic Verses.”
Speaking on the Senate floor just before the resolution passed, Republican Senator Bob Dole said:
Terrorism is terrorism. It is abhorrent. It must be condemned. There is no justification for it, period.
That is the policy of this country, and of civilized countries everywhere. That is the essence of this resolution.
Let us underscore our continuing commitment to this policy, this strong and necessary policy, by passing this resolution. And let that act be encouragement to those who refuse to buckle under to the threats of terrorists, and a rebuke to the Khomeinis of the world, who care not a whit for anyone’s rights or beliefs but their own.
If the Senate voted on that resolution today, would Lindsey Graham, Harry Reid, and President Obama give it the full-throated, bipartisan support it received in 1989? Who would today’s leaders hold responsible for the attack on The Riverdale Press?