The most depressing development this week

I recognize that this is a tragedy of a fairly abstract variety, but it makes my heart heavy anyway:

Prairie Lights Bookstore, the literary hub of Iowa City, closed its doors early Tuesday evening in response to threatening phone calls and letters received by store owner Jim Harris that day. Although PW Daily was unable to learn the specifics of the threats made, they clearly were in reaction to a reading scheduled for 7 p.m. that evening by Krista Jacob, an abortion rights activist and the editor of the book Abortion Under Attack: Women on the Challenges Facing Choice (Seal Press, 2006). Jacob’s collection of essays by a number of feminist writers explores the impact of race, economics and culture on women’s reproduction rights and women’s attitudes toward abortion.

Iowa, for those of you who don’t keep score, is — against all odds — one of the most significant literary destinations in the country. In the scheme of things, this was an important reading. Whether or not one happens to agree with Ms. Jacob’s philosophy (and I must admit I haven’t read her work; that’s not the point) the fact that a mob was allowed to shout her down is an outrageous offense against some of the most important flavors of freedom humans are supposed to have.

My first reaction, on reading this, was (of course) outrage at the terrorists who made the threats. My second was horror that the owner of an independent bookstore — in Iowa, of all places, where they take the literary as seriously as they do their religion — caved in and gave the terrorists what they wanted.

According to store book buyer Paul Ingram, the decision to close the store was made by Harris, who was preparing to leave the country the next morning. “Jim did not want to subject people to possible harm when he was leaving town. He did not want to leave his staff in an awkward situation,” Ingram said.

How can free speech be less important than that trip? Miss Outrage thought, immediately. Postpone the trip by a day; cancel it if necessary. A stand must be made. We’ll hand out flak jackets and mace to everyone who comes to the reading…

What? The owner had staff? And they would be present, because their boss required them to be?

Even Miss Outrage must admit this is a quandry. I am, after all, that same wild-eyed chick who was prepared to go chica-a-chica against the crazywoman who threatened the old lady working the counter at a boutique in Red Bank: her broadsword against my, er, machismo. This was an old lady we were talking about, and none of it was her fault. I could see how to take the crazy one. But the pregnant friend with whom I was shopping was, well, outraged at the suggestion that she should put her pregnant butt on the line. And once the adrenaline wore off, I saw her point.

The same point applied to Mr. Harris, unfortunately. It wouldn’t have been right for him to DRAFT his staff into the War on Troglodytery. But in my heart I wish that, just for that one night, I was an employee of the Prairie Lights Bookstore, and Mr. Harris was taking volunteers.

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