The Conversation

Readers respond to our September 2016 cover story and more

Are We Any Safer?

In the September cover story, Steven Brill documented the U.S. government’s efforts—and the enormous sums spent on them—to defend the nation against the threat of terrorism in the 15 years since 9/11.

Kudos to Steven Brill for focusing on the worst terrorist threat we face—not a dirty bomb, but overreaction to the radioactive materials spread by such a bomb. That is the lesson of the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear-reactor disasters. Most experts agree that the greatest damage came from panic and mass evacuations. Social dislocation and anxiety afflicted millions, causing far more health problems and deaths than the radiation itself.
Spencer Weart
Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

When Steven Brill described the layers of security at America’s airports, he missed an important one. After passengers have surrendered valued privacy and Fourth Amendment rights and have withstood invasive initial searches, they remain subject to further, arbitrary searches. Passengers who decline to again waive their rights are denied access to their flights and are reported to local law-enforcement agencies.
Terrorism will not destroy America as a whole, but terrorism does threaten individual Americans, and the government is right in taking reasonable steps to protect us. I draw the line at frenzied crusades that corrode our civil rights.
David N. Blair
Albuquerque, N.M.

Steven Brill wrote: “A Victim Compensation Fund was conceived of and passed by Congress in 10 days and became the nation’s single greatest act of tort reform. To the dismay of many trial lawyers, it allowed victims’ families to seek millions each in uncontested claims directly from the federal Treasury (and also bailed out the airlines).”
The Victim Compensation Fund was the brainchild of thousands of American trial lawyers acting through the American Association for Justice. They—not Congress—conceived of it, and Congress compassionately included it in the airline-bailout bill. AAJ then created Trial Lawyers Care, which became one of the largest pro bono legal-services projects in history, with 1,100 lawyers volunteering for years to provide legal help for 1,700 victims. The fund paid out $7 billion, saving thousands of people from financial ruin.
Julie Braman Kane and Leo V. Boyle
President and Past President, American Association for Justice
Washington, D.C.

The expansion of air marshals in the early 1970s was not in response to hijackings to Cuba, as Steven Brill writes, but to the hijacking of multiple aircraft by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in September 1970. Although the Cuba explanation has been published multiple times, it is a case of one erroneous report fostering another. I was one of the original federal agents assigned. After several months, the U.S. Customs Service hired permanent employees; the Federal Aviation Administration later assumed the duties but greatly reduced staffing.
William J. Vizzard
Sacramento, Calif.

Steven Brill replies:

William J. Vizzard is right. Thanks for correcting me. Julie Braman Kane and Leo V. Boyle are rewriting history. I reported on this extensively for my book After. The impetus for the victims’ fund came from lobbyists for the airlines and their insurance companies, which feared being on the hook for billions of dollars in lawsuits. Late into the night of September 21, as the bill establishing the fund was being negotiated, the airline lobbyists were gathered in Representative Tom DeLay’s office, helping to draft it. In that sense, it is these airline and insurance lobbyists who “conceived of” the idea, although it was an aide to then–Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott who first suggested the basics of how the fund would work in a way that avoided litigation—and he did so because Lott feared that trial lawyers would otherwise cash in on the tragedy. It is true that once the fund was established, many trial lawyers admirably agreed to help victims’ families file claims, often pro bono. But it is also true that other trial lawyers, including many in the small group that specializes in suing airlines after crashes, fought the fund, initially urged the families to avoid it and instead go to court, and to this day consider its legacy a threat to the American tort system.

Historical Wisdom

In September, Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson proposed that the next president establish a Council of Historical Advisers (“Don’t Know Much About History”).

The authors’ call for a White House Council of Historical Advisers displays their ignorance of “applied history,” or, as the many skilled practitioners of this type of history prefer to call it, “public history.” A significant number of contemporary public historians are policy experts who provide invaluable advice to government agencies, municipalities, lawyers, courts, and businesses. In fact, the federal government employs hundreds, if not thousands, of historians (including independent contractors). There is even a Society for History in the Federal Government, which has existed since 1979. As Allison and Ferguson might have mentioned, the State Department has an excellent Office of the Historian, and the branches of the armed services also employ numerous historians. These public historians collect and edit primary resources and prepare historical studies intended to support and guide policy makers. Perhaps a Council of Historical Advisers could bring needed attention to the fine work of existing public historians and attract larger budget allocations and more talent to the field. However, such an effort should acknowledge that bringing historical insights to bear on contemporary decision making is a complex and fraught proposition.
William S. Walker
Associate Professor of History, SUNY Oneonta
Cooperstown, N.Y.

If history teaches us anything, it is that reasoning by analogy is a dangerous business, reducing the specificities and contexts within which groups form and operate to superficial similarities. The appeal to analogical reasoning also rests on the notion that there can be singular understandings of historical events when, in fact, there is vast interpretive disagreement among historians about the causes of, motives for, and outcomes of those events. The controversial writings of Professor Ferguson are a case in point. A Council of Historical Advisers would simply be a political arm of the administration it was serving, legitimizing the actions of the state.
That Henry Kissinger is cited as “the most influential modern practitioner of applied history” is perhaps the most telling aspect of this proposal. Kissinger was a canny diplomat whose policies were directed toward advancing the imperial interests of the American nation-state. His actions undoubtedly made history, but they were hardly influenced by it.
This is not to say that politicians don’t operate with a vision of history, one that is often self-serving and flawed. But a Council of Historical Advisers is not the remedy. If there is a role for history in a democracy, it is a critical one, exposing the presumptions of present politics, not sustaining them, and thus enabling movements of protest and opposition to influence the direction of policy and diplomacy in ways more peaceful, just, and equitable than might otherwise have been the case.
Joan W. Scott, Andrew Aisenberg, Brian Connolly, Ben Kafka, Sylvia Schafer, and Mrinalini Sinha
Editors, History of the Present
New York, N.Y.

As Ferguson and Allison envision it, the council could help presidents avoid unforced historical errors, like the invasion of Iraq. When Bush “chose to topple Saddam Hussein,” they write, “he did not appear to fully appreciate … the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims,” and “he failed to heed warnings that the predictable consequence of his actions would be a Shiite-dominated Baghdad beholden to the Shiite champion in the Middle East—Iran.”
It’s a fair critique, but neither Ferguson nor Allison is in a great position to make it. It wasn’t what either of them [was] saying at the time.
During the war fever of 2002–03, Ferguson wasn’t urging the administration to rethink the Iraq adventure, lest they inadvertently empower Iran—he was cheering the disaster on. “By showing them just how easily Saddam’s vicious little tyranny could be overthrown,” he wrote in the Daily Mail, “Mr. Bush has made it clear to the leaders of Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia that he is in deadly earnest. If their countries continue to sponsor terrorism as all three notoriously do Saddam’s fate could befall them, too. Such sabre-rattling evidently works.” Further: “Historians may well look back on 2003 as a turning point in the troubled politics of the Middle East. And they will give much of the credit for that transformation to the courageous and undoubtedly risky strategy adopted by President George Bush.” Just the hard truths Bush needed to hear! …
Graham Allison was much less exuberant about the Iraq War, but he wasn’t against it. When you’ve got “rattlesnakes in your backyard, backing off and hoping they slink away is not the answer,” he wrote in October 2002 …
So when Ferguson and Allison write in The Atlantic that “applied historians will never be clairvoyants with unclouded crystal balls,” they’re putting it mildly … If they’d had the president’s ear at the time, he’d have gotten extra doses of alarmism and delusions of grandeur …
In fact, there was a top-flight Middle East scholar, fully up to speed on the differences between Sunnis and Shiites, who had the administration’s attention in the run-up to the war. That was Bernard Lewis … who [wrote] pro-war think pieces in The Wall Street Journal
So one potential problem with the CHA idea is that the president would get to pick the historians. Personnel is policy, and presidents might staff the council with scholars who feed them even crazier ideas than they’ve already got.
Gene Healy
Excerpt from a Cato Institute post

The two professors suggest that, if a future U.S. president were to create a Council of Historical Advisers, one of the key questions she or he should ask the historians is whether, given the current rising tensions between the U.S. and China, the security commitments which America has made to countries such as Japan are as dangerous to peace today as the pledge which Britain made to defend tiny Belgium in the Europe of the 19th century.
This is a classic example where the choice of the comparison decides the outcome of the argument. For the security guarantee which Britain gave to Belgium is now considered a silly, frivolous move which acted as the fuse pushing Britain into World War I in 1914, and ultimately cost the lives of millions. Any comparison between the British guarantee to Belgium in 1914 and the U.S. guarantee to Japan today will produce the conclusion that the best thing the U.S. should do if it wishes to avoid a war with China is to dump Japan.
However, what if the U.S. guarantee to Japan and the similar American security guarantee to South Korea are not compared to Britain and Belgium a century ago, but to the U.S. security guarantee to Europe after World War II? That was a guarantee which worked as intended, and which consolidated a peaceful Europe despite the risk of war. Choose your historic analogy, and you get a different answer.
Jonathan Eyal
Excerpt from a Straits Times article

Niall Ferguson replies:

Gene Healy is guilty of something that historians are taught not to do: selective quotation that serves to misrepresent a writer’s position. In my 2003 book, Empire, I wrote that the U.S. “will always be a reluctant ruler of other peoples. Since Woodrow Wilson’s intervention to restore the elected government in Mexico in 1913, the American approach has too often been to fire some shells, march in, hold elections and then get the hell out—until the next crisis.” In my 2004 book, Colossus, I repeatedly pointed out that the U.S. was highly unlikely to make a success of its imperial undertakings in Iraq and Afghanistan, because it lacked the resources and, more important, the political culture to sustain the long-term occupations that history strongly suggested would be necessary. Unfortunately, my warnings that the Bush administration was biting off more than it could chew went unheeded. Almost no attention was paid in Washington to the lessons of the British experience in Iraq. Instead, the American public was treated to bogus analogies to the liberation of Western Europe in the later stages of World War II. Quod erat demonstrandum.

The Big Question: What concept most needs a word in the English language?

(On, readers answered October’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)

3. There is orphan, widow, and widower—but no word for a parent who has lost a child, or a word for that child (unless it was stillborn).

— Frank DiSalle

2. The second-person-plural pronoun! English has long been groping for a word distinct from our second-person-singular pronoun. We just need to settle on a lexical permutation such as y’all or yous, or make up a new word altogether.

— Mike Jones

1. We desperately need grown-up equivalents for the words girlfriend and boyfriend. Beau? Lady friend? Too old. Bae? Too young. Lover? Ick!

— Heather Woodford


“Are We Any Safer?,” by Steven Brill (September), stated that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a unit of the Energy Department. The commission is an independent agency. The article also stated that the Attack 2 fire truck in Rappahannock County, Virginia, was paid for by a $185,000 federal homeland-security grant. In fact, the grant was $160,000, which partially covered the total cost of the truck, $375,000.

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