Jonathan Cohn’s artfully vague and studiously nonjudgmental account of the failed attempt by a Michigan church group to rescue the Anderson “family” after Hurricane Katrina had destroyed their New Orleans home provides enough information to raise questions but not nearly enough to answer them (“The Golden Ticket,” August 14). We are told that, before Katrina, 40-year-old Carolyn and her “fiance,” Terrell, worked at menial jobs in a French Quarter hotel and were “living comfortably” in a house they had bought in the Ninth Ward. But we are not told whether they earned enough to pay for this house or support themselves and the three children—two of Carolyn’s children and one of her grandchildren—without receiving aid from government welfare agencies or private charities, though it seems unlikely. A similar dearth of relevant information characterizes the story of their experience in Michigan, where the five people just mentioned are joined by another four—Carolyn’s third daughter, Tyneshia; her husband, Randall; their baby, Deiontae; and Randall’s elderly mother. Although his benefactors are quoted accusing Randall of misusing money they gave him, spending rent vouchers from fema, and stealing money from his mother (and Randall is quoted indignantly denying these charges), Cohn never tells us whether there is independent reason to think them true. Instead, he nimbly dodges the question by telling us that the landlord did not answer his call about the rent, as if placing that call constituted sufficient research into the matter. Cohn concludes by suggesting that the acknowledged failure of the church group’s effort might not have been anybody’s fault, just the inevitable product of a clash of well-intentioned wills or different ways of living. But one highly revealing bit of light is perhaps inadvertently thrown on the Anderson family’s attitude when Randall is quoted as saying that they live from “day to day” without care for tomorrow. Cohn does not comment on this cryptic remark, but the rest of us are free to speculate that Randall and his “family” fear no ill consequences from their demonstrably irresponsible behavior because they know that a naive but kind-hearted and well-intentioned charity—or a well-funded government welfare agency—can always be counted on to take care of them.
Jonathan Cohn responds: This was a story full of ambiguity and wildly conflicting accounts from different protagonists. In crafting such a “studiously nonjudgmental account,” my hope was that readers would draw their own conclusions about where the truth lies—which, apparently, is what Max Hocutt has done. I’ll accept that as validation of my approach, even if he disagrees.
I can certainly appreciate Peter Beinart’s admiration for a younger Joe Lieberman, even if I don’t entirely share it (“Moe Joe,” August 14). During the Clinton presidency, it’s indisputable that Lieberman spoke what was, from his perspective, truth to power. It’s hard not to love someone who challenges the received wisdom. But Lieberman’s willingness to call executive malfeasance by its proper name appears to have ended with the Clinton presidency. Instead, he has intimated that criticism of President Bush is akin to treason. That’s hardly challenging received wisdom— at best, it’s enabling bad behavior and at worst toadying to executive power run amok. Furthermore, beating up on Democrats for their real (or, worse, imagined) flaws is hardly an act of political courage these days. Indeed, haranguing Democrats for putting the country in peril is much more like demagoguery than iconoclasm. The popular word is that the Democrats who rejected Lieberman were intolerant and unwilling to brook dissent on the war. But Lieberman essentially called those who disagreed with his position on the war traitors. Now who’s being intolerant?
Children of War
One sympathizes with Leon Wieseltier’s introspection (“The Children of Qana, “ August 14), but, in accepting the killing of children as a military reality, he stays on the surface of a psychological reality. He says many eloquent things, yet none quite ring with the authority of Golda Meir’s “We can forgive our enemies for killing our sons, but we cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their sons.” Where are such statements from our current leaders? Their absence indicates a coarsening of the spirit, albeit under astounding pressure. Knowing that moral absolutes elude us in a deconstructive age, can we take the protection of children as an irreducible axiom? Can remembering the child as a vulnerable bearer of human consciousness—as one who suffers imaginatively as well as actually—give us the moral floor that guards us from ethical freefall? I would argue that concern for suffering can be effective as well as ethical. As it stands now, the perception of an Israeli overreaction has done much to grant Hezbollah a propaganda victory, if not an actual one. An Israel at its best—surgical in defense and necessary offense, humanitarian to its enemies always—diminishes the hatred that fans terrorism. Surely, many important political ideas begin with compassion for the suffering of a child and fury at the adult who caused it. Later, as ideas are implemented within cumbersome realities, the shadows of practicality cover the feeling within thought. War casts these shadows in iron, illuminating them with bombs. We need to recall our sympathy with the suffering consciousness of a child, the human empathy that turned us into Zionists or, perhaps, Arabists in the first place. Let’s remember it and not put out the light of a soul, an olam shalem (entire world)— the being of a child as sensitive and full of pain as most of us were when we began on the path of political thought.
New York, New York
Leon Wieseltier responds: Sure, we can take the protection of children as an irreducible axiom—and then we can watch as we, and others, reduce it. Gavriel Reisner is lost in feeling. There is no such thing as surgical warfare, no matter how morally scrupulous and technologically sophisticated it is. As long as its enemies operate within a civilian population, Israel’s defense will not be an edifying humanitarian enterprise. That is the problem. Moreover, Israel has not been “forced” to kill every one of “their sons”: Israel is a free and powerful state, and Golda Meir’s stirring little sentence cannot absolve it of its every targeting decision. Anyway, I am not so quick to forgive Israel’s current enemies for “killing our sons,” since the killings of those innocents is nothing less than their strategic objective. I do not see Hezbollah or Hamas consumed by postwar introspection.
Department of Corrections
In “GOPTopia” (September 11 & 18), Elliott Abrams was mistakenly reported to be a resident of McLean, Virginia. In fact, he lives in neighboring Great Falls. We regret the error.
These letters originally ran in the October 2, 2006 issue of the magazine.