Vol. 28 No. 6 · 23 March 2006

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Behind the Sandwall

As Jeremy Harding’s essay illustrates, the conflict in Western Sahara remains one of the most misunderstood by outsiders (LRB, 23 February). The confusion stems from the fact that many observers consider the conflict a colonial issue, alleging Morocco’s occupation of the territory. But the conflict was fabricated by the Algerian military during the Cold War, with the support of some of the Communist bloc. It has been made to appear a war of liberation in order to garner support and sympathy from NGOs and anti-colonial activists. Those who claim that the Sahara belongs to Polisario forget that something similar occurred in the north of Morocco, which was occupied by Spain. According to their logic, Morocco should hand the Rif to the Berbers in the north. The colonial powers played with territories at will, enlarging countries at the expense of others, creating new identities and claims to territories, leaving behind bloody conflicts and irresolvable issues. Harding portrays the members of the Polisario Front as victims, yet Polisario held more than a thousand Moroccan soldiers and civilians captive for more than twenty years in tiny cells in one of the most inhospitable climates in the world. Harding does not mention this, or the use of torture and forced labour in the camps, or that many innocent Moroccans died in them. He says nothing, either, about Polisario’s terrorism, especially when he writes that ‘the Front’s units were sometimes able to raid beyond the Moroccan/ Western Sahara border, in Morocco proper.’ Aren’t these raids, conducted in Morocco, acts of terrorism? Do I need to add that the leader of the Polisario Front was born in Morocco proper? The game will not end in ‘Western Sahara’ until the international community is able to understand the reasons for Algeria’s active involvement in the conflict.

Zakaria Fatih

Don’t get mad, get even

Evan Riley claims that John Rawls ‘plainly rejects’ the idea that it is legitimate to ‘threaten to use nuclear weapons against civilian populations’ (Letters, 9 March). Yet, in The Law of Peoples, Rawls writes that ‘so long as there are outlaw states … some nuclear weapons need to be retained to keep those states at bay and to make sure they do not obtain and use those weapons against liberal or decent peoples.’ This clearly suggests that it is acceptable to threaten to use nuclear weapons against civilian populations, including those of non-nuclear states, and carries the interesting implication that the possession of such weapons may be justified by the need to prevent others obtaining them.

And while it is true that Rawls does not advocate the wholesale slaughter of indigenous people, he offers a defence of intervention in outlaw states in which genocide might be the regettable but unavoidable outcome. Once diplomacy and sanctions have failed and forceful intervention has begun, how are the invaders to respond if the indigenous people refuse either to surrender or to take prisoners? They would then have ‘no alternative but to fight back in kind’.

Rawls is a scrupulous philosopher, but not always a sensitive one. He acknowledges that the bombing of Dresden was ‘a failure of judgment’, but only because the timing was wrong. He is open to the possibility that a period from June 1940 to February 1943 might have been a ‘supreme emergency exception’ in which direct attacks on German civilians would have been justified: Dresden ‘was clearly too late’. I do not recall suggesting in my essay on genocide (LRB, 9 February) that ‘we should give up on Anglo-liberal philosophy’ (all my examples of exchanging duties for rights were European) but Rawls’s unselfconscious complacency helps to explain why some people might want to do so.

Malcolm Bull
London NW3

Life Tenure and Life Sentences

I agree with Bruce Ackerman’s recommendation that Britain should look to the German example of limited terms for judges (LRB, 9 February). The United States should too. The United States Constitution does not prescribe a term for federal judges or justices of the Supreme Court. Nor does it grant them life tenure. It states that federal judges of whatever level ‘shall hold their offices during good behaviour’ and assures that their salaries shall not be diminished ‘during their continuance in office’. These provisions were intended to preserve the independence of the judiciary. That independence means freedom from external influence while deciding a case under the law, which includes the Constitution. It does not mean liberty to impose one’s own views as to what the law or policy of the nation shall be. It is by no means settled that one must have life tenure to be an independent judge.

The Constitution distinguishes between the office and the term of the office, as in the case of the president, who ‘shall hold his office during the term of four years’. Thus, it would be perfectly consistent with the text of the Constitution for Congress, which has always exercised control over the structure and behaviour of judges and justices, to prescribe the term of office for the justices and judges. At a minimum, after these latest unsatisfactory confirmation hearings, Congress should consider legislation to establish the term of office for all future justices. People should welcome robust congressional debate over the essential issues of an independent judiciary. In the debate it will be ably argued that the framers intended that life tenure be accorded justices and judges. Maybe so, but they did not say that, when they easily could have done so.

Howard Anawalt
Monte Sereno, California

Rimbaud, Verlaine, the Fish and the House

I live across the street from the Rimbaud/Verlaine house, and have often wondered about Rimbaud’s activities in my neighbourhood (Letters, 9 March). It’s thought that he wrote some of Illuminations during his time in Royal College Street, and in the first of these, ‘After the Deluge’, he speaks of a ‘Hotel Splendid’ which was built ‘in the chaos of ice and of the polar night’. Until a few years ago, a house at 25 Mornington Crescent bore a very weathered sign reading ‘Hotel Splendid’. Today only the ‘Hotel’ remains, ‘Splendid’ having fallen off. I have often wondered if in his rambles, Rimbaud came across this spot, and was inspired by it.

Gary Lachman
London NW1

Opacity Quotient

How many of your readers understand Paul Taylor’s explanation of how web pages are ranked (Letters, 23 February)? Do the editors? Can they tell us what, in the name of Google, an eigenvector is, if not – as instinct suggests – a carrier of avian flu? I suggest that in future the editors attach an opacity quotient or difficulty factor to the letters published, as with a Sudoku puzzle or a ski slope, to alert the uninitiated. Thus for example in that edition, on a scale of 0 (lucid) to 10 (impenetrable), Taylor would score 9, Goldstein 7 (‘too little mental space’?), Purnell 6 (understandable but also unbelievable), Kenwright 5 (warfarin/warfarin’?), Lake 4 (the aleatory bounce), Sinclair 3 (the obscure three-letter word), Myers and Vaughan 2 (brevity etc), and Elfenbein 1 (thanks to the creative intelligence of Kasner’s young nephew). This letter, needless to say, comes in at 0.

Damian Grant
Villeneuve d’Ascq, France

On First Shooting Partridge

‘It couldn’t have happened here,’ Thomas Jones says, as ‘the senior members of Blair’s cabinet don’t use guns to relax’ (LRB, 9 March). Fair enough, but it is less than sporting of him to deride ‘Cheney’s cavalier way with a shotgun and disregard for the safety of his shooting companions’ when by Jones’s own account the unfortunate Harry Worthington risked a peppering by crossing the line of fire. Jones has a cheap shot at Americans’ freedom to keep and bear arms but the danger would have been graver had the incident happened in the UK. On first shooting partridge in Scotland I was mildly surprised to be handed a thoroughly lethal 12-bore for the day. Like most of my countrymen, the gun-toting Texans of Jones’s imagination make do, for both sport and safety’s sake, with diminutive 28-bores and the pin-head shot that spared Worthington’s life.

Russell Seitz
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Don’t forget your hat

As a dedicated hat-wearer, I take great exception to the final paragraph of David Nasaw’s review of Hatless Jack (LRB, 23 February). Hats are not at all uncomfortable and far from being unnecessary, even with a full head of hair. Where I live in South Tyrol many people wear them, particularly in the winter, and they can still mark a boundary, although here it is between the two language groups in the province and not between classes. When I see a woman wearing a knitted woollen hat with ear flaps of the sort associated with the Andes, or a man wearing a stiff, peaked cap of the sort that used to be called a ‘cheese-cutter’, I know that the wearer will speak Italian. On the other hand, a man wearing a felt fedora in dark blue or green will speak German, especially if there is a feather in the hatband.

Nasaw appears ill-informed, too, in the matter of the demise of the corset. If the advertising channels on German television are a reliable guide, then the corset is thriving in the Federal Republic. The technology is modern and the comfort of the garments is stressed, but there is no doubt that, despite the absence of whalebone, the principle is the same, as is the intended result.

Michael Hope
Meran, Italy

How do we do it?

Gordon Poole wonders that ‘there is no technology to automatically divide words in the right way’ (Letters, 9 March). There has been such a technology since Frank Liang at Stanford published his PhD thesis in 1983 ( and his method has long been a feature of the TeX typesetting system used by many mathematicians and scientists.

Michael Carley

Several Mistakes

There is a small inaccuracy in Charles Nicholl’s essay on Arthur Cravan (LRB, 9 March). The majority of Arthur Cravan’s writings have in fact been translated into English. They may be found in the Atlas Press book 4 Dada Suicides (1995, revised edition 2005), accompanied by a biographical essay by Roger Conover and a memoir by Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia. The other three ‘suicides’ represented are Jacques Rigaut, Julien Torma and Jacques Vaché. When I passed the London Review Bookshop a week or so ago the book was in the window.

Alastair Brotchie
Atlas Press, London WC1

Ian Sansom (LRB, 9 March) needs to update his record collection. The 2000 reissue of Johnny Cash at San Quentin includes the ‘excruciatingly sentimental barbershop favourite “Daddy Sang Bass"’; and, yes, the crowd loved it. The authorities must have put something in the water.

James Harris
Crail, Fife

I understand Solomon Feferman’s indignation at the ‘dozens of errors’ in Rebecca Goldstein’s book on Kurt Gödel (LRB, 9 February). However, Feferman makes an error of his own in referring to Oswald Veblen as Thorstein Veblen’s brother: he was his nephew.

Elias Georgantas
University of Crete

Tariq Ali writes that Leptis Magna was incorporated into the Roman Empire by Tiberius after the end of the Third Punic War in 146 BC (LRB, 9 March). A good while after, surely, since Tiberius was emperor from 14 to 37 AD?

Liz Gladstone

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