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Rushdie affair demands reaction from West

Column/David P. Hamilton

Terrorism thrives in a climate of fear, and in the aftermath of the Ayatollah Khomeini's death order for Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, fear is in abundant supply. It's too bad, for civil libertarians couldn't have asked for a better case on which to take a stand: the threat to freedom of expression is clear, and the threatener is distant and already despised by the majority of Americans.

Despite these facts, the Western response to the Ayatollah's unprecedented death sentence has been disappointingly muted. Khomeini made his threats a week and a half ago, but not until last Tuesday was President Bush moved to denounce the action. Before that, government statements consisted only of the tired boilerplate diplomats regularly haul out when registering pro forma protests.

Of course, Rushdie is a British subject, but when the leader of an allegedly civilized nation issues death threats against a foreign national, particularly for an "offense" recognized as a basic human right by the United Nations, it's incumbent upon the American president as titular head of the free world to express his outrage in no uncertain terms.

If the US government has any excuse, it is that the "warming trend" in Iranian-American relations since the end of the Iran-Iraq war led Secretary of State James A. Baker III to stifle angry responses to Khomeini's execution order. If that was in fact the State Department's reasoning, Baker ought to re-examine his priorities. Threats like Khomeini's do more harm to civilization than a dozen jetliner bombings.

For these threats go far beyond an honest rage at an unflattering portrait of Islam. The desperate commands of the aging Khomeini aim not only to reaffirm the leader's personal power at the expense of his nation's international standing, but to strike at one of the most basic principles of Western civilization -- freedom of expression -- under a false cry of religious intolerance.

So far Khomeini has succeeded, and it is here that the failure of private citizens to take a principled stand against the Imam's intellectual terrorism is particularly dismaying. The authors, scientists, and human rights activists so prominent in other circumstances have only recently begun rallying around Rushdie's banner, and by now it may be too late.

Already the fear of Iranian hit squads have led New York landlords to suggest that employees of Viking Penguin, Rushdie's publisher, should look elsewhere for housing. At one point this week, B. Dalton, Barnes and Noble, and Waldenbooks had all removed The Satanic Verses from their shelves. Together, these chains amount to nearly a third of the retail book market.

The point is not so much that Khomeini's threats have made Rushdie's book unavailable. Independent booksellers have moved into the niche vacated by the chains, and The Satanic Verses will be number two on the New York Times bestseller list on March 8. Instead, we have a lesson in how easily individuals and institutions can be cowed by extremist rhetoric from states with an international reputation for terror.

As a society, our dedication to principles like freedom of expression is only as strong as the importance we place upon them in times of crisis. Our reaction to the Ayatollah's threats have made it clear that sufficient pressure can dislodge our support for even our most cherished beliefs.

The only way to avoid caving in to such pressure is to renounce it, and the more universal such renunciation is, the less effective the threats become. Khomeini's death order is wrong, whether viewed legally, morally, or religiously, and should be soundly condemned as early, and as often, as possible.

Anything less hands the victory to the terrorists. Salman Rushdie, his book, and the culture which allowed him to write it deserve more than that from us.


David P. Hamilton, a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is a senior news writer of The Tech.