JULY 25, 2005
Gregg Easterbrook’s hopeful essay on the possibility that warfare is trending toward obsolescence fails to meet the aspirations of its lofty title (“The End of War?” May 30). Warfare may presently be in decline as a result of increased democratization and prosperity, lack of conflict between superpowers, and improved international peacekeeping. But Easterbrook underplays the threat of nations going to war in order to secure scarce resources in the face of booming population growth. The world’s population is projected to increase by over one-third by the middle of this century, adding nearly three billion more bodies to clothe and feed. Meanwhile, the two most finite and vital resources on the planet, oil and water, are being depleted at an unsustainable rate when compared to population growth. Perhaps the Iraq war and the conflict in Sudan should not be viewed as fading data points predicting the phaseout of war, but instead as new data points tracking armed conflicts motivated by the desire to control vital resources.
Jeremy Trask, Natick, Massachusetts
TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES
Martin Peretz’s intemperate attack on my reporting merits a full response (“Consequences,” May 30). No one at Newsweek—least of all me—is defending the wording of the May 9 item about the U.S. Southern Command investigation into Guantnamo Bay. We made a mistake by portraying a Koran-flushing incident as confirmed by the U.S. military and have fully acknowledged it. But, in his skewed account of what went awry, Peretz is flat wrong to suggest I gullibly relied on an untrustworthy source in order to nail a “big scoop.” To start, neither I nor my editors thought we had a big scoop. That’s why the entire two- paragraph item ran on the second page of our “Periscope” section. The Koran incident was listed as one of a number of Guantnamo abuses—the others seemingly more egregious—that would be cited in the upcoming Southcom report. The source who provided the information may have been mistaken about where he saw the reference to the Koran incident and what precisely he saw. But the source was an entirely trustworthy, loyal, and responsible U.S. government official who had no axe to grind and who had proved extremely reliable in the past. Peretz wonders what other bad information this “magical source” has provided me. He is welcome to comb my extensive reporting on terrorism, intelligence, and related issues over the years and to identify anything else he thinks I have gotten wrong.
Peretz demands to know whether I bothered to read any relevant documents before writing the item, starting with the FBI e-mails that provoked the Southcom inquiry. I did indeed read them. In fact, I quoted from them at length in a January 5, 2005, Newsweek Online “Terror Watch” column (coauthored with my colleague Mark Hosenball) and again in a January 17, 2005, story in the magazine. He is right that there is no reference to Koranic desecration in the FBI e-mails that had, at that point, been made public. But, as my colleague Evan Thomas pointed out in the May 23 issue of Newsweek, the Southcom probe was broadened beyond the cases cited in the FBI e-mails to include other allegations of abuse. Peretz suggests there are no documents at all “stating that any American official anywhere during the present war against Islamic terrorists abused the sacred book of the Muslims.” But there are reams of such documents—Human Rights Watch reports, lawsuits, and FBI interview summaries (upon which many of the e-mails were based)—asserting precisely that. As the Los Angeles Times reported in a front-page story on May 22, (“dozens have alleged koran’s mishandling”), there have been numerous claims by detainees of Korans being kicked, torn, and stomped on by American soldiers. The specific allegation of a Koran being thrown into the toilet was included in a lawsuit against the government brought last fall by three British detainees released from Guantnamo. It was also made by another detainee questioned by the FBI in August 2002—as recorded in a FBI report of the interview that has since been released under the Freedom of Information Act. After two weeks of adamant denials by Pentagon officials that there were any credible allegations of Koran misconduct, Brigadier General Jay Hood, commander of Joint Task Force Guantnamo, acknowledged on May 26 that there had, in fact, been at least five confirmed cases of “mishandling” of the Muslim holy book by American soldiers—including two instances in which the offenders had been punished. Those cases, according to a U.S. Southern Command release on June 3, include instances in which Korans were kicked, stepped on, and doused with water balloons. Another had a two-word obscenity written on it. In perhaps the most notable—if not fully explained— incident, an American guard was reassigned just this spring for relieving himself near the air vent of a detainee’s cell, resulting (thanks to a purported burst of wind) in the detainee’s Koran being “splashed” with urine.
The New Republic corrected a sentence from the diarist saying that “Seventeen people did not die at Guantnamo or Abu Ghraib” to note that at least 27 prisoners were killed in mortar attacks at Abu Ghraib. But that doesn’t tell the full story, either. Another ten were killed by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib in the course of the suppression of prison riots. All told, the Pentagon’s figures show 108 detainees have died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan; 26 of those deaths (including one that occurred during interrogation at Abu Ghraib) have been confirmed as, or are being investigated for, acts of criminal homicide.
Michael Isikoff, Newsweek, Washington, D.C.
Peretz’s assault on Newsweek overlooks a core reality that, in almost any other circumstance, he would surely perceive. Seventeen people, he says, “lost their lives because of the state of journalistic practice at a U.S. magazine.” A competing version of cause and effect comes from someone who should know better than Peretz: Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, commander of the Combined Forces in Afghanistan, who advised Chief of Staff General Richard Myers that the violence was not connected to the magazine report. Even if Eikenberry had said the opposite, however, wouldn’t it be more correct to say that all these people died not because of Newsweek, but because of their own religious fanaticism or that of those who killed them?
That is what sensible people said when the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses led to violent riots. And they would have said the same if Oriana Fallaci’s powerful attack on Islamic fundamentalism had been similarly received. We would have been right to defend both books and to condemn the rioters, not the authors. Newsweek may be justly criticized for relying on a single source for the accuracy of so sensitive a charge. But the responsibility for the deaths of victims of a riot by religious zealots should not be laid at its door.
Floyd Abrams New York, New York
MARTIN PERETZ RESPONDS
Michael Isikoff’s deceptively intricate response is really a spider’s nest of accusations made by Muslim fanatics in waging their own legal and propaganda battle against the U.S. struggle with terrorists and terrorism. I may be forgiven for insisting that allegations and lawsuits launched by Guantnamo inmates and their eager defenders like the Center for Constitutional Rights do not, by any means, constitute evidence of the inflammatory charge made in Newsweek about what Isikoff so daintily calls the “flushing incident.” By the way, does Isikoff know of a toilet that could actually swill down a Koran, however small? Yes, it is true that the editors of Newsweek did not make the allegation a cover story. But what they actually did—putting it in a two- paragraph “Periscope” item—does not relieve them of responsibility for reporting facts truthfully. Floyd Abrams is correct: “Newsweek may be justly criticized for relying on a single source for the accuracy of so sensitive a charge.” Alas, even this single source, as Isikoff admits, did not pan out. Abrams raises a more far-reaching issue—that the Muslim world is an especially feverish one. The media had better be absolutely correct when they allege a wrongdoing that is likely to inflame the streets of Islam. And wouldn’t it be a relief if those same media—rather than deluging the public with indulgent and forbearing versions of a gentler and kinder religious civilization, appropriate for what we used to call Brotherhood Week—were to present their audiences with a rigorous, even strict account of why virtually all Muslim societies are so developmentally arrested?
CHURCH AND DIVIDED STATE
Alan Wolfe casts Taking Faith Seriously as a flawed attempt by liberal academics to reclaim religion for the left. That is exactly what the book is intended not to do. It grows out of dialogue that began three years before Democrats found themselves scrambling for values and religious talk after their 2004 defeat. The dialogue among eleven scholars in six different fields was grounded in specific, limited case studies of religion precisely to challenge our comfortable assumptions. The cases aim to present specific examples of religion in order to learn how we, and perhaps others, can better recognize and evaluate the multiple roles that religion plays in democratic society. Instead of declaring each case as useful to the political left or right, we propose a framework for recognizing how practices and organizations function in a given place— fostering expression, forming identities, creating social bonds, shaping moral discourse, enabling civic participation, and providing social services.
Wolfe argues that Brent Coffin’s case dealing with three congregations in Lexington, Massachusetts, as they debated homosexuality, is not representative of the wider religious landscape. Yet Coffin makes clear that it is not meant to be. For support, Wolfe cites a number of alleged distortions that have little meaning to one who has not read the case, except to insinuate that it gets the facts wrong. For example, Wolfe objects to calling Lexington “affluent” instead of “rich.” One who reads the case will find data on Lexington’s racial-ethnic composition, average income and income growth in the 1990s, non-affordability of housing for middle-income families, and membership and budgets of its congregations in contrast to national averages.
Wolfe further objects that one of three congregations described in detail, Trinity Covenant Church, is not really conservative—it is liberal. His source for this correction is Jim Wallis, who reportedly sees the Evangelical Covenant Church in the United States as a potential ally in his social justice movement. Yet Trinity professes conservative articles of the Christian faith, explicitly opposes homosexuality, and teaches its members that only heterosexual marriage is acceptable.
The problem is not that Wolfe challenges our conclusions, about which we welcome debate. But he does so by misrepresenting a case showing three churches in the same rich town negotiating their religious and moral orientations on a divisive public issue. This doesn’t serve his mission well. If Wolfe wishes to make a broad-brush case that the assimilation of religion into American culture is good for democracy—or wants to show us how to make America great again—he is wise to follow his own counsel. Philosophical argument is best done forthrightly and not in disguise.
Brent Coffin, Mary Jo Bane, Richard Higgins, Cambridge, Massachusetts
The authors are the editors of Taking Faith Seriously.
ALAN WOLFE RESPONDS
Every single point made by Brent Coffin, Mary Jo Bane, and Richard Higgins is wrong. I described the methodology of Taking Faith Seriously accurately and praised it effusively, pointing out that its message was one that “liberals do not like to hear.” Brent Coffin writes in his study that Lexington’s religious congregations “mirror broader trends”; I argued that they do not. I specifically cited the fact that Trinity Covenant Church teaches that only heterosexual marriage is acceptable, but I went on to point out that it is as liberal a church as one can find in the evangelical world—which Coffin failed to mention. The authors of this letter do not cite a word of my review, save for my correct description of Lexington as “rich.” That is because the words in my review demonstrate overwhelmingly that, in their rush to defend Brent Coffin’s essay, the authors throw out accusations against me that cannot withstand even elementary scrutiny.
These letters originally ran in the July 25, 2005 issue of the magazine.