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The Stain of Torture

Andrew Sullivan’s open letter to President Bush (“Dear President Bush,” October Atlantic) is an eloquent expression of the deep moral ramifications of torture. The question is not whether the United States deliberately tortured its prisoners, and thereby committed war crimes; the questions now are What does it mean that we did so? and What should we do about it? Sullivan contends that Bush’s authorization of “harsh interrogation” was an aberration from a man who is fundamentally honorable because he, at various times in the past, has condemned torture, proclaimed that America is above all “a nation of law and justice,” called evil by its name, and professed adherence to a Christian faith that recognizes the inherent dignity of all God’s children, no matter how great their sins. But the article, perhaps unintentionally, makes clear that Bush’s embrace of the abuses is a natural outcome of the Decider mentality: I’ll decide what is torture and what is not; I’ll decide what is legal and what is not; I’ll decide what is evil and what is not; and I’ll decide in whom dignity inheres and in whom it does not. In the world of hypotheticals, Bush may indeed be the ideal figure to help heal the damage done. In reality, the improbability that Bush will now decide to acknowledge any mistakes whatsoever, much less take full responsibility for the torture he knowingly authorized, means that unless we as a country are resigned to live with the stain of dishonor Sullivan so compellingly describes, it will be left to someone else to demand atonement for this ignoble legacy.

Bryon Williams
Ligonier, Pa.

Andrew Sullivan says, “It would be too damaging and polarizing to the American polity to launch legal prosecutions against” President Bush. I absolutely disagree. Our nation has deep reservoirs of strength. We are a great and noble people, and we were dragged into the sewers by the Bush administration. I want to know what happened, who ordered it, and who did it, and I want the guilty punished. We have survived far greater crises. We can survive this.

Robin Stuart
Austin, Texas

With the statement “You are not known for Clintonian parsings of moral truths,” Andrew Sullivan demonstrates that at one level he himself fails to understand President Bush’s actions. His entire article is predicated on exactly that: the parsings of moral truths. Mr. Bush and his cadre of advisers parsed the moral truths embedded in the Constitution, in the Geneva Conventions, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in common sense, to arrive at justifications for these morally unjustifiable and reprehensible acts. Mr. Clinton may have tried to dance around on the head of a pin with his question as to the meaning of is, but his actions and prevarications only damaged his standing among some; they did not undermine decades of unassailable moral leadership on the international stage. So although I join Mr. Sullivan in his plea to Mr. Bush to take responsibility for the torture promulgated in our name, I would lay the blame on Mr. Bush for precisely his parsings of moral truths.

David Rowley
Chicago, Ill.

The Merits of Vaccine

When I spoke to Jeanne Lenzer, the co-author of “Shots in the Dark” (November Atlantic), about influenza vaccine, my answer to the question “Does the vaccine matter?” was (and is) “Most definitely yes.” Unfortunately, you would never know that from reading the article.

Lenzer is certainly entitled to her own opinions on the uses and efficacy of influenza vaccines. When she and I discussed my research on the uses of nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) for pandemic mitigation, I clearly stated that hand-washing and social distancing alone would not protect the majority of Americans from a severe influenza pandemic. And when she brought up stocking canned goods, I averred that although storing food and water is a reasonable thing to do when preparing for any crisis, it hardly protects against influenza.

What the writers chose not to include from my comments (and what Atlantic readers need to know) is that NPIs serve only to slow or blunt a pandemic for a short period of time, at best. They do little to contain, let alone prevent, it. This is because you still have a huge population susceptible to the novel influenza strain, and once it does spread, as it always seems to, millions of people will get sick from it.

Socially disruptive measures like quarantines, public-gathering bans, or school closures would be a consideration in 21st-century America only in the event of a highly lethal and widespread flu pandemic (like the disastrous 1918 flu pandemic). If employed, the aim would be to buy a little extra time until mass amounts of vaccine could be produced and distributed, and reduce the rush of patients to hospitals. Fortunately, the hospitalization and death rates being seen for H1N1 simply do not support the use of more draconian measures like NPIs.

Allow me to state my unfiltered medical opinion based on 25 years of experience as a pediatrician and historian of epidemic diseases and epidemiology: the best and safest way individuals can protect themselves against seasonal or H1N1 influenza is to roll up their sleeves and get a flu vaccine.

Howard Markel, M.D., Ph.D.
The University of Michigan

Jeanne Lenzer and Shannon Brownlee reply:

We appreciate Howard Markel’s desire to clarify his personal position on flu. As the article says, many experts believe flu vaccine is effective; some believe it is not. The point of the story is that we really don’t know one way or the other: our public health policy is built on a very thin base of evidence.

If we inadvertently led readers to believe that keeping canned food in the basement, in and of itself, would offer a shield against the flu, we apologize for the confusion. We were simply trying to add a practical dimension to the often-heard suggestion, one that Markel himself made, that social isolation can help to slow the transmission of flu.

Nonpharmaceutical interventions should not be the only measures used during a pandemic. Our article merely argues that we have historically erred in assuming that what seems obvious must be true. We call for a reasoned, fact-based examination of what works and what doesn’t.

Hitchens’s Cheap Shots

I usually admire Christopher Hitchens’s insights. But his misguided critique of political humorists (“Cheap Laughs,” October Atlantic) was surprisingly ill-informed. As a literary critic, Hitchens is unequaled. But does the man even have a television?

Garrett Eisler
Kew Gardens, N.Y.

Judging the work of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on the basis of their books, as Christopher Hitchens does, is a little like judging the artistic abilities of John Lennon on the basis of his drawings and published writings. Yeah, they’re not great. But you’re kinda missing a little something.

The reason regular viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report remain so loyal to the hosts is because they can clearly sense that beneath the jokes beats a genuine, unironic heart, an unshakable belief shared by both men that there really are “better angels of our nature:” honesty, integrity, intelligence, compassion. And when the political world falls short of those ideals—as it so often does—sometimes the only sane thing you can do is laugh.

Nancy Banks Costenoble
Port Washington, N.Y.

Jon Stewart is not the most trusted journalist in America because of his skills as a comedian. He is the most trusted journalist in America because he is not cowed—unlike seemingly all actual journalists—by the threat of interview subjects’ restricting access. He questions assertions. He points out absurdity where it exists. And he has not publicly exposed himself as a liar or a hypocrite. This is admittedly the bare basics of journalism, and one would hope it took more than simple journalistic blocking and tackling to become our most trusted practitioner. That it doesn’t is a very serious problem for all of us.

Rob Zwiebach
San Mateo, Calif.

Advocacy Journalism

Mark Bowden has always struck me as one of the few straight shooters left in American journalism. In “The Story Behind the Story” (October Atlantic), he makes an eloquent plea for the return of objective truth-seeking in journalism. I share his desire for less political conviction and more curiosity in newspapers and the blogosphere. But when he offers only misguided anti-Obama bloggers as examples of the problem he laments—with neither a single example of advocacy dressed as reporting on the other side nor a serious effort to examine the media biases that drive his blogger subjects to do what they do—isn’t he doing exactly what he complains about?

Robert Schwartz
Boxford, Mass.

Two points: one, advocacy journalism would not happen if the public didn’t want it. It is the result of freedom in the marketplace of ideas, both good and bad. Mark Bowden will simply have to change the TV channel. Two, can there be journalism without advocacy? Not really. E. B. White put it well: “I have never seen a piece of writing, political or nonpolitical, that doesn’t have a slant. It slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular.” Bowden leans, so do I.

Ronald L. Trowbridge, Ph.D.
Conroe, Texas

Mark Bowden replies:

As I noted in the essay, liberal bloggers and TV advocates do the same thing as their conservative counterparts. My choice of a conservative example resulted from my appearance on Hannity, and the questions it provoked. The point was not that one side or the other is more at fault, but that real journalism is vanishing in the crossfire. I agree with both Ronald Trowbridge and E. B. White, but would argue there is a substantial difference between the “lean” of a journalist whose work is inescapably colored by his experience and values no matter how hard he labors to be fair, and the “lean” of someone engaged in political advocacy, which is more of a leap.

The Health-Care Debate

As a Canadian, I just shook my head at David Goldhill’s article (“How American Health Care Killed My Father,” September Atlantic). Canada and western Europe pay significantly less for their health care and have much better outcomes. The reason: socialized medicine. As Mr. Goldhill said, “Our nation’s health-care bill is too big to be paid by anyone other than all of us.”

Now, I know I’m not supposed to use a word like socialized when conversing with Americans if I don’t want them to run for cover screaming “The Commies are coming,” and I know I should soft-sell it by speaking of “single-payer systems.” But if there is ever to be a reasoned debate regarding health-care reform in America, certain truths have to be faced up to. In Western democracies, a socialized or collective approach to health care simply works better—that’s why everybody (except America) uses this approach.

As for Mr. Goldhill’s great faith in the brilliance of American capitalism, all those in favor of having your health care provided by GM, Chrysler, Lehman Brothers, Freddie Mac, and Fannie Mae, raise your hands.

Michael D. Blythe
Scotland, Ontario

I was disappointed that David Goldhill didn’t point out the correlation between increasing health-care costs and the Western diet. Since the 1970s, our American diet has evolved into a far more corn-based, fast-food diet, which has had some unforeseen consequences.

Mr. Goldhill might have proposed that we, as a nation, decide to eat real food, not the processed “food-like substances” so widely available in our supermarkets. Eating at a fast-food restaurant on a weekly basis is pretty much a guarantee that you will be entered into the health-care system sooner rather than later. By tweaking our farm policies to reflect the truth that we are in fact what we eat, we as a nation could well reduce our need for such expensive health care.

Scott Durkee
Vashon Island, Wash.

Advice and Consent

The image identified in Rachel Dickinson’s “A Hundred Miles on the Erie Canal” (October Atlantic) as that of “Lock 16,” one of “the original hand-cut limestone canal locks,” is neither of an original lock nor of Lock 16. The lock in the image is Lock 33 of the so-called Enlarged Erie Canal; this lock was built in the early 1840s, not during construction of the original canal circa 1820. Lock 16 of the current canal, built in the 1910s, is nearby. The original lock in the area was Lock 39, of which no trace remains. The reason for the decline in the numbers for a lock in the same area, from 39 to 33 to 16, is that with each succeeding enlargement of the canal, the locks got bigger, and fewer were needed.

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