photo of Lincoln Center by Chun-Hung Eric Cheng
Despite its sprawling population, New York City can occasionally feel like a small town. Its residents find their lives connected in sometimes surprising and emotionally charged ways.
A classmate of my wife’s was related to the Klinghoffer family, and even though the hijacking of the Achille Lauro happened nearly 30 years ago, it remains as fresh and tragic as at the time it happened, even for us. We are hardly the only ones.
The entire world was repulsed by the actions of the hijackers, who killed wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer during their takeover of the ship on which he and his wife were passengers. They then dumped Klinghoffer and his wheelchair into the sea. The legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people, about which I have previously written, were utterly overshadowed in that historical moment by the hijackers’ blind hatred and brutality.
It should be no surprise, then, that an outcry accompanied the Metropolitan Opera’s production of composer John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which opened this week. Protesters, including former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, rallied in front of Lincoln Center to denounce the opera; The New York Times reported that two protesters also created ultimately minor disruptions during the opening night performance itself.
The opera, which Adams composed in 1991, has never before been performed at the Met, but has attracted protests and criticism around the world since its inception. Controversy after its premiere in Brussels led to cancelations of scheduled productions in the United Kingdom and Los Angeles; the Boston Symphony Orchestra canceled a planned performance of parts of the opera after the 9/11 attacks. The Met itself canceled plans for a global broadcast of the current production and agreed to print a letter in the production’s playbill from Leon Klinghoffer’s daughters stating their opposition to the opera.
Others, meanwhile, have praised the opera’s artistic merit and argued that the protests are not grounded in the actual content of the work. The Met itself has urged potential audiences to “See it. Then decide.”
I have not seen the opera, which is not surprising, since I am not particularly an opera fan. It is not fair for me to criticize its content, since I haven’t seen it - though I am deeply skeptical that anything that might be seen as justifying the hijackers’ behavior belongs on the greatest stage in the city where the World Trade Center’s twin towers once stood, especially when that city was also home to most of the Klinghoffer family and those who knew them.
But the First Amendment protects free expression for artists, as well as everyone else. I have no quarrel with the right of those who staged the performance to do so, nor with the rights of those, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who chose to see it.
Certainly Ginsburg, a former counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and herself of Jewish background, ought to be especially sensitive to the interplay between those exercising the right of free expression and those who might sometimes take issue with what others use that right to say.
Too bad Ginsburg shows no such sensitivity to the rights of those who might choose to participate in the political process by advertising their views in the media. An outspoken opponent of the court’s Citizens United decision, Ginsburg has lost no opportunity to push for its reversal. She, along with the other justices who opposed the decision, went so far as to effectively attempt to grant states the right to ignore the ruling (an effort that promptly failed). Recently, she cited Citizens United as “the worst ruling the current Court has produced” in an interview with The New Republic.
Ginsburg has no personal stake in political advertising, since her Supreme Court appointment is for life. But she evidently takes issue with the right of corporations and those who own them to broadcast their political views and the right of those who might want to consider those views to receive them.
It is a strange contradiction for the civil rights advocate who attended an opera that purports to put Klinghoffer’s senseless murder in a broader historical context - one that is of no consolation whatsoever to the many people whose lives Klinghoffer touched, even at a distance. Then again, it is a strange contradiction for someone who committed her career to the advancement of constitutional rights to carve out an exception for political speech, except maybe when it is performed on the stage of the Met.