Letters to the editor


The Things He Carried
Readers responding to Jeffrey Goldberg’s November article on airport security shared that they had carried the following items on board (with or without raising an eyebrow):
1. semiautomatic pistol
2. powdered tungsten to make a bomb
3. bowling ball
4. Swiss Army knife
5. ziplock bag of frozen spaghetti
Security Theater

Jeffrey Goldberg (“The Things He Carried,” November Atlantic) misses a most obvious component to why he was able to successfully pass through airport security whilst faking sweat, having no ID, using a phony boarding pass, and wearing an Osama bin Laden T-shirt: his race. Goldberg neglects to mention that a “smart terrorist” is better off using the ultimate weapon against the Transportation Security Administration: a white guy as the mule. Try all those things Goldberg did as a person of color, and I guarantee a different outcome.

Maya Lau
Brooklyn, N.Y.

TSA, like any bureaucracy, is not perfect, but, as a former transportation security officer, I was impressed by the professionalism shown by my colleagues and the Washington office. The vast majority of passengers understand the necessity of screening and cooperate accordingly. I quickly learned that a smile and a “thank you” go a long way in making the process go smoothly for all concerned. TSA must constantly evaluate and refine its procedures and adapt them to meet new potential threats. It also must work with a physical plant that in many cases is not well suited for maximum screening effectiveness. Since the agency’s inception, millions of passengers have flown without incident from the 450 airports staffed by TSA personnel. I think this speaks for itself. Finally, I would note that TSA personnel definitely do not, as Mr. Goldberg implies, retain Leatherman tools and other confiscated items.

James E. Scheffler
Des Moines, Iowa

Jeffrey Goldberg replies:

Maya Lau’s point is mostly unsupported by the facts. I am no defender of the TSA, quite obviously, but the agency is fairly rigorous on the matter of racial profiling. Complaints about racial profiling are comparatively few, and TSA doctrine, which reflects standard American counterterrorism doctrine, assumes that al-Qaeda actively tries to recruit white people to commit anti-American violence. Anecdotally, I’ve watched hundreds of white people undergo secondary screenings at numerous American airports. I have no doubt that problems remain, but from what I’ve observed, the TSA is an equal-opportunity irritator.

James E. Scheffler’s defense of his TSA colleagues is admirable, though again, not grounded entirely in fact. TSA employees have been caught stealing; recently, a TSA baggage screener was arrested at the Newark airport after allegedly taking 66 cameras and 31 laptops from passenger luggage.

Darn It

Steven Pinker (“Freedom’s Curse,” November Atlantic) uses curse and swear in their everyday senses, to apply to all taboo vocabulary, but it is useful to draw some distinctions. More narrowly, “swearing” and “cursing” are typically “profanities,” which is to say, violations of religious taboos. Swearing is now pretty rare (I swear to God!), though it used to be more common (in Falstaffian oaths such as ’Sblood!—“by God’s blood”—or Zounds!—“by God’s wounds”). Most of Pinker’s examples are “obscenities”—taboo words associated with various sexual and excretory functions. Pinker also mentions the infamous N word, which is a racial “slur.”

Nearly all of us—including George Carlin and Pinker’s colleagues at Havard—are offended by violations of some kinds of linguistic taboos. Political conservatives tend to be more offended by profanities and obscenities, whereas liberals tend to be more offended by racial and ethnic slurs as well as by slurs against homosexuals. Pinker says that words are arbitrary labels and that linguistic taboos embody a kind of magical misconception about language. In fact, though, speakers within a linguistic community typically show widespread agreement about the relative offensiveness of words. Linguistic taboos are real, then, not magical.

Gilbert Youmans
Emeritus Professor of English
University of Missouri
Columbia, Mo.

Steven Pinker replies:

One of the many odd features of taboo language is that we have no precise English word for it, only euphemisms, as if the act of using such language was as loathsome as the things and actions it refers to. We talk of swearing and oaths (promises), curses (damnation), vulgarity and profanity (the secular or common), epithets (names), expletives (fillers), blasphemy (insulting God), and obscenity and indecency (considerable overstatements when it comes to muttering “Shit!” after dropping a pencil). Racial slurs are not embraced by any of these words, yet psychologically they work the same way.

Linguistic taboos are certainly real in the sense of being a quirk of our psychology. But surely no one today believes that an incantation can send someone to hell, that an eavesdropping God will punish anyone who impiously invokes him, or that hearing certain words will corrupt a child’s morals. Yet intuitions of this kind must be what drives bureaucrats and lawmakers to feel they are entitled to restrict certain words, in defiance of all logic and the principle of freedom of speech.

Schools Maven

The profile of D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (“The Lightning Rod,” November Atlantic) left readers with the mistaken impression that she and other leaders must make a false choice between quality teachers and “extras.” The Economic Policy Institute report mentioned in the piece was titled “A Broader, Bolder Approach” because it recognized that we need to change the odds so all children can successfully achieve. Any school superintendent—whether in Washington, D.C., or Washington, North Carolina—needs to rec­ognize that there is only so much a quality teacher, adequate classroom supplies, and caring administrators can accomplish.

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