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Michael Fumento ("'Road Rage' Versus Reality," August Atlantic) is, as always, a voice for sanity in a world full of people who like the sound of their own voices. His article raises a couple of interesting questions: If there were 2.8 car crashes per 100 million miles and 141 injuries in the same distance, how is the discrepancy explained? According to Arnold Nerenberg, 53 percent of the driving population has "road-rage disorder"; how can it be a disorder if the majority has it?
My own belief is that driving frustration is caused by a lack of communication tools. Drivers live in a world where communication is limited to honking the horn, waving, giving the finger, and yelling extremely nasty words no one else hears and which the yeller knows no one will hear.
People interacting in checkout lines are not frustrated, because they talk to one another -- "Excuse me" and the like. I suspect that if we all had CB-type short-range radios on which we could actually talk to one another, we would simultaneously be more courteous and less frustrated. Makes for boring copy.
Michael Fumento has gone to great lengths to prove that "road rage" is something conjured up by the media, public-relations people, and police departments. Statistically, he may be correct, but anybody who drives in rush-hour traffic anywhere will testify that there are far too many aggressive drivers. The tailgating, the obscene gestures, the frantic effort to gain a few dozen yards in traffic moving at a crawl, and numerous reckless maneuvers all point to a lot of very angry people. Aggressive driving may be hard to define, but as someone once said about pornography, I know it when I see it. I applaud the efforts of states that are beginning to recognize this significant problem and are enacting laws against out-of-control drivers.
Ronald W. Dyke
Bella Vista, Ariz.
When I was growing up, the light facing in one direction turned green at the same moment the other turned red. This made the yellow light a meaningful warning. Drivers learned to take it seriously.
Modern traffic engineers came up with the idea of a three-second pause after one light turns red before the other direction gets a green light. We drivers have learned that we actually have a few seconds after a light turns red to safely pass through an intersection. This is a learned behavior.
I believe there is no way to reverse this situation. Drivers anticipate this time gap, and eliminating it would cause many more accidents. Ultimately traffic engineers are going to determine -- wrongly -- that further increasing the delay will reduce traffic accidents.
Michael Fumento replies:
Steve Gerow correctly notes a disparity in my data. I should have specified that the 2.8 crashes per 100 million vehicle miles traveled refers only to passenger-car crashes involving fatalities.
Nobody doubts that a lot of drivers are angry, rude, or inept. But we have no evidence that they are more so now than they were a few years ago, or that they are causing more accidents. Federal data show that accident rates, injury rates, and death rates have all fallen per vehicle mile driven. Further, virtually every road activity that Ronald Dyke considers dangerous is already illegal, and the laws are widely enforced. That doesn't include obscene gestures, but First Amendment considerations aside, I think most would agree that we want rudeness and incivility scorned by society, not controlled by cops. If Mr. Dyke is thinking of the "road-rage control" programs that some states have begun, he'll be disappointed to find they are usually just a new name for something very old -- speed traps.
The behavior that Rob Lewkowicz describes is common. For example, as brakes have improved, shortening stopping times, people have adjusted so that now they simply brake later. This doesn't eliminate the safety advantages of better brakes, but it does reduce them. So it is natural that people would react to a "premature" red light by zipping through a yellow, though doing so is just as illegal as running a red. Thus lengthening the time gap serves no purpose, and, as Mr. Lewkowicz says, eliminating it would be disastrous. That's why I advocate using cameras at stoplights. Study after study has shown their efficacy in reducing accidents, injuries, and fatalities.
Does Roger Kaplan ("The Libel of Moral Equivalence," August Atlantic) seriously charge that regarding bloody Algeria, the Western press sides with the Armed Islamic Group at the expense of the government? I wish he could reconcile this assertion with the present global terrorist stigma placed on all things Islamic: owing to the World Trade Center bombing, Hamas, al-Jihad, and so forth, there's hardly a case in which "Islamic" doesn't equate with "terrorist" or "extremist" in the media's ten-second sound byte. Why would Western audiences make an exception in this case, and cast all blame on an allied secular regime? They don't.
In media swathed in violence the Algerian case still stands apart, because it is shrouded -- veiled, if you will -- in a darkness that raises many questions: Why has the regime been so reluctant to let in outside journalists? Why is its posture so defiant toward outside gestures, when most nations facing such terror appeal for global cooperation? Why, indeed, do soldiers lounge in barracks within miles of a massacre?
Today the regime gambles for its survival by fostering a violent opposition in order to save face by comparison and legitimize itself; this explains why village bloodbaths can occur for hours on end while security forces within earshot do not respond. In other words, the government has a sick interest in violence if it can be blamed on the terrorists alone. The more the media probe and question whether only the GIA is culpable, the more defiant and impotent the regime becomes.
Nearing his conclusion, Kaplan writes, "And, quite properly, uncomfortable questions were asked about the meaning of the army's failure" to heed the cries of butchered people. This may well be the understatement of the year.
Pierre E. Fuller
Roger Kaplan's fascinating report on Algeria begs for more analysis than he offers us. The only explanation he offers for the West's describing Algerian Islamicists as victims of the Algerian government's violence -- whereas the evidence seems to indicate that it is the Muslims who are responsible for the terror -- is that "U.S. policy officials, mindful of the U.S. experience with Tehran, considered how best to avoid being cast again in a satanic role."
Well, it may indeed be the fear of another Tehran that produces a pro-Islam policy (except with regard to Israel) in the United States and thereby in the rest of the West. Such a fear might account for similar Western policies in Bosnia, where the Muslims were painted as the only victims of the bloodshed there, and then in Kosovo, where once again terrorist activity by the Muslims is all but discounted, while the Serbs are regularly threatened with Western military action to stop their bloodthirsty acts against the Muslims.
We hear about the famine in Sudan, but we hear almost nothing of its causes -- namely, the deliberate starving and butchering of the Christian population by the Sudanese Islamic government. Nor have we received a very accurate picture of the continuing terrorist campaign against the secularists by the fundamentalist Islamicists in Afghanistan (those Islamicists who were armed by the United States to fight the Communists and are now using those arms against their secular cousins).
Perhaps it is the Tehran syndrome that propels all this pro-Islam sympathy, but I wonder whether there isn't another common strain running through these ugly distortions of reality. Does the price and supply of Middle Eastern Muslim-controlled oil play some role?
Florence Hamlish Levinsohn
Roger Kaplan replies:
I deplore the tendency, which of course long antedates our times, for Muslims and Christians and Jews to diabolize one another. I regret my lack of clarity, but I thought my point was precisely that "Islamic" is not an appropriate designation for the insurgency in Algeria; nor is "fundamentalist." Yes, the insurgents think they are fighting for Islam. But they are killing Muslims. In Algeria the government side is anything but anti-Islam.
No reporters that I know of have written of the terrorists with sympathy, but I have not noticed much sympathy for the government either. It is still blamed for being at the root of the trouble, with its failed social policies, its hesitations, its contradictions, its political bungling -- in other words, for being an ordinary, as opposed to a ruthlessly despotic, regime. In castigating Liamine Zeroual for winning an election with just over 60 percent of the vote (would 99.9 percent have been better?), in questioning his independence from the military, in suggesting without evidence that the army and other security services are committing acts of terror, the Western media are not exactly supporting the Algerian government.
Robert D. Kaplan, in his article "Travels Into America's Future: Mexico and the Southwest" (July Atlantic), says of me, "he hasn't been downtown in years." The truth is I go downtown quite often. Further on he quotes me as saying, "There will be more and more loneliness, and consequently more and more need for friendships.... The price of water will just go up and the quality will go down. Then we'll see."
I did not make such statements to Mr. Kaplan.
Mr. Kaplan must be one of the unhappiest people in America to have made such a lengthy trip and not found one thing that he enjoyed in all of Mexico and Arizona.
Roy P. Drachman
Anyone who knows anything about the Spanish conquest of Mexico knows that the cruel conquerors and the Catholic missionaries who followed them (and oftentimes opposed their cruelty) were especially curious and often perceptive observers of the peoples and the lands they encountered in the New World. The period of looting in New Spain did not last long, and by 1550 a European-style society had been established there whose economy was based on mining, large-scale agriculture, and ranching, and found cultural expression in the splendid architecture of new cities such as Mexico (on the ruins of Tenochtitlan), Puebla de los Angeles, and Guadalajara. The University of Mexico was founded in 1551, and by 1803, when the savant Baron Alexander von Humboldt visited Mexico, the economy, the culture, and the political organization of New Spain were at their apex. Baron von Humboldt wrote in his Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain that nowhere in the Americas, including the United States, had he encountered scientific institutions like those in the city of Mexico.
Modern Mexico's troubles owe more to decisions made by its elites and to foreign intervention in Mexican affairs after 1821 than to its founders in 1519.
Rafael E. Tarrago
In his recent article describing the two Tucsons, one very poor and the other very affluent, Robert Kaplan failed to include an important factor that exacerbates this situation. The affluent northern areas are not within the boundaries of the city of Tucson. Thus they escape all city property taxes. In addition, Arizona has a system of "state shared revenues" wherein the state gives back a portion of its revenues to the municipalities based on their populations. Because the unincorporated portions of the Tucson area are outside the boundaries of the city, the city receives no state-shared revenues for them. Since 90 percent of the population of the area around Phoenix is within municipal boundaries, this area receives a huge portion of these revenues at the expense of the unincorporated citizens of the state.
For twenty years, with little success, the city of Tucson has tried to annex the northern areas.
Was it the stimulus of leaving a city as monocultural as Seoul, Korea (where I taught history at a grad school), and arriving in Washington, D.C., that made me read the recent article by Robert Kaplan, ( "Travels Into America's Future: Southern California and the Pacific Northwest," August Atlantic) with particular interest? Kaplan spoke of Los Angeles, but here, too, the shape, color, and sound of our future can be seen.
The staff at our hotel seems to be all Latino or Ethiopian. At a filling station the workers seemed to be from Vietnam or Korea. An Iranian handled my mail at Mail Boxes, Etc. Another Iranian drove us from Dulles Airport to our hotel. Today we shopped at a 7-Eleven; the duty schedule for attendants could have been taken from the Khartoum or Addis telephone directory. A nice Arab boy gave me directions to a florist.
Kaplan's article got me thinking about the state of our "melting pot" these days. Multiculturalism is here, and I welcome it.
The problem posed by the current wave of immigrants, however, is caused by our own confusion and muddleheadedness about what it means to be an American, by our lack of confidence and healthy pride in a social and economic achievement that is the wonder and envy of the world.
The problem posed by immigrants is not that they come from new "feeder regions" -- namely, Asia, Africa, and South America -- but that they arrive in an America that offers them few shibboleths, universal markers for group identity and association. Immigrants arrive on our shores asking, "What must we do to become American?" These days we "old Americans" don't seem to have much to tell them.
Robert D. Kaplan replies:
My notes show that I quoted Roy Drachman correctly. His comments on loneliness and the decline of downtown came in the context of a lucid argument he presented about low-density American cities that lack mass transit. I spent roughly thirty minutes with Mr. Drachman, during which he also told me about his early life and Tucson's post-Second World War development, and about the links between his grandfather and Barry Goldwater's grandfather. I am sorry that more of the interview did not make it into my article and book. But his comment that I did not find one thing that I "enjoyed in all of Mexico and Arizona" indicates that he may not have read closely. I described even the most drug-ridden parts of Mexico as "also a civil society" with a "growing middle class." I described north Tucson as a dynamic economic center connected to the entire world, to be further populated by talented immigrants who will add skills and racial diversity. But Tucson's fast development has also engendered irresponsible actions regarding water resources and an increasing divide between rich and poor, which formed the focus of my article. It is a matter not of my being unhappy but of my belief that the thinking of the Founding Fathers should be emulated. When planning for America's future through the drafting of the Constitution, James Madison and company often thought as pessimists, in terms of what could go wrong for our society. It was their pessimism and realism about the human condition that have provided for our good fortune. Thus my approach to Mexico, Arizona, and the rest of North America.
You appear to have gotten your Kaisers mixed up. The table of contents for your August issue describes the memoirist Doris Drucker ("'Invent Radium or I'll Pull Your Hair'") as having been "born into an haute bourgeois family in the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm I." As Kaiser Bill the First died in 1888, I presume you meant to say Kaiser Wilhelm II, who abdicated at the end of the First World War.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1998; Letters; Volume 282, No. 5; pages 8-12.