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.

I write this as the former U.S. assistant secretary of primary and secondary education who was charged with implementation of No Child Left Behind. Yes, we must have quality teachers and accountability. But they will take us only so far. Students also need high-quality early-childhood and preschool programs, after-school and summer programs, and programs that develop parents’ capacity to support their children’s education.

Susan B. Neuman
Professor, School of Education
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Mich.

Clay Risen replies:

While I greatly appreciate Susan B. Neuman’s insight, I believe she is missing a critical distinction between education policy and education politics. She is undoubtedly correct that improving teacher quality and improving a student’s social milieu are not mutually exclusive, and are both important means to improve student outcomes. However, education policy is not made in a vacuum, and cannot be. This is where so much of education policy breaks down: there is, sadly, a broadening gulf between teacher-quality advocates and those aligned with “A Broader, Bolder Approach.” Arguably, the answer lies in a mixture of the two. Whether we can find that answer depends much more on improving our education politics than on improving our edu­cation policy.

Boy or Girl?

As one of the most vocal activists in the American transgender community, I would like to thank you for investing in this fascinating human-rights issue (“A Boy’s Life,” November Atlantic). However, beginning with your title, your bias shines through. You give great respect to Ken Zucker’s ideological beliefs, minimizing the ever-increasing data showing that transsexualism is biological.

I’m fortunate to have survived transition as an adult and to be thriving as the woman I have always been, despite half a century of social ostracism and physical and mental torture at the hands of my medical colleagues. I presented a paper in 2005, with Dr. Milton Diamond, to Dr. Zucker and a host of other experts at the International Behavioral Development Symposium, showing that exposure to DES (diethylstilbestrol) in utero was strongly linked to the onset of the intersexed condition called transsexualism. Recently, another paper was published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, positing another biological cause.

Is there research to be done? Of course. We also need better techniques to differentiate between those who are truly transsexual and those who will turn out to be gender variant, yet comfortable in their genital sex, and those who are simply gay. The bottom line, however, is that forcing children through years of misery to placate parents causes immeasurable harm to the gender-variant children. And parents should care, first and foremost, about their children’s well-being.

Dana Beyer, M.D.
Chevy Chase, Md.

Hanna Rosin replies:

Meeting dozens of transgender kids and adults brought home the point that one cannot overestimate the pain and suffering of people, young and old, who find themselves in this impossible predicament. All of the things Dr. Dana Beyer mentioned, I witnessed or heard about: the social ostracism, the mental and medical torture.

But that alone does not change the psychological or medical reality. There just is very little medical research describing the condition, and no consensus on how to treat it. Biologists are nowhere near defining it as genetic. Experts differ radically, particularly on how to handle very young children. Dr. Zucker’s approach may infuriate Dr. Beyer, but he is considered one of the top experts in this field. Including his view is necessary, and certainly not the same as giving it “great respect.”

This is not meant to insult anyone or belittle their choices; it’s just a fact, and it’s what makes being transgender so difficult. Most of the parents I met wanted to do right by their children and not by society. But that doesn’t change the reality that they are pioneers, defying the establishment.

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