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Hearts break for Chautauqua ‘idea’

“I hate that it happened. I hate, even more so, that it happened there.”

Those were the only words I could come up with following Friday’s tragedy at Chautauqua Institution, where an amphitheater crowd of 2,500 witnessed an attack on famed author Salman Rushdie moments before his conversation with Henry Reese.

Like much of the surrounding community — most of whom became acquainted with Rushdie following Friday’s events — my prayers are with him, his family, and those who have been inspired by his work and encouraged by his perseverance over the last three decades despite the multi-million dollar bounty placed on his head.

And, while doing my best to keep it all in perspective, my heart breaks also for Chautauqua.

Not necessarily the place — though that hurts, too. Scooping ice cream at the Brick Walk Cafe was my first job. Family members were married at the Hall of Philosophy. I’ve sung dozens of times from the stage of the Amphitheater space, and graduated from high school in that place as well.

My heart hurts more for the Chautauqua “idea” — that which Theodore Roosevelt once called “the most American thing in America.”

For over a century, the grounds have become a Brigadoon of sorts for those longing to spend their summer months learning from our world’s greatest minds.

They flock here, from Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Manhattan, and more, seeking to become something: a better citizen; a more refined musician or artist or dancer; a more seasoned sailer; or a more faithful servant to the God they worship.

No matter the discipline, Chautauqua had always been an ether where one can “become.”

And as the minds amalgamated over the nine weeks of late June and through the balance of July and August, the ground rules became simple: civil engagement.

The podiums and pulpits convene every morning with fresh food for thought. Porches are filled with neighbors discussing similar or polar beliefs. Discussion is had not through yelling, screaming, or banging the table, but through diligent, intelligent discourse. Lecturers gladly engage with lecture-goers on the Amphitheater’s back porch.

For a century-and-a-half, Chautauqua has been an innocent, safe shelter perfectly equipped for taking on the world’s problems, while being simultaneously insulated from them.

Until Friday.

In seconds, the world’s eyes turned to the floor of the Amphitheater. In minutes, the institution’s logo became plastered across cable television. In hours, photographs of its gates served as the background to the all-too-familiar sight of emergency vehicles and personnel in the foreground.

The irony of this attack occurring in this sacred space — which, 86 years ago Sunday, served as the arena from which Franklin Roosevelt decried war and the “clamor and greed” of it as our nation inched closer to conflict — cannot be overstated.

And while I mourn the era of Chautauqua that will seemingly dissipate in light of Friday’s events, I remain hopeful for the baptism of the institution’s next era: an era of perseverance in the face of persecution and of continuing to dare that conflict can be resolved through civil discourse — despite the inevitable few who believe otherwise.

“Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true.”

If any community is up for the task Salman Rushdie issued the human race in that quote, it is undoubtedly Chautauqua.

Cameron Hurst is a Jamestown resident and a graduate of St. Bonaventure University with degrees in journalism and music. He previously was a reporter for The Post-Journal.

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