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Letting Go of Roe

In "Letting Go of Roe" (January/February Atlantic), Benjamin Wittes asserts that "in Gallup polling since 1975 … about 80 percent of respondents have consistently favored either legal abortion in all circumstances (21 to 34 percent) or legal abortion under some circumstances (48 to 61 percent)." He argues that if the legality of abortion becomes a legislative issue, public opinion will continue to favor pro-choice voters.

However, relying on poll data as reassurance that most states will not outlaw abortion is extremely dangerous. Responses to current polls are based on the presupposition that the legality of choice is mandated by the Supreme Court. To put it simply, Americans respond to the "framing" of issues by "elites"—public figures whose discourse shapes the way in which average people see things. Elite discourse about abortion now occurs in the context of debate about the degree to which abortion should be allowed, generally accepting that it should be allowed at least sometimes.

If Roe were reversed, the entire frame of elite discourse would be shifted, presuppositions would be challenged, and poll results would very likely reflect these changes. Though measures of public opinion show us now that most people are pro-choice, we cannot predict how these measures would shift in the face of an event as profound as the end of Roe. It's possible that polls would show less support for choice, and that politicians would respond to this decrease; the legislative consequences could be devastating.

Betting the future of a woman's right to choose on polls is not a risk I am willing to take.

Ryder Kessler
Cambridge, Mass.

Benjamin Wittes replies:
Ryder Kessler is certainly correct that one cannot know what the end of Roe would do to public opinion on abortion. My guess on that subject is indeed just a guess. And many pro-choice voters will doubtless share the sentiment that wagering the right to choose on such an unpredictable instrument as democratic government is too dangerous to be seriously entertained. I ask only one thing of liberals who take this position: that they grapple seriously with Roe's costs—the costs to liberalism of fueling a permanently energized pro-life constituency that can be neither politically satisfied nor politically defeated; the costs to the courts of having the judicial-nomination process dominated by an issue so marginal to the judicial function; and the costs to democracy of removing from the policy arena a question close to the hearts of so many voters with so little constitutional warrant. I believe that if more pro-choice voters considered Roe's costs seriously, the currently powerful instinct to defend the decision would wilt.

What Amy Would Do

I just finished reading "What Amy Would Do," by Sridhar Pappu (January/February Atlantic), and was stunned to see the following sentence regarding Ann Landers: "When she did stop in, former colleagues have said, she was sometimes volatile and intemperate to those around her."

I was Eppie Lederer's right arm for more than thirty years. She rarely came to the office, because she was a night owl, often working until 3:00 A.M. and sleeping past noon. Since her staff left at 5:00 P.M., the trip seemed hardly worth the effort. On those infrequent occasions when she came to the Tribune, she was accompanied by her driver or one of her assistants. If she had ever been "volatile" or "intemperate," I would have witnessed it or heard about it. Eppie was unfailingly kind and gracious, even to complete strangers. The only possible basis for this comment might be that Eppie was deaf in her right ear, and may have inadvertently ignored someone who spoke to her from that side.

Attaching the words "volatile" and "intemperate" to Eppie is the greatest fabrication since "once size fits all."

Kathy Mitchell
Chicago, Ill.

Sridhar Pappu's article prompted me to wonder: Will Amy Dickinson ever have a piece written about her that does not involve the name Ann Landers? She would feel better about it—and so would I.

Margo Howard
Cambridge, Mass.

Thieves of Baghdad

Lauren Sandler's "The Thieves of Baghdad" (November Atlantic) is, judging by the details in the story, based on one visit to Iraq, apparently in June of 2003. Sandler says 3,000 items were stolen from Iraq's National Museum, which was the official museum and U.S. Customs inventory count as of late June 2003, and does not give the figure of 14,000 that was in Colonel Matthew Bogdanos's report for the Department of Defense and in Andrew Lawler's Science article of August 2003. As for Jaber al-Tikriti, president of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, and Nawala al-Mutawalli, the director of museums, they can be faulted for many things, including their administrative capabilities and style, but the charges of criminal action are not believable.

At the time when Sandler was in the museum, a special investigative unit (the Bogdanos task force) made up of U.S. prosecutors, U.S. Customs agents, FBI agents, and police officers had been assembled to determine the facts about the looting. Very little was left uninvestigated. The Bogdanos report mentions negligence (carelessness with keys and leaving one storeroom door unlocked) and concludes that inside knowledge was required for thieves to go to the precise right part of one storeroom to take cylinder seals and other objects. But no finding in that report charges that top-level museum and Antiquities Board officials had anything to do with the thefts. The inside information could have come from anyone who had worked at the museum in the preceding fifteen years, even a cleaning person. Just before the 2003 war the museum staff did, in fact, hide the great majority of objects that had been on display in the museum's public galleries. Muyaad al-Damirjy was assigned by the minister of culture to head that effort because he had done the same thing in 1991, and he and four other people were the only ones who knew where the secret store was. Weeks after Bogdanos arrived, enough mutual trust had developed to allow the museum director to disclose the location of the secret store, which Bogdanos then inspected. Of course Muyaad was uncommunicative when talking to reporters before this disclosure. Officials of an occupied country are understandably going to be suspicious of occupiers.

Sandler suggests that the museum was conspiratorially kept closed throughout the 1990s, so that pieces could be taken out by Saddam's bodyguard and brother-in-law Arshad Yassin with the collusion of Nawala and Jaber. You get the idea in the article that the museum displays were all there, but that no one was allowed to see them except through bribery.

The chief thrust of Sandler's article is that Arshad Yassin was able to get Nawala and Jaber to help him steal objects from the museum in the 1990s. He was undoubtedly involved in smuggling antiquities out of the country, and for this he was removed from his positions by Saddam and banished from the inner circle. Whether he continued to deal in antiquities I do not know, but to do so would have been dangerous.

The looting of the Iraq Museum started on April 10, 2003, and Arshad Yassin may have played a role in the work of the professional group that operated mainly in one set of storerooms. But to say that Nawala and Jaber had a hand in it is, in my opinion, absurd. They are professionals and take their obligations seriously. Whether they were good administrators or made the right decisions in the face of an invasion can be debated. The fact that the great majority of the objects on display were saved is to their credit. That the entire collection of almost 40,000 manuscripts under the museum's responsibility was safely stored in an air-raid bunker, along with the most important books from the museum's working library, must also be seen as wise.

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