Washington, DC

David Cole’s July 21/28 “Court-Watching” offers a welcome corrective to the overly enthusiastic reactions to the Supreme Court’s decisions last term. Even Cole, however, has understated the limits of these rulings. Two of several examples:

The Family and Medical Leave Act case did not signal a change in direction in the Court’s assault on the national government. The act was aimed at discrimination against women, and the Court has always been very strong in this area. In an earlier case, Rehnquist, who wrote the Family Leave Act decision, had already suggested that laws to protect racial minorities and women might be more constitutionally acceptable than laws protecting others. Moreover, he has not been uniformly hostile to women in discrimination cases involving them–he voted with the majority to force VMI to accept women (and although he did vote against the Violence Against Women Act, that was based on an interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment in general).

The affirmative-action cases do little to make educational affirmative action more acceptable to the courts than it is now; they merely keep the status quo. In the law school case, the Court allowed race to continue to be considered in order to achieve educational diversity, reaffirming the 1978 Bakke case. This was obviously a great victory in light of the current attacks on diversity. But in the college case they made it very difficult to use point scores, and insisted on individualized decision-making. This may be feasible for colleges, but it is impossible for elementary and secondary schools. Children haven’t done much at these young ages, even at the high school entry level, except to get grades. While avoiding the diversity issue, federal judges have struck down affirmative-action plans for magnet schools in the Washington area, at the Boston Latin School and elsewhere as not sufficiently “narrowly tailored.” These schools will not be helped by the Court’s rulings, which will continue to make even a limited amount of elementary and secondary school desegregation very difficult.



Durham, NC

Thanks to Alexander Cockburn for his column on homegrown nuclear perils [“Beat the Devil,” July 21/28]. I wrote one of the vulnerability studies he refers to, on Progress Energy’s Shearon Harris nuclear plant near Raleigh, North Carolina (

The report focused on Harris because it contains the largest spent-fuel storage capacity in the country. But every nuclear power plant in the nation now uses densely racked pools as a cost-cutting measure. If the cooling pools at any plant lose water through attack or accident, the waste will burn, releasing far more than the two mega-curies of cesium-137 that escaped at Chernobyl.

Saying that the NRC is asleep at the switch is an understatement. The NRC is an industry advocate that is actively subverting science. Commissioner Ed McGaffigan this year directed his staff to prepare a conclusion-driven report to “sort of undermine deeply” a new Princeton study demonstrating the danger of spent fuel auto-ignition.

Watchdog groups across the country are developing a national campaign for a two-point storage plan that takes into account our custodial obligations for nuclear waste for the next few centuries. Move all waste over five years old into hardened, bunkered dry storage; for newer waste, return to the original cooling pool design, leaving enough separation between spent fuel assemblies to prevent auto-ignition.

We insist that this storage be on-site. The proposed Yucca Mountain dump is on top of a geological fault, unlikely ever to be licensed, and will have only a fraction of the capacity necessary for this country’s spent fuel.

Never economical (the nuclear power industry could not function without outrageous liability limits and taxpayer-subsidized insurance under the Price-Anderson Act), new nuclear facilities are desired by utilities, as subsidy-mills, despite sustained economic contraction and huge debts.

Security analyst, North Carolina
Waste Awareness and Reduction Network


Sanbornton, NH

Philip Weiss’s review of Robert Meeropol’s An Execution in the Family [“Secrets and Lies,” July 14] left me with feelings of loathing toward the reviewer. The absolute low point was Weiss’s claim that the Rosenbergs lied to their sons about who they were. The government executed the Rosenbergs on the falsified claim that they handed the atomic bomb to the Soviets. In that context, Ethel Rosenberg’s prison statement to her very young sons that their parents were innocent was no lie (although the government still lies in order to kill). Robert Meeropol, according to Weiss, didn’t fess up to feeling hatred toward his parents for being executed rather than going along with the government’s lies to save their lives. What right does Weiss have to make presumptions about someone else’s psyche? What a piece of psychological manipulation and deceit Weiss has woven! And what bizarre cruelty would make Weiss say that Meeropol should have gone to Sing Sing the better to discover what he thinks about his parents’ death?

Meeropol wrote that his attitude toward his uncle David Greenglass is like that of Jews who sit shiva for a living person, to consider them dead; he also says there should be reconciliation rituals in which murderers express remorse to the family of their victims. Doing further injury, Weiss uses these statements to advocate that Meeropol be the one to initiate reconciliation with Greenglass! It is Greenglass, who helped to send the Rosenbergs to the death chamber, who should be asking forgiveness of Meeropol.

Many of us still remember that awful, hot evening in June, fifty years ago, when we waited to learn if Eisenhower would reprieve the Rosenbergs. It was a terrible, terrible time!



Philip Weiss is offended that the Rosenbergs wouldn’t tell their young boys that they were Communists. Why be so guarded, I hear him wonder. After all, what could happen? He concludes: “The death penalty only sows confusion.” Wrong. It sows terror. Nothing confusing about it.


New York City

Philip Weiss hopes that “the passage of fifty years might have cleared the passions that once inflamed the Rosenberg case.” Theirs, however, is a tragic, even a mythic, story, reminiscent in some ways of Antigone, the eternal confrontation of man and the state. By 1950, the state Ethel and Julius defied was organizing witch hunts to repress freedom at home and had begun marching in the footsteps of Japanese colonialism in East Asia. By the time of the executions, US bombing had killed and wounded millions of innocent Koreans. What crime, if any, one or both Rosenbergs might have committed remains unknown, because the trial was not an impartial search for the truth by due process; it was a show trial of scapegoats for everything from the Chinese revolution and the Korean War stalemate to the Soviet bomb and domestic criticism of the state. The minor question of their guilt or innocence of the charges should never displace the historical context and the political motivation for the trial.



New York City

The poems of Carolyn Forché, like those of other significant poets, have always been controversial. Master poets break ground, disrupting the expectations of readers, and critics often respond with hostility. It is surprising nonetheless that Meghan O’Rourke, a reviewer for The Nation, whose readers certainly share Forché’s view of the devastations of the twentieth century, could so misread the substance of Blue Hour, her magnificent new collection [“She’s So Heavy,” June 9].

Far from abandoning her engagement with the catastrophes of the recent century, as your reviewer argues, the poet enters imaginatively into the psychic and spiritual consequences of those events. The magnitude of her achievement hardly constitutes a turn away from the poetry of witness. O’Rourke would have Forché return to “the artfully direct reportorial voice” of her El Salvador poems, but such a register would be hopeless in rendering the dissolution of the materiality of the world as we know it. In “On Earth,” Blue Hour‘s central poem, Forché traces the movement of a human consciousness from life to death, a trajectory that leads to a conclusion starkly expressed in the final word, “zero.”

Though content is an important element in Forché’s work, it has never been her only focus. Paraphrasing her prose poem “The Colonel,” O’Rourke quotes the simile Forché employs for the human ears a Salvadoran officer spills on the table but leaves out what has lodged the poem in the memories of so many readers: “He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there.” Such transformations–and they abound in Blue Hour–are impervious to paraphrase since they are composed to complete themselves in the imagination of the reader.

I will not enumerate the many triumphs of Blue Hour here, but I would like to correct a few factual errors. “El Salvador: Aide Memoir,” the essay in which Forché engaged “the problem of reduction and oversimplification…of poeticizing horror” first appeared not in Granta after The Country Between Us was published but in The American Poetry Review, in 1981, before the book’s publication–its issues already of concern to Forché as she wrote her El Salvador poems. In noting the thirteen years it took Forché to publish her third book, The Angel of History, O’Rourke reports that Forché became a journalist for the interim, asserting that the “critical attacks” on The Country Between Us “led her away from firsthand witness.” Both claims are incorrect. Forché published a few essays during those years but she did not become a journalist. She became a mother, taught at several universities and edited Against Forgetting: The Poetry of Witness, a landmark anthology of poems written between the Armenian genocide and Tiananmen Square by poets who lived the violence of the twentieth century.