Police tactical units armed with assault rifles and K-9 dogs flooded Widener University in Chester yesterday, inciting fearful curiosity in students and local TV stations.

But the person most frightened by the police presence was the man it was put in place to protect - Sir Salman Rushdie.

Forced into hiding for more than a decade because of a Muslim death-sentence fatwa declared on his life, Rushdie re-emerged in 1999. Today, he is seemingly devoid of the fear that had kept him underground.

Except for yesterday in Chester.

"It's insane!" he said in an interview after his midday lecture at Widener. "I was absolutely horrified. Assault rifles, tracker dogs - they scare me!"

Rushdie, author of more than a dozen books, is best known for The Satanic Verses, interpreted by some Muslims as blasphemous. Six months after the book's publication in 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa against him, calling for his execution.

"Fear is totalitarian," Rushdie said yesterday. "It's a paralyzer of the mind. It's a paralyzer of the body. You can sit in a corner and shake, or you can get on with your day."

Rushdie, born in India to Muslim parents, is a British citizen now living in New York City.

A regular patron of the New York City subway system, Rushdie took a train into 30th Street Station for his speaking engagements yesterday at Widener, and, later, at the Kimmel Center, as part of the university's Philadelphia Speakers Series.

Rushdie said he had been horrified to be greeted at the train station by police - and even more upset to see the police presence, which included top brass from the Chester Police Department, at Widener.

"When you're in a cage for so long and you've managed to get out of the cage, the last thing you want is to have it upset," he said.

Dan Hanson, Widener spokesman, said the school knew "from the beginning" that Rushdie didn't want security for the engagement. Beyond that, Hanson referred questions to the Chester Police Department. Calls by the Daily News to Chester Police Chief Floyd C. Lewis were not returned yesterday.

During his Widener session with an intimate crowd of 125, Rushdie spoke of the Danish cartoons that drew ire from the Muslim world ("What would a respectful political cartoon look like?") and of his own religious beliefs, saying he's a scholar of religion but not a believer.

"Whether I'm religious or not is secondary, because the world I write about is pretty religious," he said.

Rushdie, who hesitates to tell Americans how to vote since he can't, said he would be satisfied with either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama as president. But the outside world, he noted, is desperate to see real evidence of change in America.

"Obama looks like the change guy, he's the guy who doesn't look like a continuation of the machine," he said.

His parting advice to aspiring writers was simple: "You have to sit down and not get up until you've written some stuff."

"I guess there are people who can walk around and write," he said. "But they're called poets."