On October 7, 1985 four terrorists from the Palestinian Liberation Front hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro off the coast of Egypt. They held the passengers and crew hostage and demanded the release of 50 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.
They also wanted the Syrian government to let them dock at the port of Tartus.
The next day, after being refused permission by the Syrians, the hijackers singled out a 69 year-old Jewish man in a wheelchair, Leon Klinghoffer. They shot him in the forehead and chest as he sat in his chair, then forced the ship’s barber and waiter to throw his body overboard.
But let’s not jump to conclusions. Maybe the terrorists had a grievance. Maybe we should hear their side. Hey, I have an idea: Let’s turn the cold-blooded murder of an innocent man in a wheelchair into an opera.
So in 1991, in Brussels, Belgium an opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer” premiered and over the years has been shown in other cities both in Europe and here in the United States. Now, the prestigious New York Metropolitan Opera plans to put the show on in a few weeks, and as you might imagine, not everyone is happy. Protestors have been out at the Met, saying the show should not go on. The New York Times editorial board disagrees.
“Music critics and opera lovers have found the opera, by John Adams, moving and nuanced in imagining a tragedy that gives voice to all sides … “ the Times wrote.
The opera does allow Mr. Klinghoffer’s character to condemn senseless terrorist violence but is “nuanced” necessarily a good thing? And what about “giving voice to all sides?
I could be wrong but I’m guessing if someone wrote an opera about the death of Martin Luther King that was nuanced (Hey, maybe James Earl Ray had a point) and gave voice to all sides (Even bigots have grievances, don’t they?) the gods who write editorial at the New York Times would not have been so open-minded. And for good reason.
This is not a question of “the principle of artistic freedom,” as the Times suggests in its editorial. Mr. Adams has every right to make any kind of opera he wants. And the Met has every right to put it on.
But some art should be protested – and condemned. “Piss Christ” comes to mind, the 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano that depicts a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine.
And many think “Klinghoffer” should also be protested and condemned. And they’re right. Of course terrorists have grievances. Who doesn’t? The question is: Should the prestigious Metropolitan Opera be a forum for such grievances?
Judea Pearl says no. Mr. Pearl’s son Daniel was beheaded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Pakistan on February 1, 2002. He knows about terrorism.
He wrote an elegant letter to the Times, a letter so moving that I think it should be read in its entirety. Here it is:
“In joining protestors of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of ‘The Death of Klinghoffer,’ I echo the silenced voice of our son, Daniel Pearl, and the silenced voices of other victims of terror who were murdered, maimed or left heartbroken by the new menace of our generation, a savagery that the Met has decided to elevate to a normative two-sided status worthy of artistic expression.
“We are told that the composer tried to understand the hijackers, their motivations and their grievances.
“I submit that there has never been a crime in human history lacking grievance and motivation. The 9/11 lunatics had profound motivations, and the murderers of our son, Daniel Pearl, had very compelling ‘grievances.’
“In the last few weeks we have seen with our own eyes that Hamas and the Islamic State have grievances, too. There is nothing more enticing to a would-be terrorist than the prospect of broadcasting his ‘grievances’ in Lincoln Center, the icon of American culture.
“Yet civilized society has learned to protect itself by codifying right from wrong, separating the holy from the profane, distinguishing that which deserves the sound of orchestras from that which commands our unconditional revulsion. The Met has trashed this distinction and thus betrayed its contract with society.
“I submit that choreographing a ‘nuanced’ operatic drama around criminal pathology is not an artistic prerogative, but a blatant betrayal of public trust. We do not state ‘nuanced’ operas for rapists and child molesters, and we do not compose symphonies for penetrating the minds of ISIS executioners.
“Some coins do not have two sides. And what was done to Leon Klinghoffer has no other side.
“What we are seeing in New York is not an artistic expression that challenges the limits of morality but a moral deformity that challenges the limits of the art.
“This opera is not about the mentality of deranged terrorists, but about the judgment of our arts directors. The Metropolitan Opera has squandered humanity’s greatest treasure: our moral compass, our sense of right and wrong, and most sadly, our reverence for music as a noble expression of the human spirit.
“We might someday be able to forgive the Met for decriminalizing brutality, but we will never forgive it for poisoning our music, for turning our test violins and our iconic concert halls into megaphones for excusing evil.”
Every supposedly open-minded sophisticate should read Judea Pearl’s passionate letter. Why is it so hard for some to understand that some things are right and some are clearly wrong? As Mr. Pearl tells us: “Some coins do not have two sides. And what was done to Leon Klinghoffer has no other side.
That’s something the editorial board of the New York Times might want to think about.