American Ground

I just finished reading William Langewiesche's great article "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center" (July/August, September, and October Atlantics). Having spent one week a month at Ground Zero since 9/11 (volunteering for the Salvation Army), and being a retired fire chief with thirty-three years' experience, I think Langewiesche has it right. I often thought while at the "pile/pit" that this was a social experiment in the making. Ground Zero certainly had its own culture, one that will affect the personnel who worked there forever. I was part of the "hype" and patriotic fever—not that it was all bad. But Langewiesche has put it in perspective as no other author has to date.

Don Ford

Pontiac, Ill.

I am astounded by the ironies of the protests against William Langewiesche and his book American Ground. I attended the last of his book-signing appearances with my daughter, who became terrified by the picket line of protesting firemen that we unexpectedly encountered. She gripped my arm in fear while urging me not to offer a rebuttal to one of them who had come inside to speak. It was fascinating to experience the freedoms we all proclaim to hold dear—the freedom to write, to buy a book, to protest—come so close to being trampled when one does not agree with another's view. Was my daughter's fear of leaving (as evidenced by prolonged loitering inside the bookstore) any different from others' fear of flying after September 11? Isn't instilling fear in order to change behavior the primary objective of the terrorism we are all committed to eradicating?

The reaction of Egyptians to the conclusions of the EgyptAir investigation are perhaps more ironic, although certainly less ominous, than the reactions of some Americans to the observations in American Ground. While reading the November 2001 Atlantic cover story on EgyptAir, also by William Langewiesche, I was amazed by the passionate refusal of the parties involved to accept the apparent facts. I concluded that this was just one manifestation of the vast cultural differences between America and other societies. Yet today there are people in my country who have never been to "the pile" who are equally passionate in disputing the observations of someone who was there for several months. Perhaps in this age of heightened friction between Eastern and Western cultures there is not as much dividing us as we believe. Because we are human beings, our emotions may have greater control over our actions than we may want to believe.

Thank you, William Langewiesche. Thank you for insights that I would never have been able to gain otherwise. Most of all, thank you and the protesters and the bookstore owners for a unique opportunity to explain what truth and freedom mean to an eleven-year-old girl who before the night of that book signing did not realize their connection to the absence of fear.

Craig Hattabaugh

Weston, Mass.

I'd be surprised if I'm not the ten thousandth reader to write this, but thank you and thank William Langewiesche for his revealing, insightful, straightforward, and obviously well-researched and well-written account of Ground Zero. It is quite simply the greatest piece of journalism I have ever read.

Joe Donatelli

Los Angeles, Calif.

Finishing William Langewiesche's three-part series on the deconstruction of the WTC "pile" left me breathless. His incisive and compassionate take on the Herculean task facing the city and private work forces will doubtless form a seminal document on the subject for generations to come.

How I wish that Langewiesche had written a paragraph or two about life beyond the WTC perimeter during those months, if only to complete the dark picture of devastation and ruin that racked Lower Manhattan.

For those tens of thousands of us who worked or lived within blocks of the towers, the going was very, very tough. We were aware that our lives had been spared that day; if one or both of the towers had toppled instead of collapsed, the death and destruction would have been far greater. But the day-to-day existence in that war zone during the following months was a trial all its own. At first fawn talc, remains of the pulverized concrete and metal, and we knew what else covered everything—windows and windowsills, awnings, rooftops, building façades, and store displays. Then we heard the discomfiting screams of sirens, as police and fire vehicles raced to the site daily for any number of reasons—perhaps to deal with the fires that kept erupting, or the discovery of bodies. The occasional rumors of imminent flooding or nearby buildings about to collapse were unnerving, together with the ubiquitous metal barricades closing off the streets and sidewalks of our neighborhood. These were attended by seas of blue and camouflage, heavily armed and uniformed men and women constantly demanding to see the identification of ordinary persons trying only to enter their places of work. We competed for space on the narrowed sidewalks with gawkers and snapshot takers whose presence we at first deeply resented but would eventually learn to tolerate. Any loud sound, to say nothing of any aircraft flying overhead, made us jump. And for months afterward we encountered the constant smell of burning, acrid air, tinged now and again with the unmistakable scent of decay, that reached as far down as the subway stations and greeted us every morning as soon as we stepped out of a train. Few believed that the air was free of asbestos or other toxic substances, despite governmental assurances to the contrary.

Our faces were grave, somber, perpetually depressed; the atmosphere and mood endlessly funereal. Yet we had no choice but to carry on. The 9/11 attack and its aftermath viscerally affected everyone, everywhere. But in something of a different sense, it happened to us.

Michael E. Zuller

Great Neck, N.Y.

Throughout "American Ground," William Langewiesche attempts to substantiate unfounded myths—about the New York City Fire Department, about the rescue operation, about what "really" happened at the World Trade Center—as cold hard facts. And repeatedly he fails.

Most preposterous and saddening of all these attempts is his "jeans" story, in which Langewiesche "concludes" that firefighters responding to the scene of the World Trade Center chose to loot jeans and stuff them into the cab of their truck rather than help save lives in the burning buildings. It's an unfounded accusation that unfortunately sets the tone for Langewiesche's unabashed—and undeserved—attack on the Fire Department.

The evidence that made it "hard to avoid the conclusion that ... while hundreds of doomed firefighters had climbed through the wounded building, this particular crew had been engaged in something else entirely" is questionable at best. Langewiesche cites as evidence the removal of a ladder truck from deep within the rubble of the South Tower; when "the hulk of the truck appeared, rather than containing bodies ... its crew cab was filled with dozens of new pairs of jeans from The Gap, a Trade Center store." That is the evidence on which Langewiesche bases his absurd conclusion, and yet the facts of the day point to a very different, far more logical conclusion.

The men from that truck—Ladder 4—were actually doing their jobs that day: the bodies of Ladder 4 members were found near a South Tower elevator, along with a Hurst tool that they, in their last moment of life, were using to extract the victims trapped inside. Ladder 4, which was parked at street level near the command center established by the South Tower, was recovered from the B5 level of the South Tower parking lot, well below street level. The lower floors of the South Tower were occupied by commercial spaces, and the force of the building's collapse spread debris from those commercial spaces—which included stores that sold pairs of jeans—through the larger pile of rubble. Other vehicles caught within the collapse were also found with commercial debris blown inside them from the force of the falling building.

At least five eyewitnesses to the recovery of Ladder 4 attest to the accuracy of these facts and dispute Langewiesche's version. They include an FDNY recovery-team leader, a grappler operator, a member of Local 14 working at the site, and two other FDNY members—a firefighter and a battalion chief—also working that night tour. Langewiesche was perhaps unaware of, or chose to disregard, these facts. In this one instance of misrepresentation and inaccurate conclusion he clouds the credibility of his larger narrative.

Langewiesche and The Atlantic should not have tarnished the memory of our city's heroes with foolish, unfounded, and absurd accusations. Such absurdity degrades men who valiantly died trying to save lives. Such absurdity insults countless others who devoted months to the dignified and respectful recovery of all victims of the attacks. Such absurdity insults the truth.

Nicholas Scoppetta

Fire Commissioner

New York City Fire Department

New York, N.Y.

William Langewiesche replies:

Nicholas Scoppetta is known to be a fine and honorable man, and I respect his concern about the reputation of the department he heads. However, after months of nearly constant presence at the Trade Center site, I had the task of writing frankly about the scene there—not as various groups might have wished it to be but in its full and rich complexity. The "jeans" story was a minuscule part of that. It was reported and verified by multiple reliable sources, and as written (with identities carefully omitted), it was strictly related to the reactions and interpretations on the "pile" at the time, months after the collapses, and not to whatever may or may not have actually happened on 9/11. It has been taken out of context by people whose anger seems to stem from my unwillingness to endorse uncritically every element of the heroic imagery that has been promulgated about the Trade Center site. Nonetheless, I believe that "American Ground" stands as a deep tribute to all the groups involved in the Trade Center recovery work, including New York City's firefighters.

The Roaring Nineties

In "The Roaring Nineties" (October Atlantic), Joseph Stiglitz fails to account for the normal cycle of growth and maturation in the industries producing the major new inventions of our era: cell phones, personal computers, home Internet service, Web sites, and their corporate and government information-technology cousins.

These and all other inventions follow a trajectory similar to that of the farm tractor. A few primitive tractors had been built by 1909. As the technology improved, construction workers built more factories to produce more tractors. Tractor production and the workers required for it grew until the early 1950s, when production peaked at 750,000 tractors per year. By then most farmers owned tractors; the industry became mature, and annual production plummeted to 300,000 over the next three years, inducing widespread layoffs. No new factories needed to be built, and tractor production ultimately stabilized at just a third of the peak rate. The normal growth and maturation of a major industry is sufficient to induce large and rapid changes in employment, first up and then down; one does not need to invoke policy to explain them.

An alternative explanation for the Roaring Nineties is this: the industries associated with the new inventions of our era grew rapidly in employment and production during the 1990s and matured nearly simultaneously around 2000, resulting in enormous layoffs. Neither the policymakers nor the politicians had much of anything to do with it.

John Frisch

Wichita, Kans.

Thank you for the very informative article by Joseph Stiglitz. I really enjoyed his comments. However, the "savings-and-loan debacle" to which Stiglitz refers, "in which the U.S. government had to bail out banks," involved not a single bailing out of a savings and loan, and was quite different from the problems faced by our large commercial banks in the 1980s. The banks' problems were unwise loans given to governments and too much lending on beautiful real estate that had no tenants.

I have been involved in the savings-and-loan business for more than forty years, and I am well acquainted with the problems of the eighties. The major problem was a government program to deregulate the liabilities of these institutions without allowing any relief on the asset side when the inevitable happened. The government compounded this error by encouraging healthy institutions to take over sick and dying institutions with the use of what was referred to as purchase accounting and also by instituting a way that existing thrifts could sell off below-market loans and book the loss as an asset. These programs were all the doing of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and an attempt to forestall and disguise the public insolvency of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation. The savings and loan did not ask for this deregulation, did not want this deregulation, behaved admirably and honorably in the face of an impossible economic situation, and was brought down because of an inept government program of deregulation and its reluctance to credit an error.

The cost of this so-called debacle was multiplied manyfold by the use of thirty-year financing to solve a four-to-five-year problem. This is a mistake that a first-year finance student or anybody with a modicum of common sense would not have made. It managed to add $350 to $400 billion to the cost of this bailout, which prior to that time had estimates of about $130 billion.

Robert J. Sharfman

Chicago, Ill.

Tqhe Roaring Nineties" was insightful, but there is no mystery about why unemployment below six percent did not cause rising labor costs and inflation—something else for which, if we're so inclined (and I'm not), we can thank Alan Greenspan.

Joseph Stiglitz asserts that some aspects of the 1990s "powerfully benefited the poor," a point with which I take issue. Rising labor costs—and inflation—happen only with labor shortages. The 1990s brought no substantive labor shortages, because legal immigration, at 1.2 million people a year, brought more immigrants than even the million-a-year average of the Great Wave from the 1880s to 1918. Add significant numbers of illegal workers, and salaries remained stagnant especially for the poor—immigrant and non-immigrant alike.

That wage- and inflation-depressing factor of unprecedented immigration was not lost on Greenspan, an outspoken advocate for high immigration. But it might well be added to Stiglitz's list of ill-conceived, ill-advised business subsidies at the expense of our long-term well-being.

Kathleene Parker

Los Alamos, N.M.

School Vouchers

Jonathan Rauch's argument for school vouchers (The Agenda, October Atlantic) is a strong one, to which I would like to add another: break the stranglehold of the colleges of education on entry to the teaching profession! In my experience, the college of education is too often a last refuge for students who cannot meet the foreign-language requirement for a B.A., and have no head for science, math, or technology. Let anyone with a degree in any field submit his or her records and references to school boards. Check the applicants' legal backgrounds, and test them psychologically. Give them written guides to the principles of conduct, legal and ethical standards, methods of dealing with parents and with problem students. Supervise them for a while! Then let them teach. I think our failing schools would be the very first to benefit from a higher quality of teacher.

Sister Kate Hawthorne

Rineyville, Ky.

Incredibly, Jonathan Rauch's piece in praise of school vouchers does not even mention the pre-eminent objection to them: since 80 percent of private schools are parochial, vouchers are public funds that directly support religious education.

James S. Bernstein

Rockville Centre, N.Y.

Jonathan Rauch makes the same mistake that most school-voucher advocates make: equating school choice with healthy competition. Vouchers, in his view, would force public schools to "shape up" when faced with the rivalry of private schools. But it is an odd notion of competition that requires one competitor to assume significant burdens from which the others are immune.

A federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, mandates that public schools offer "free, appropriate public education" to all students, no matter what their level of ability. If children require constant one-on-one attention, or if they need special classroom adaptations to accommodate their specific needs, or if their behavioral problems preclude a normal classroom setting, public schools must provide for them. This kind of attention, though morally just and necessary, can be extremely expensive, in many cases exceeding $50,000 per student per year.

Private schools can choose to avoid this responsibility, and most do. If Rauch wants real competition between public and private schools, he should advocate adherence to the IDEA for all schools involved. Otherwise, private schools will be able to use tax money to educate only those students who fit their admissions criteria, leaving public schools to deal with everyone else. It is easy to predict where that kind of "competition" will lead.

Jefferson Ranck

Portland, Ore.

Designer Bugs

I read of the bio-engineered mousepox-IL-4 virus, with its 100 percent lethality rate, when the experiment was first announced, in July of 2000. My first thought was "What's to stop scientists from introducing interleukin-4 into human smallpox?" Jon Cohen ("Designer Bugs," July/August Atlantic) prefers to downplay this possibility by citing the virologist Frank Fenner's objections. Fenner gives three reasons why smallpox-IL-4 will never be created: it might not work; it would most likely kill the scientists, since the virus could beat vaccination; and the virus would kill people too quickly to spread contagion effectively.

The first objection is academic. The second does not consider the possibility that scientists given to religious fanaticism or delusion would be willing to give their lives in service to an apocalyptic cause. The third objection seems odd. The longest-lived mice in the mousepox-IL-4 experiment survived ten days. But even if smallpox-IL-4 killed within only twenty-four hours of exposure, an infected human being could travel quite far in a plane, a train, or an automobile. Especially in the chaos of mass panic.

The new post-9/11 world has no shortage of alarmists. But to give little credence to the worst possible scenario is to be as myopic as the "ostriches" Cohen cites in his article.

John Erdos

Santa Monica, Calif.

Jon Cohen replies:

No precise gauge exists of how much fear people should feel toward specific biological threats, but with accurate information one can at least compare and contrast the various nightmare scenarios. The mousepox-IL-4 experiment, which was first reported in January 2001 (not July 2000), caused a stir not because the virus was uniformly lethal but because it killed 60 percent of mice vaccinated against it. Frank Fenner does not state that smallpox-IL-4 would "never" be created. Rather, he argues that it probably wouldn't work as well as garden-variety smallpox. The three points listed in John Erdos's letter simply reiterate why Fenner thinks a bio-terrorist or bio-weaponeer would rather use regular smallpox than one that carries the IL-4 gene. The "worst possible" scenario, then, need not involve any genetic engineering, and my article attempted to highlight this, because fears of the unknown often wrongly overshadow fears of the known.

Homeland Insecurity

As the primary sponsor of the Driver's License Modernization Act (DLMA), I was disappointed to see that Charles Mann's article "Homeland Insecurity" (September Atlantic) compounded an obvious bias against the proposal with factual errors.

Mann claims that the DLMA "envisions storing smart-card information in one [national] database," which shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the bill, the technology, and history. The advantage of smart cards is that they are "databases of one" that do not need to be stored; in fact, the bill specifically prohibits storing the card biometrics in a database. What the bill does do is authorize funds to enable the databases of state motor-vehicle agencies to "talk" to one another, to prevent bad drivers and criminals from obtaining multiple licenses from different states.

Mann also claims that smart cards can be cracked using "only a bright light, a standard microscope, and duct tape." Mann is obviously not familiar with the work of the Cambridge security researchers who made this discovery, or he would have listed some of the other requirements: a $30,000 "probe" to mount the microscope, several weeks, and advanced degrees in computer science. And all that effort will get only the data that any purse snatcher could get just by reading the information printed on each card in your wallet. Who would go to the trouble?

Mann also uncritically repeats Bruce Schneier's fear that criminals might "steal your thumb," making it impossible ever to get back your identity. Mann doesn't say how a thumb might be stolen, except to note that plastic or gelatin molds can fool some scanners. (How does the thief get the mold of your thumb without your noticing?) Stealing a thumb isn't a problem, because a smart card can be canceled and reissued. To use an analogy, if a thief stole the key to your house, you could protect your belongings two ways: by changing the locks or by changing houses. Since you can't change a lock when the key is your thumb, you simply migrate to a new card. Any thief who steals both your smart driver's license and your thumb would be a fool to use either, because once you reported the theft, the first use of the card would result in the thief's capture.

Mann also contends that the smart-driver's-license system would not have stopped the September 11 attacks if it had been in place, prompting Schneier to ask what problem is being solved. The bill is not designed to prevent past terrorist attacks; it is designed to prevent future attacks. All the efforts under way to tighten the visa system and improve terrorist watch lists are useless if a terrorist can walk across the border undetected and get a state-issued driver's license. Among the other problems the smart license will address are identity theft, dangerous drivers who spread their "points" across multiple licenses, underage drinkers, and the proliferation of authentic-looking ID templates on the Internet.

Nobody claims that any one technology is a magic bullet that will prevent all future terrorist attacks. At the same time, nobody doubts that the driver's-license system is broken: getting a fake ID is practically a rite of passage for American teenagers. The question is how to fix the system while getting the biggest bang for the taxpayers' buck.

James P. Moran

Eighth District of Virginia

U.S. House of Representatives

Charles C. Mann replies:

As James Moran writes, the question is whether the DLMA and other proposed security measures will improve security. In some ways the law might help. For example, the DLMA authorizes funds to help states connect their driver's-license databases to prevent people from obtaining multiple licenses. This sounds like a good idea—but it has nothing to do with the proposed biometric license itself. In other respects, unfortunately, the DLMA would be ineffective or worse.

For example, I argued in my article that the consequences of stealing biometric data would be very difficult for victims: if people steal the digital signature of your thumb, either by deciphering it from the chip in the license or by obtaining your thumbprint, you can't readily obtain a new thumb. Representative Moran responds by suggesting that nobody "would go to the trouble" to crack smart cards directly and that "stealing a thumb" is unlikely. First, after 9/11 it should be clear that people will indeed go to the trouble to do us harm. In Europe, where smart cards are common, forgery has been rampant for years. (In an amazing court case the European pay-TV division of Vivendi Universal and two American pay-TV companies, EchoStar and DirecTV, have accused a corporate rival—a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation—of cracking the security system of the smart cards used to identify subscribers and distributing the information on the Internet. This demonstrates why the DLMA will not, alas, stop identity theft, underage drinking, or the other "problems" mentioned in the letter.)

Second, as my article made clear, "stealing a thumb" doesn't mean literally amputating a digit. Thieves "get the mold of your thumb without your noticing" by lifting fingerprints—Representative Moran leaves them on the doorknob of his house every time he walks in. The fingerprints are then scanned, printed in relief, and used to create molds. Representative Moran writes that "any thief who steals both your smart driver's license and your thumb would be a fool to use either," because he would be caught the first time he tried to use them. But this would also be true of today's dumb driver's licenses if the license databases were better connected to other networks. Again, improvement would have nothing to do with the chip.

The DLMA, Representative Moran claims, will prevent a terrorist from walking across the border and getting a state-issued license. But foreigners don't need U.S. licenses to drive here, just as Americans don't need foreign licenses to drive abroad. If a foreigner on a terrorist watch list wanted a U.S. license, the DLMA would not prevent him from using fake foreign ID to obtain it. The question remains: How will biometric licenses prevent future terrorist attacks? What problem are they solving?

To me, the most intriguing possibility in Representative Moran's letter is his hint that smart cards' capacity for storing personal data would mean that less of it would have to be kept in state vehicle-license databases. Indeed, these might be eliminated altogether, which would block the current practice of selling this information—invaluable to stalkers and identity thieves—to companies without drivers' consent. If this abuse were stopped, the risks to citizens of the new system might well be fewer than those posed by what we have now. Unfortunately, Representative Moran's bill advocates expanding those state databases—and says nothing about improving their security, which is widely believed to be poor. If he wished to focus his legislation on creating a more secure, more networked driver's-license system, he might find that Schneier and other security experts would support it, even if one component of that system was biometric cards.

Dining Matters

I thoroughly enjoyed Corby Kummer's Palate at Large in the October Atlantic. I first visited Maison Marconi as a grad student at Johns Hopkins, in the 1970s, and then frequented it in the 1980s during a decade in Baltimore. The restaurant has changed far more than Kummer realizes. In those days it took no reservations, and if one was not ready to charge the door at 5:15 to get a seat, one waited, often for more than an hour, in the very crowded vestibule. Men had better be wearing ties and jackets, and even if you looked nice, you might well be seated in the back room if you didn't measure up to what the maitre d' expected. Waiters were wonderful, but took no guff; and if you weren't in the door by 8:00 P.M. you were not going to be served that evening. But the food was worth twice what the place charged, and even today it's as good as I remember. Kummer may have missed one dish that I associate even more with Maison Marconi—namely, Oysters Pauline, in the old days available only on Friday evenings. Now, that would be a recipe worth having!

Ben Primer

Hopewell, N.J.

I greatly enjoy Corby Kummer's articles. The quinoa soup of his November Palate at Large was, as he said, "surprisingly satisfying," made in my kitchen with golden-beet greens. His recipe calls for "well-rinsed" quinoa, and this is something worth stressing. The book Turn Off the Fat Genes notes: "Quinoa is coated with a bitter-tasting substance called saponin that repels insects and birds and protects it from ultraviolet radiation. Be sure to wash quinoa thoroughly before cooking to remove this bitter coating."

Diane Pleninger

Anchorage, Alaska

Advice & Consent

My article "Interracial Intimacy," on racially mixed marriages, appeared in the December Atlantic. It was largely drawn from my new book, Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption. In the article I quoted several letters to the editor published in The Village Voice and Ebony, and a statement by the sociologist St. Clair Drake—material to which I was introduced by the Ph.D. dissertation of Renee C. Romano. I cite Romano's dissertation in my book but not in my article, because The Atlantic dispenses with footnotes and other bibliographical features that are typically found in scholarly texts.

I learned much from Romano's original and wide-ranging research, which has now become a book, titled Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America, to be published by the Harvard University Press. Romano's monograph is excellent, and I hope it will gain the large audience that it deserves.

Randall Kennedy

Cambridge, Mass.

I so appreciate Barbara Wallraff's response to Carl Linhart in the September Word Court. As a teacher of English to seventh-graders, I, too, believe that the study of grammar should be taken more seriously; I am stunned each September by the lack of skills my students bring from their earlier years of "grammar" school. It's true: they don't teach grammar anymore. The National Council of Teachers of English discourages the practice, which has puzzled me for years. My school district follows suit; I have had to store my 1980s grammar and composition books in my classroom to prevent their being "sent to the warehouse" to await a dismal fate.

NCTE president-elect David Bloome's comments to Wallraff are typical of what I hear too. I have yet to find that "great deal of research" to which he alludes, though I am actively looking. My postgraduate research program is centered on the efficacy of grammar instruction in the teaching of writing. I hear repeatedly of "evidence" that teaching grammar is a waste of time, but to date I've found only opinion pieces. Little, if any, empirical data exist to prove the futility of grammatical instruction. I'm hoping to provide some in support of the practice through my own research. Experience in my classroom has shown repeatedly that confidence in one's writing ability grows with one's knowledge of the conventions of standard usage. I will continue to teach grammar, to drill my students, and to edit their papers with my dreaded red pen, despite my department's instructions to the contrary. As a devoted fan of Word Court, I am indeed interested in having my students use apostrophes where needed and not put them where they don't belong.

Peggy Wison

Clinton, Md.

I enjoyed Cullen Murphy's review of measurement and subjectivity ("The Utmost Measures," October Atlantic). However, his article contains one egregious error, when he reports that researchers at Berkeley "randomly selected 720 people at street festivals" for measurement as to sexual orientation and finger length. This is a common mistake. There is absolutely no way the selection of research participants at a street fair could have been "random." Random selection requires that each and every person attending have an equal opportunity to be selected. This requires enumerating and identifying every such person. I suspect that, as in all such intercept interviews in social and market research, the researchers looked for kindly faces, people like themselves, people amenable to contributing time and finger measurements, and other subjective criteria.

L. M. Guss

Woodinville, Wash.

Aha, another venial sin, in writing about same! In his letter to the editor (October Atlantic) on Cullen Murphy's essay "From Soup to Nuts" (July/August Atlantic), Richard White writes that "a brother inkslinger, one in the employ of Newsweek, wrote recently of 'venal' sin." He concludes, "There is, literally, a hell of a difference." Indeed. The inkslinger was David Gergen, of U.S. News & World Report (June 10, in an article called "Love Songs to America"), not Newsweek. He wrote, "Roman Catholics distinguish between venal and mortal sins." And between newsweeklies, of course.

Lisa Bergtraum

Newsweek Research Center

New York, N.Y.

The public-relations person who told Ian Frazier ("The Mall of America," July/August Atlantic) that, with an addition being planned, the MoA will become bigger than the WestEdmonton Mall is telling only part of the truth. The WestEd has 800 stores, compared with 500 at the MoA, so that would have to be some addition. But in any case, the WestEd is planning its own additions.

Here are the stats:

Retail stores500800
per annum
42.5 millionNot kept track of (because WestEd visitors tend to do more than just shop)
Land area78 acres154 hectares (381 acres)
Anchor stores46

Guinness considers WestEd the largest shopping center in the world, and WestEd has the largest parking lot in the world (lots of room for the next expansion).

Marc A. Schindler

Spruce Grove, Alberta

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to