Mary Beard (LRB, 4 October) deplores our ‘refusal to listen to what the “terrorists” have to say’. She takes the view that ‘there are very few people on the planet who devise carnage for the sheer hell of it. They do what they do for a cause.’ This is only partly true. Over the past twenty-five years in Ireland I have made a point of asking anyone who was at school with members of the IRA, the INLA, the UDA and the UVF what these people were like at the age of ten. All have agreed that each child displayed a nasty early sign of terrorism long before he had a ‘cause’. One of them spoke for many others when he described his schoolmate, the embryonic terrorist, as ‘a resentful little cunt’. Had a cause not come their way, these people would have beaten their dogs or their wives and children, attacked one another at hurling matches or taken out their resentment on a long back garden. Would Mary Beard refer to these actions as ‘extraordinary acts of bravery’?
Allow me to applaud Marjorie Perloff’s letter (Letters, 18 October) regarding the overall tone of the LRB roundtable (LRB, 4 October). In a catastrophic situation one can learn fairly quickly who one’s friends are. Once it would have seemed inconceivable that an attack on New York City by apocalyptic religious absolutists that murdered five thousand civilians in a single morning would fail to elicit from scholars and self-proclaimed literary intellectuals some sense of solidarity, not to mention some sense of shared danger. The overwhelming majority of the participants in the LRB’s roundtable, however, could contribute only fatuous self-righteousness, reflexive anti-Americanism and a vicious tincture of schadenfreude. Among the offences to intelligence were Thomas Laqueur’s reckoning that the United States has committed ‘many’ crimes much worse than the destruction of the Trade Center, an event he deems ‘not so extraordinary’, and Eric Foner’s inability to determine whether the massacre was more frightening than President Bush’s vocabulary. All in all, the contributions amounted to a display of moral and intellectual bankruptcy in the face of an act of extraordinary cruelty planned and committed by persons whose goal is the destruction of the culture and society which makes possible the existence of the LRB and the books it reviews.
As for Fredric Jameson’s remarks about ‘the “events” we imagine to have taken place on a single day in September’, I would invite him to learn the difference between imagination and reality by taking a stroll in what is left of the neighbourhood where I lived for the past ten years. The smoke still rising from the mass grave and suffusing the air of Battery Park City might be pungent enough to pierce the fog of what he takes for thought.
A reader coming late to the ongoing debate could be forgiven for supposing that the original contributors were predominantly giving voice to European insensitivity and superiority. This would be a pity. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter at stake it has little to do with anti-Americanism. The provenance of the original contributions tends at least to support this. Out of 29 pieces, 14 were datelined in the USA, 11 in Europe and 4 elsewhere. The LRB deserves some credit for trying to avoid ethnocentricity and cannot really be faulted for having reviewers who lean towards rational detachment and thoughtful reflection, even on very emotional issues.
I am sorry to have to tell you that I have sent my Shostakovich review to another periodical for publication. After the narcissists’ jamboree you published on 4 October, I couldn’t bear to have my byline in the LRB.
University of California, Berkeley
Well, that's it. I've had it. It was bad enough that you disgraced your publication with six pages of apologia for the Islamic extremists who attacked the World Trade Center, killing thousands of innocent civilians. I was willing to give you a bit of grace when, in the next issue, you published Marjorie Perloff's cogent and coherent letter taking to task some of the intelligentsia for their ill-considered remarks. But it sickened me to read some of the letters in the 1 November issue, which attacked Perloff and continued their bending-over-backwards placating of the bin Laden lunatics. Your readers and contributors do not seem to grasp that the United States has the right, the duty and the obligation to return fire in full force. They do not understand that when Americans say we respect and value freedom, it is not a stupid clichéd holiday moment, it is meant. The Taliban do not stand for freedom, indeed they stand for the extermination of all one would have thought subscribers to the London Review of Books hold dear. But apparently not. I can no longer continue to subscribe to your publication and will use the money to purchase a subscription to the TLS, which so far has not managed to insult my intellectual capacity, my ethics, my beliefs or my nationality.
The response of some of your American correspondents to the 11 September roundtable illustrates some of the hypocrisies surrounding the American boast of freedom of expression. The first hypocrisy is the holier than thou approach that some Americans adopt to freedom of speech in the Third World. They lecture all and sundry about the virtues of free speech and the marketplace of ideas, but accuse those who attempt to explain 11 September as a byproduct of American foreign policy as celebrating the murder of thousands of civilians. This is grotesque and as chilling as most restraints on speech by Third World governments.
The second hypocrisy is the American media's failure to explore the link between the American Government's support of the illegal acts perpetrated by Israel in the occupied territories of Palestine and the rage that is caused by this support in many parts of the Muslim world. As an Asian-American who travels in the Muslim countries of Asia such as Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia, I have found that the anger against the US that has been expressed to me by Muslim professionals is not directed against the country's wealth or power nor against the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, but against the double standards practised by the American Government in allowing the Sharon Government's oppression of Palestinians.
Do correspondents to the LRB have a collective aversion to dictionaries? Maybe as too authoritarian and normative to be taken seriously? If I’ve done my counting correctly, three letters in your last issue maintained that ‘to have something coming’ does not entail (in two cases) ‘deserving’ something, and in the third, does not imply guilt. Chambers Dictionary records that ‘to have it coming’ is a colloquialism meaning ‘to have no chance of avoiding one’s just deserts’. This tells me in duplicate that the phrase in question entails justified punishment, which is what we normally mean by ‘deserving’ something. Among synonyms for deserve given in the Chambers Thesaurus are ‘ask for’, ‘justify’, ‘merit’, ‘warrant’. Mary Beard writes (Letters, 15 November) that she did not mean the victims ‘deserved to die’, but what did they deserve? Two words come to mind about this ‘argument’ – casuistry and its frequent component, sophistry.
Rather than define those terms for readers who surely have dictionaries, even if they don’t care to use them, may I just say that the original LRB collected reactions to 11 September, which have justly provoked such uproar, were the equivalent, the equal and politically opposite reaction, to George W. Bush’s ghastly first response to the disaster while visiting that school in Florida. Equally embarrassing, but with simple-minded aggression standing in, in Bush’s case, for the general impression of righteous casuistry left by your symposiasts. The only thing one can say is that Bush betrayed himself on the spur of the moment, whereas your contributors were asked for their thoughts in writing some time after the event, and astonished many of us by their coldness and irrelevance to the continuation or not of real lives.
To say the ‘United States had it coming’ is not to say that the victims of the 11 September atrocities ‘had it coming’. it’s an observation about US foreign policy over many decades. It is in no way incompatible with the compassion the dead and bereaved deserve. Those who construe it as callous or vindictive are, consciously or unconsciously, attempting to deflect a long-overdue reassessment of the USA’s actions as a world superpower. Only a psychopath would suggest that the individuals who died deserved to, just for being (most of them) US citizens. The entirely justified grief Americans are feeling should prompt the question: ‘What have we let our Governments do, that anyone should do this to us?’
Even Kissinger can hardly have thought that Vietnamese peasants ‘had it coming’ just for putting their faith in Communism; Reagan and Bush Sr surely did not extend their hatred of the Sandinistas to the individual Nicaraguans killed as a consequence of that phobia. It was the regimes they saw as the enemy. Bush Jr and Blair must think themselves justified in continuing to bomb Iraq, but their quarrel, surely, is not with the civilians and children they ‘collaterally’ punish.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Helen Clark, a committed supporter of the USA’s reprisals, has explained: ‘While I don’t necessarily wish to draw analogies or parallels, we might have Hitler still sitting in Berlin’ (he’d be getting on a bit by now) ‘if we’d been afraid of civilian casualties. it’s not meant, it is not intended, it is not targeted, but it is almost inevitable that someone will be in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ This is the language of geopolitics, a malign science in which human deaths count for nothing. It is in geopolitics, and the minds of the politicians who play at it, that the real callousness abides.
Because the USA is the most powerful nation on earth – ‘top nation’ – and, in pursuit of its own interests, intervenes aggressively in other nations’ affairs, it is not in a strong position to defend itself morally: ‘My country, right or wrong’ can only perpetuate the cycle of carnage. If they ‘had it coming’ is too brutal, can it at least be said that the most surprising thing about the terrorist strikes was that anyone was surprised? The suicide hijackers are guilty absolutely; but for the USA now a political examination of conscience cannot be put off.
Patea, New Zealand
Reading Mary Beard’s comment that the ‘United States had it coming,’ I began to think about how many people around the world might make such remarks without contradiction on the part of any thoughtful American: Chileans, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans and Cubans; Palestinians, Iraqis, Libyans and Sudanese; Sarajevans; Kenyan and Tanzanian victims of terror. The list is long and depressing, but it doesn’t include citizens of the country that wrote the book on modern imperialism, and, in the ruins of its empire, left the world with a host of geopolitical problems that will fester well into the 21st century, and whose current Prime Minister could hardly wait to join in the assault on Afghanistan. Coming from her corner of the world, the criticism Beard offers is very hard to take.
Victoria, British Columbia
The knee-jerk anti-Americanism posing as thought in your Letters pages continues to astonish and dismay. It is not unusual to see specious arguments used to support pre-set emotional positions, but what has been appearing in the LRB is unusually distasteful.
Mary Beard among others insists that to say the ‘United States had it coming’ does not mean ‘that the victims deserved to die’. Come now. That is just what it does mean, though euphemistically. She claims, rather, that it is ‘to recognise a causal connection between US foreign policy’ etc etc. This is the spurious logic of blaming the victim. Accordingly, the Poles should have questioned their responsibility for being invaded by Germany, the surviving European Jews for the Holocaust, every rape victim for being raped. There are people who hold these views; Mary Beard joins their company. All actions have causes, but the attribution of cause to the object rather than to the agent of violence has itself a cause: prejudice.
Gilbert Elliott in the same issue claims that to say ‘the US had it coming’ is not to say that they deserved their fate any more than the Afghan victims of American bombardment deserved theirs. (I leave aside the preposterous implied equivalence between the ruthless, bloodthirsty targeting of as many innocent people as possible and the inevitable and regretted collateral consequences of war.) The point, he says, is that ‘Americans simply cannot comprehend the view from the other side.’ This is anti-Americanism of a stupefying shallowness. Does he really believe that such inability to comprehend is a peculiarly American trait and that those bombed Afghans, on the other hand, do comprehend ‘the view from the other side’?
Marjorie Perloff’s letter left me speechless. Words are supplied by Wole Soyinka, interviewed in the Toronto Globe and Mail on 5 November: ‘The US is one of the most insular societies that I have ever encountered anywhere in the world. it’s not just a question of them not knowing – but more not knowing that they don’t know.’ While most Americans couldn’t find Canada on the map, it’s odd that someone as well-educated as Perloff is not aware that the upward mobility of immigrants and their children does not make the US unique.
One reason truth is an early casualty of war (and of other hysterical manifestations) is the ease with which people surrender the ability to think. We all do this, but it is galling to be told by J. Glenn (Letters, 15 November) that your contributors should have used ‘common sense’ in their response to the crisis. It is all the worse when s/he apparently conflates common sense with ‘critical intelligence’, which is a rare faculty, and one which the LRB displayed abundantly in the post-11 September issue.
I have been struggling to make sense of Glenn’s mysterious statement that ‘the only reason terrorist organisations … are able to function is that “great Satans” do not attack innocent and guilty alike, but try … to distinguish between them.’ Have I missed something? Terrorists do what they do around the world irrespective of how their governments – or anyone else’s – behave in response. Democracies and tyrannies, and all shades in between, have seen countless innocents murdered by the desperate and unscrupulous for the sake of a cause. When Glenn goes on to praise the US for ‘its readiness to accommodate, legitimise and even encourage alien belief systems’, my brain starts to ache. Look at the beneficiaries: Pinochet, Mobutu, Zionists on the West Bank, the House of Saud, the pre-11 September Taliban – alien indeed to those they have oppressed.
My critical intelligence makes me abhor all alliances between self-righteous bigotry and cynical raison d’état, whether Kissingerite or Koranic. My heart (yes, I have one) makes me grieve for all victims of senseless slaughter.
Some of the reservations proffered by your contributors are generally and rightly accepted in the American academic community. The Palestinian question is seen as particularly difficult and must be revisited; President Bush's recent refusal to meet with Yasser Arafat is part of a rather uncritical notion that preservation of the state of Israel equals support of any policy exercised by any particular Israeli Government.
However, to use this and a number of other American policies as justification for the attacks of 11 September is bad logic. World War Two was undoubtedly the consequence of British and French policies, thought justified at the time, towards Germany and Germans in their defeat after World War One. If the reasoning commonly cited in reference to 11 September had been applied, British civilians would have reaped what they had sown – meaning German conquest of Europe, British isolation and even defeat had Germany successfully developed an atomic device deliverable with V1 rockets. By not accepting that logic, many nations spared the world the inevitable evil that Hitler's conquest would have meant. Whatever the mistakes of British – and by analogy American – policy, at some point the very principles by which a nation claims to govern and which control most if not all of its behaviour become more important than any particular policy mistakes. This is especially true when the opponent offers such a bleak vision of human nature, culture and society.
Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York
It is not easy to come to terms with the attacks of 11 September, and those who have all-encompassing answers are kidding themselves. But out of the welter of possible responses, two are surely not on: ‘Serves you right!’ and ‘This attack was utterly unprovoked.’ Maybe the squabbles that are breaking out at the moment – in your Letters pages and elsewhere – have arisen because some people think that some other people are saying one of these things when in fact they’re not, just something rather like one of those things. However, in rejecting these two extreme responses, we are more or less bound to accept that their opposites overlap. That is, the attack was provoked but was nevertheless unjustifiable. So where does that leave us? We could start with a willingness to go in either direction (‘What was the provocation?’ and ‘What would have been a justifiable response?’) instead of getting on our high horses – something that is always done for the benefit of the riders while those by the wayside get spattered with mud.
Mons la Trivalle, France
David Simpson thinks (LRB, 15 November) that ‘surely this one event’ – the attack on the World Trade Center – ‘cannot stand as adequate absolution for or empirical equivalent to the ravaged places of the world in whose destinies we have been implicated, and which we show no signs of ceasing to violate.’ What, pray, would be ‘adequate absolution’ in the eyes of Mr Simpson? How many more bombings does he require against those, who, as he puts it, ‘go on carrying the torch for trade in a world centred on New York’? Presumably those requiring ‘absolution’ do not inhabit the University of California, Davis, where, we are told, Mr Simpson instructs the young – so he, at any rate, is safe. May God (or his/her ‘empirical equivalent’) absolve him for this sacrilege – and you for publishing it.
University of Glasgow
Explosion in Toulouse
Following the events of 11 September, the Health and Safety Executive is unlikely to publish a map of the major chemical installations in the UK – the counterpart of the French website which Paul Seabright found so helpful (LRB, 1 November). A couple of years ago, three British geographers prepared such a map, showing the far greater number of hazardous sites per square kilometre in this country (after all, France is six times the size of the UK). The map was published in an academic journal: when Seabright sees a copy (I'll send him one) he may decide that Toulouse is not such a dangerous place.
A Golden Zep
Bernard Shaw was not the only one to be excited by the spectacle of a Zeppelin being brought down over Potters Bar, as E.S. Turner writes (LRB, 15 November). My grandmother, who was living in Potters Bar with her family at the time, wrote to her brothers and sisters in September 1916:
It was a still night, clear to the north but misty towards London. We had not been in bed more than an hour, when the sound of gunfire through the rattling of a noisy goods train made me hop up and don a dressing-gown. Poking my head out of the window I beheld to the left a golden Zep being peppered with shells. We congregated in the dining-room and watched from behind the thick curtains. The Zep was turning about, trying to escape. It looked like a great shining fish in the air. At one time it seemed perpendicular. Then it began to come our way and dropped a bomb that shook the house and made the air hit our faces. So we adjourned to the back passage, where the walls are thick and no glass could hurt us. No sooner had we done so when a glare shone through the back door glass panels. ‘It’s burning!’ we cried, and hurried back to the window to see it falling in flames. It looked as if it might fall onto the house but really fell in a field behind the church. Next morning we saw its crumpled remains hanging on a tree … What a horrible fate the Germans send the Zep crews to!
Thomas Laqueur (LRB, 4 October) mentions that Félix Faure ‘died in the arms of his mistress’ and then a few lines later says that ‘he took the sacraments on his deathbed.’ Where can I apply for these sacraments?
Laurens, South Carolina
Michael Wood, writing about Derrida (LRB, 1 November), doesn’t mention that Levinas’s image of viscounts chatting about viscounts with other viscounts ahead of the ‘deconstruction’ of France in 1940 is derived from Mireille’s song ‘Quand un vicomte’: a big hit for Maurice Chevalier in 1937. The song’s message is that we talk most comfortably with people in the same line of business as ourselves and about others similarly engaged.
In his review of Françoise Waquet’s book about Latin, Anthony Grafton (LRB, 1 November) refers to Gibbon’s attempt to veil the cavortings of Theodora in the obscurity of a learned language. This passage, however, is from Procopius and is therefore in Greek, not Latin. Grafton also claims that ‘some of the most radical prophets of modernity’, such as Descartes, felt they could address the ‘deepest questions … more proficiently in Latin than in their native languages’. But Descartes’s Discourse was published in French, a language he explicitly associates with the use of uncorrupted reason, not in Latin.
James Francken (LRB, 1 November) quoted some ‘unsettling lines by Alter Brody, the Yiddish poet’, from the anthology at the end of the prayer book used on the High Holydays in Reform synagogues, but Brody arrived in New York from Russia at the age of eight in 1903, and wrote in English. He died in 1981.