Letters to the editor

Al-Qaeda's Hard Drive

In his article "Inside Al-Qaeda's Hard Drive" (September Atlantic), Alan Cullison writes, "They had fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and they fondly remembered that war as a galvanizing experience, an event that roused the indifferent of the Arab world to fight and win against a technologically superior Western infidel."

The Soviet Union was a Western infidel? I can see how one might be able to make the claim that today's Russia is "Westernized," but when the Soviet invasion began, in 1979, I doubt that anyone in the world (Afghan resistance and foreign Arab fighters included) viewed the Soviet empire as a "Western" power.

Michael Alaly
Pompano Beach, Fla.

Alan Cullison is right to compare al-Qaeda's strategy of tempting the United States into hasty revenge to the methods of nineteenth-century anarchists. In The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad's classic tale of the revolutionary underground of European émigrés in London, the sinister anarchist bomb-maker, known only as "the professor," makes the rationale of his struggle clear.

To break up the superstition and worship of legality should be our aim. Nothing would please me more than to see Inspector Heat [the detective assigned to the investigation of foreign anarchists] and his likes take to shooting us down in broad daylight with the approval of the public.

The point is that al-Qaeda does not gain succor just from what Cullison calls "Arab resentment against the United States"; it also profits from the West's agonizing over the legally—not to say morally—dubious methods used to combat international terrorism, some of which clearly have a certain popular appeal, particularly in the United States. Obviously, this tension exists whenever liberal democracies are confronted by existential enemies. But the threat of terrorism—unlike, say, that of extremist political parties—cannot be assessed according to the normal rules of democratic politics. Hence the problem of terrorism is one of information (or, rather, the lack of it) and political responsibility, because the state is privy to what little information there is. It is obvious to all now that politicians like Bush and Blair are gambling with very high stakes—lives and liberty—but with little knowledge of the odds. Conrad's anarchist would recognize this dispiriting conclusion as proof that the terrorists have already succeeded in destabilizing our societies.

Andrew Glencross
Florence, Italy

Alan Cullison replies:
Michael Alaly is certainly correct that by our own Cold War definitions the Soviet Union would not have been considered a "Western" power in 1979. But the differences between the United States and the Soviet Union take on another hue when you consider them from the perspective of the U.S.-armed fanatics in Afghanistan during that period. Most of them were illiterate, and not well versed in the ideological differences between capitalism and communism. Rather, they fought the Soviets primarily because they regarded them as infidels with decidedly Western values: the Soviets preached secular education, Western clothes, and greater rights for women. Today the United States is largely pressing the same values in its own occupation of Afghanistan. And its former allies, mujahideen like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Osama bin Laden, are now its most stalwart enemies.

Hollywood and Politics

In "The Hollywood Campaign" (September Atlantic), Eric Alterman described the Center for Public Integrity as an "advocacy" organization that receives funds from the Streisand Foundation.

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that conducts investigative research and reporting on public-policy issues. We do not take positions on public-policy issues, we do not lobby, and we are not an advocacy group. We are a journalistic enterprise. The center's reports have won the George Polk Award, Investigative Reporters and Editors Awards, and Sigma Delta Chi Awards, among others. This year the center was awarded the PEN USA First Amendment Award for its body of work.

The center does not take money from governments, political parties, corporations, or labor unions. We disclose all our funders on our Web site, including the Streisand Foundation, which provided a small sum for general support in 2003. No one from that foundation—or any other—has influence over the content of the center's reports.

Charles Lewis
Executive Director
Center for Public Integrity
Washington, D.C.

Eric Alterman's political star map missed a painful, long-enduring irony. Since 1990, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the motion-picture community has given $40.4 million to the Democrats in federal races, while the tobacco industry has delivered $39.4 million to the Republicans. In other words, all the liberal largesse Alterman describes has been canceled out, almost dollar for dollar, by some of America's most detested and dangerous companies.

But is that any way for Big Tobacco to thank its most valuable marketing partner? Not only are Hollywood's PG-13 and R-rated movies blowing more tobacco smoke than films have at any other time since 1950, but smoking scenes are responsible for recruiting half of all new adolescent smokers in the United States each year—390,000 kids, worth $3.2 billion in lifetime revenue to the tobacco companies. Solid scientific evidence of catastrophic harm has attracted the keen attention of more than half of America's state attorneys general and compelled America's major health associations to call for an R rating on movies with tobacco imagery.

Hollywood's high-powered donors should do more than write checks. They should make sure that the motion pictures they produce and distribute don't pump up a notorious industry that is targeting their favorite candidates for defeat.

Regime change, as they say, begins at home.

Jonathan Polansky
Fairfax, Calif.

It seems to me that Eric Alterman took advantage of my hospitality to inaccurately report on my home, vehicles, activities, and energy use, all in order to label me a hypocrite. (Two Priuses, a ten-year-old BMW, and my daughter's friend's pickup truck hardly make for a driveway lined with "SUVs and assorted luxury vehicles.") Guess he's looking to pump up his populist image, which took a major body blow this year when he plunked down a fat wad on a home in East Hampton.

In observing Mr. Alterman's behavior those weeks he was out here, nosing around my home, gobbling Lynda Resnick's food, or ogling celebrities, I could ascertain that the shining gleam in his eye was not so much disgust as lust. I especially remember his weird stammering when I asked him about his own charitable activities: "M-m-my children go to public school!" Hmmm. I went to public school.

Perhaps for his next article Eric can expose the hypocrisy of his wealthy new neighbors. East Hampton has a thriving liberal philanthropic community and ought to be good for more open-bar events and free lunches at the expense of those whose ranks he aspires to join.

Enjoy your glass house in the Hamptons, Mr. Alterman. And remember, hypocrisy begins at home.

Heather Thomas
Santa Monica, Calif.

The Stakes in 2004

W ith all due respect to Michael Barone ("The Stakes in 2004," September Atlantic), his thesis about the importance of the coming election is unsupported by facts, and undermined by some of the facts he cites. At least since World War II the United States has had an essentially bipartisan approach to all its major policies. Civil rights, containment of communism, support for mechanisms of globalization like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, rapprochement with China (and the Democratic versions of "Nixon to China," such as welfare reform and the "end of the era of big government"), Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, big defense budgets, the interstate highway system, the invasion of Iraq—every single item on a list of significant federal policies has been dependent on widespread bipartisan support no matter which party initiated it, and the parties have taken turns leading the trend toward centralization and expansion of government since at least the Civil War.

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