Delete, Baby, Delete

We're not quite as good at destruction as we think we are


Earlier this year, as the Enron debacle began to unfold, the company's accounting firm revealed that its employees had destroyed a "significant but undetermined number" of Enron-related documents, either by shredding paper files or by deleting electronic ones. Actually, the firm revealed that its employees had sought to destroy the documents. How much destruction had in fact been achieved remained uncertain. Computer sleuths moved in quickly, looking for "fingerprints" of the missing electronic transmissions on hard drives and backup tapes; it seems likely that many of the electronic documents have not been fully erased and will be recovered. Some of the shredded documents from Enron itself may also be recovered—a task made easier by the fact that pages were sometimes put through the shredding machines sideways, leaving individual lines of type intact. "It's impossible to destroy all copies of documents," a Washington lawyer told The Wall Street Journal. "They inevitably show up."

Commentators have already drawn many lessons from the Enron case. One that I have yet to hear mentioned is that human beings are not as good at destroying things as we think we are. Oh, we talk a good game. One of the first verbs I was taught in Latin class was "devastare," "to lay waste," because it was needed to describe so much of Roman foreign policy. During the Cold War the nuclear strategy of both sides was governed by the concept of "mutual assured destruction." Roget's Thesaurus provides three times as many synonyms for "destroy" as it does for "create." In the United States, of course, destruction is an opportunity for commerce. Some 600 companies specialize in rendering documents into cinders or confetti. They have a trade association (the National Association for Information Destruction) and a code of ethics.

There is no denying that human beings have laid waste to a great many things in the course of time: cities, species, vast amounts of cultural heritage. What seems more remarkable, though, is how often attempts at destruction go awry.

On the eve of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Iran, in 1979, American officials desperately fed secret documents into the embassy's paper shredders. Over the next several years, while waiting for satellite dishes and Baywatch to arrive, the Iranians painstakingly stitched the documents back together. They ultimately published the reconstituted intelligence files in some sixty volumes, under the overarching title Documents From the U.S. Espionage Den.

During the controversy over the Iran-contra affair, in 1986, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North attempted to erase all the relevant e-mail messages on his computer; he repeatedly pressed the DELETE button, thinking that he was thereby expunging the messages. "Wow, were we wrong!" he later observed. North didn't know that pressing DELETE doesn't result in complete deletion. He also didn't know about the existence of a backup data-storage system.

Burial is another highly unreliable means of destruction. In the early 1980s some twenty-five boxes of documents pertaining to allegations of financial irregularities at the University of South Carolina were deposited in the Rockland County landfill. As it happens, landfills tend to mummify their contents rather than to biodegrade them. Years later investigators somehow located the documents, which remained intact and legible. Another problem with burial is that it too easily accommodates changes of heart. In 1862 the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti lost his wife, Elizabeth, to an overdose of laudanum; stricken with grief, he gathered up his unpublished poems and placed them in her coffin. Rossetti came to regret this act. Seven years later he had Elizabeth's body exhumed, and retrieved the poetry.

Historically, the most reliable means of destruction has been fire; used according to directions, it really does work. One of the grimmest episodes in the annals of combustion took place in 1835, when Thomas Carlyle asked John Stuart Mill to read a just-completed draft of the first volume of his monumental study The French Revolution. Mill took the handwritten manuscript away. Some while later he stood before Carlyle, ashen, explaining that his maid had accidentally destroyed it while lighting a fire. Carlyle received the news stoically; he told his wife afterward, "Mill, poor fellow, is terribly cut up. We must endeavor to hide from him how very serious this business is for us."

Fire destroyed the library at Alexandria. It has been the means favored by al Qaeda (whose hideouts are littered with incinerated evidence) and by Mrs. Warren G. Harding (who thereby obviated the need for a presidential library). It makes a frequent appearance in testamentary directives. One legal scholar has lamented that the correspondence of Benjamin Cardozo, a profoundly private man, was handled by the judge's executor "the way Warwick handled Jeanne d'Arc." Some recent losses to fire have been especially vexing. In the mid-1970s Colonel Guy Tutwiler, the commander of the University of Arkansas ROTC, incinerated a file relating to Bill Clinton's draft status and Clinton's (broken) promise to join the ROTC. The action was taken at Clinton's request. During the 1992 presidential campaign, when the matter surfaced, Master Sergeant Eddie Howard, who served under Tutwiler, provided an explanation that is hard to better: "One reason Colonel Tutwiler burned the file was that I think he thought it shouldn't exist."

But even fire is an imperfect disposal option. For one thing, its utter finality can be a psychological deterrent. Virgil instructed that the Aeneid be cast into the flames after his death; the Emperor Augustus couldn't bring himself to do it. Plato's Second Epistle ends with a request that the epistle be burned; obviously, the request was not honored. A letter from Jane Welsh Carlyle concludes, "Pray read all this unto yourself and burn the letter." A scholar has added this gloss: "Such an injunction is one of the surest methods of guaranteeing that a letter will not be burned."

Not only do some attempts at destruction achieve a less than satisfactory outcome; on occasion they become the cause of outright preservation. The Assyrian empire was brought down in the seventh century B.C. by an invading force of Babylonians, Scythians, and Medes. The conquerors put the great library of Ashurbanipal to the torch. Because the library's contents were written on clay tablets, the consequence was to fire the archives, as if they were so much pottery. Some 20,000 cuneiform tablets survived in the form of accidental ceramics.

Fragments of the works of Sappho have come down to us because someone in antiquity, wanting to get rid of papyrus copies of Sappho's poetry, threw them into the trash in the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, where archaeologists found them. Certain works by Archimedes have survived only because his words were scraped off by medieval scribes; the scribes re-used the parchment for a sacred book, whose sanctity ensured its survival into an age when a different kind of eyes could tease out the underlying original. The mosaics of Hagia Sofia, in Istanbul, were inadvertently spared degradation when the Ottoman Turks covered them with plaster. The early Christian writer Irenaeus spent a lifetime denouncing heretical books; many of the books were lost (burned), and yet the ideas survived through extensive quotation in his own fiery writing.

In the case of ideas, an attempt to destroy them head on almost always gives them enduring life. Indifference, though, is fatal. The radical philosopher Herbert Marcuse made many unfortunate pronouncements during the 1960s, but he was on to something with the notion of "repressive tolerance"—the capacity of a laissez-faire culture like ours to disarm almost anything. Marcuse coined the phrase in the mid-1960s, right around the time when the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale was helping to make the angry taunt "Burn, baby, burn!" familiar; two decades later Seale was busy promoting Barbeque'n With Bobby Seale, a collection of recipes.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it. They are repulsed by it."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In