e n d n o t e s 


When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

John F. Kennedy, 1963

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946


June was graduation season. A young friend of mine was finishing at a well-thought-of alternative high school in our town. Parents, brothers and sisters, well-wishers, we sat on folding chairs on a hillside under stately trees while the sun climbed and the shady spots diminished. The younger girls were all sweet flesh, uncertain smiles, tattoos peeping out from under spaghetti straps or edging bared midriffs. The boys’ tattoos were, mostly, covered by their loose white shirts and baggy chinos. They felt the girls’ eyes on them and worked at looking nonchalant. Men in poplin and seersucker suits, bow ties; men in trim dark suits; men in jackets and curly or thin ponytails. A few of the women looked comfortable in their skin, more hid in dresses loose as burquas, good in this Southern heat, and some simply dressed badly, the safest option. Greeting each other, they wore wry expressions, as though startled at how old they were, so soon. The men covered their nervousness by doing a little informal business among themselves. I looked around for a candidate for office. It would have been a perfect day for campaigning.

The sound system ramped up suddenly: “Sinnerman,” Nina Simone’s cover. (These graduating seniors were cool.) The faculty marched in and sat down in the front rows.

Long pause.

From a distance, the wail of an approaching siren. An unmarked police car raced up the hillside road and slid to a halt in front of the main building, behind us. We murmured, concerned for a moment, then smiled – “What are these kids up to now?” – stood up, turned, craned our necks. The students had devised a little play around a hostage situation. The kid-gangsters, a tall young man and a willowy young woman, emerged on the balcony (like R. and J.) and called down their “demands” to the “cop.” Their demands were silly, in-group senior class gifts, the lightening-up such an occasion needs. The “cop” read the list back through his bullhorn.

“Will you give us our demands,” the kid-gangsters then shouted down.

“NO! RELEASE THE HOSTAGES!” bellowed the “cop.”

“Can we get our diplomas?” they cried.

“YES!” the cop boomed.

“We’ll release the hostages!” They disappeared inside.

And, hand in hand, twenty-five endearing, smart kids steeped in love, peace, and service to the community came pouring out of the building, grinning, costumed and shined, proud, refusing clichés (trying to refuse clichés), balloon-bouquets bobbing along behind them. They ran down to the stage and took their places and, as the sun rose higher, were sent lovingly into the world with a few wise words from their chosen speakers and all the clichés the well-meaning but clearly emotional head of school could possibly have summoned up for the occasion.

That week an absurd story had been reported by the Times, the New Yorker, and NPR. The New York State Regents exam, required of graduating seniors, had contained censored extracts of literary works, on which the test-takers were directed to write essays. A well-read parent with a fine memory had sussed out the deception. Jeanne Heifetz, whose daughter attended a small, laboratory school which (according to the Times) was part of a consortium opposing the Regents exams, noticed on her daughter’s brought-home test passages credited to authors whose works she herself knew, and recognized them as inaccurate. Next, she went back through several years’ worth of tests, checked quoted texts against the originals, and brought her disgraceful findings to the public’s attention. It is worth mentioning, too, that Jeanne Heifetz’ husband, Juris Jurjevics, is the publisher of the interesting SoHo Press.

It seems the New York State Department of Education had “for decades” heard citizens’ complaints about passages of literature chosen for the exams and so, had invited anyone who found any author’s words or phrases “offensive” to sit on test review committees. It seems, also, the Department believed that according to fair-use provisions of the copyright law, it was allowed to change texts as it thought fit (without saying so), since the department did not itself publish the works. Roseanne DeFabio, an Assistant Commissioner of Education, explained why these authors and works were quoted, so to speak, in the exams. “It was our hope in our choice of literary selections that the effect of seeing writers in the exam will result in teachers using those writers [in their classrooms],” she said. But: “Even the most wonderful writers don’t write literature for children to take on a test.”

No. They don’t. They make works of the human mind.

As reported by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), in the last three years twenty-five of the twenty-six published works quoted in the examinations were distorted on the New York State Regents English Language Arts Examinations. In a dismayed letter to the State’s Commissioner of Education, a number of organizations – among them NCAC, PEN American Center, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom, the New York Civil Liberties Union – wrote that the examiners had expunged references to “race, religion, and ethnicity,” “along with physical descriptions of characters, references to sex, nudity, alcoholic beverages, and mild profanity. Speeches by public officials have been altered to remove anything arguably critical of the government. There is no indication in the selections that they have been altered in this way.”

Seeing what the censors did is instructive, at the least. I quote the NCAC list*  of examples of authors and passages below. I have struck through deleted texts and put altered texts in bold.

Ernesto Galarza, BARRIO BOY(memoir)
(Galarza was erroneously identified on the exam as Ernesto Gallarzo.)

Original: “My pals in the second grade were Kazushi, whose parents spoke only Japanese; a skinny Italian boy; and Manuel, a fat Portuguese who would never get into a fight but wrestled you to the ground and just sat on you.”

Regents: “My pals in the second grade were Kazushi, whose parents spoke only Japanese; a thin Italian boy; and Manuel, a heavy Portuguese who would never get into a fight but wrestled you to the ground and just sat on you.”

Original: “Almost tiptoeing across the office, I maneuvered myself to keep my mother between me and the gringo lady.”

Regents: “Almost tiptoeing across the office, I maneuvered to keep my mother between me and the American lady.”

Original: “Off the school grounds we traded the same insults we heard from our elders. On the playground, we were sure to be marched up to the principal’s office for calling someone a wop, a chink, a dago, or a greaser.” (After describing the school as “not so much a melting pot as a griddle where Miss Hopley and her helpers warmed knowledge into us and roasted social hatreds out of us.”) Regents: “Off the school grounds we traded the same insults we heard from our elders. On the playground, we were sure to be marched up to the principal’s office for calling someone a bad name.”

Annie Dillard, AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD (memoir)

“From the nearest library, I learned every sort of surprising thing – some of it, though not much of it – from the books themselves.

The Homewood branch of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library system was in a Negro section of town. Homewood. This branch was our nearest library; Mother drove me to it every two weeks for many years, until I could drive there myself. I only very rarely saw other white people there.

“Beside the farthest wall, and under leaded windows set ten feet from the floor, so that no human being could ever see anything from them – next to the wall, and at the farthest remove from the idle librarians at their curved wooden counter, and from the oak bench where my mother waited in her camel’s-hair coat chatting with the librarians or reading – stood the last and darkest and most obscure of the tall nonfiction stacks: NEGRO HISTORY and NATURAL HISTORY.”

THE FIELD BOOK OF PONDS AND STREAMS was a shocker from beginning to end. When you checked out a book from the Homewood Library, the librarian wrote your number on the book’s card and stamped the due date on the book’s last page. When I checked out THE FIELD BOOK OF PONDS AND STREAMS for the second time, I noticed the book’s card. It was almost full. There were numbers on both sides. My hearty author and I were not alone in the world, after all. With us, and sharing our enthusiasm for dragonfly larvae and single-celled plants were, apparently, many Negro adults.”

NCAC note: The relevance of race to the passage becomes obvious in the last paragraph quoted in the exam:
“The people of Homewood, some of whom lived in visible poverty, on crowded streets among burned-out houses-they dreamed of ponds and streams. They were saving to buy microscopes. In their bedrooms they fashioned plankton nets. But their hopes were even more vain than mine, for I was a child, and anything might happen; they were adults, living in Homewood. There was neither pond nor stream on the streetcar routes. The Homewood residents whom I knew had little money and little free time. The marble floor was beginning to chill me. It was not fair.”

Isaac Bashevis Singer, IN MY FATHER’S COURT (memoir)

Our home had little contact with Gentiles. The only Gentile in the house was the janitor. Fridays he would come for a tip, his ‘Friday money.’ He remained standing at the door, took off his hat, and my mother gave him six groschen.

Besides the janitor there were also the Gentile washwomen who came to the house to fetch our laundry. My story is about one of these.

“She was a small woman, old and wrinkled. When she started washing for us she was already past seventy. Most Jewish women of her age were sickly, weak, broken in body. All the old women in our street had bent backs and leaned on sticks when they walked. But this washwoman, small and thin as she was, possessed a strength that came from generations of peasant forebears.”

The washwoman cleaned “featherbed covers, pillowcases, sheets, and the men’s fringed garments. Yes, the Gentile woman washed these holy garments as well.”

The following material was deleted completely from the exam.
And now at last the body, which had long been no more than a broken shard supported only by the force of honesty and duty, had fallen. The soul passed into those spheres where all holy souls meet, regardless of the roles they played on this earth, in whatever tongue, of whatever creed. I cannot imagine Eden without this washwoman. I cannot even conceive of a world where there is no recompense for such effort.
note: The assigned essay topic is “the nature of human dignity.”

Samuel Hazo, “Strike Down the Band” (essay)

“The hunger for beauty, like the hunger for music and knowledge and God, is part of our very natures.”

“Like poetry, music puts us in touch with our feelings and through our feelings, with our very souls.”

“I contend that nothing promotes the general welfare and seeks the blessings of peace better than the arts – even more than religions, which, for some reason in our time, tend more toward divisiveness than unity.”

Elie Wiesel, “What Really Makes Us Free” (essay)

“Man, who was created in God’s image, wants to be free as God is free: free to choose between good and evil, love and vengeance, life and death.”

Frank Conroy, STOP-TIME (memoir)

Original: “‘Let’s go swimming. I know a rock pit back in the woods. It’s got an island in the middle.’ ‘Okay. I’ll have to get my bathing suit.’ ‘Hell, you don’t need a suit. There’s nobody around.’”

Regents: “‘Heck, you don’t need a suit. There’s nobody around.’”

The following material was deleted completely from the exam.

It was easy to undress. We wore only blue jeans. I remember a mild shock at the absence of anything but air against my skin.

If we saw a king snake, all six feet wrapped black and shiny in the shade of a palmetto, we’d break off a pine branch and kill it, smashing the small head till the blood ran.

Neither of us knew exactly what it was, accepting it nevertheless as proof that the unbelievable act had taken place. We hid our ignorance from each other, making oblique wisecracks to cover it up.” (On finding a used condom in the woods where couples park.)

B.B. King, BLUES ALL AROUND ME (autobiography)
(Note: The exam includes passages from six chapters presented to students as a single “speech.”)

“My great-grandmother, who’d also been a slave, talked about the old days. She’d [She would] talk about the beginnings of the blues. She said that, sure, singing helped the day go by. Singing about sadness unburdens your soul. But the blues hollerers shouted about more than being sad. They were also delivering messages in musical code. If the master was coming, you might sing a hidden warning to the other field hands. Maybe you’d want to get out of his way or hide. That was important for the women because the master could have anything he wanted. If he liked a woman, he could take her sexually. And the woman had only two choices: Do what the master demands or kill herself. There was no in-between. The blues could warn you what was coming. I could see the blues was about survival.”

“As a child, I stuttered. What was inside couldn’t get out. I’m still not real fluent. I don’t know a lot of good words. If I were wrongfully accused of a crime, I’d have a tough time explaining my innocence. I’d stammer and stumble and choke up until the judge would throw me in jail.Words aren’t my friends. Music is. Sounds, notes, rhythms. I talk through music.”

Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, speech to the Commonwealth Club of California

Polls “show strong American support for the organization at the grass-roots level regardless of what is said and done on Capitol Hill.”

The United States is the biggest debtor, as is well known.

Anne Lamott, BIRD BY BIRD (work of non-fiction)

“If you can get their speech mannerisms right, you will know what they’re wearing and driving and maybe thinking, and how they were raised, and what they feel. You need to trust yourself to hear what they are saying over what you are saying. At least give each of them a shot at expression: sometimes what they are saying and how they are saying it will finally show you who they are and what is really happening. Whoa – they’re not getting married after all! She’s gay! And you had no idea!”

Anton Chekhov, “An Upheaval” (story)

“A maid-servant came into the room.

‘Liza, you don’t know why they have been rummaging in my room?’ the governess asked her.

‘Mistress has lost a brooch worth two thousand,’ said Liza.

‘Yes, but why have they been rummaging in my room?’

‘They’ve been searching every one, miss. They’ve searched all my things, too. They stripped us all naked and searched us . . . . God knows, miss, I never went near her toilet-table, let alone touching the brooch. I shall say the same at the police-station.’

‘But . . . why have they been rummaging here?’ the governess still wondered.

‘A brooch has been stolen, I tell you. The mistress [She] has been rummaging in everything with her own hands. She even searched Mihailo, the porter, herself. It’s a perfect disgrace!”
(Note: The ellipses are Chekhov’s; the essay topic is “the nature of human dignity.”)

On the stage, the teachers of the graduates spoke of their bright future. The kids talked about their past, succumbing one by one (as if helplessly) to cliché in a ritual expression of gratitude to all who had helped them: a certain teacher, my family, Mom. My young friend, I knew, was furious at the sanctimony of it; but, having held out as long as possible, she too gave way and spoke. She was gracious, brief. She is a traveler of the world and reads compulsively; she has style; she will learn how to resist.

According to the Times, the New York State Department of Education follows guidelines seeking “to guarantee that all people are depicted in accord with their dignity.” Assistant Commissioner DeFabio was quoted as saying these guidelines try to avoid naming anything objectionable about a student’s “race, religion or neighborhood, or anything that would interfere with the student’s ability to fairly demonstrate the skills that the test is measuring.” The New York Post snarled, “Imagine that. In the age of Eminem and Ozzy Osbourne – shockable teenagers.”

That unconscionable alteration of texts is one of the stupidest, gravest ways adults have lied, for decades, to the youngsters for whose instruction they are responsible. About this, we should be shockable. We should be sickened. Almost laughing at the appalling idiocy of it all, I thought of Orwell, who wrote in “Politics and the English Language”:

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.


Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.

I felt almost confident that my young friend and (I hoped) her classmates have been inoculated by literature and open discussion against the poor thinking, cowardice, and mendacity common in public and corporate institutions. It seemed to be true that guiding them were adults whom they could respect and trust, who encouraged them to think carefully and know their sources. But how (I wondered) would those good people help their students advance from private to public life?

I missed the voice of Dr. King. I missed the deep, rolling voice of Barbara Jordan. I miss the voices of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. I miss being called to remember that there exists something larger than private interest. I miss, terribly, our former belief in public life, in the public sector, in public service, to which we all owe some part of our talent, our wealth, and our honest allegiance.

My young friend is going to become a writer; of this I am certain. I regret deeply (although am relieved for her) that the good school from which she graduated could not have been a public school.

—Katherine McNamara


* I took the following list of twenty-six authors and their works used in the Regents exams from the NCAC web site. The numbers show the date the work appeared in an exam.

Works altered:

Edward Abbey, DESERT SOLITUDE (1/01) Mortimer J. Adler, “How to Mark a Book” (from HOW TO READ A BOOK) (6/01) Kofi Annan, Speech to the Commonwealth Club of California, April 20, 1998 (8/01) Roger Ascham, “Toxophilus” (1/00) Anton Chekhov, “An Upheaval” (6/01) Frank Conroy, STOP-TIME (6/00) Annie Dillard, AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD (8/01) Ernesto Galarza, BARRIO BOY (6/99) Samuel Hazo, “Strike Down the Band” (8/00) John Holt, LEARNING ALL THE TIME (6/99) June Jordan, “Ah, Momma” (8/99) B.B. King, BLUES ALL AROUND ME (6/00) Anne Lamott, “Dialogue” (from BIRD BY BIRD) (1/01) William Maxwell, SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW (6/00) Chuck Noll, “Staying the Best” [not a literary work-Ed.] (1/00) Lise Pelletier, “Life As It Is In Pinegrove Correctional Centre on a Monday Morning” (4/00) Carol Saline, MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS (8/99) Isaac Bashevis Singer, IN MY FATHER’S COURT (6/01) Margaret A. Whitney “Playing to Win” (8/00) Elie Wiesel, “What Really Makes Us Free” (4/00)

Note: In addition to relatively lengthy passages from these works, each exam contains a brief quotation in a section called a “Critical Lens.” Of these, six are labeled “adapted,” without an indication of what changes have been made, one is adapted without notation, and one is misattributed.

Works used with minor alterations (but without indication of changes):
Annie Dillard, THE WRITING LIFE (1/01) Dale Fetherling “The Sounds of Silence” (8/99) Jack London, “The Story of an Eyewitness” (1/00) Lynn Sherr, FAILURE IS IMPOSSIBLE (4/01)

Works used without alteration:
Roger Jack, “The Pebble People” (1/02)

See also:

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” INSIDE THE WHALE and Other Essays. (Penguin Books).
Thomas Jefferson Center for the Preservation of Free Expression

On the Regents Exam censorship:

N. R. Kleinfield, “The Elderly Man and the Sea? Test Sanitizes Literary Texts,” New York Times,
          Sunday, June 2, 2002
John Leland, “The Myth of the Offenseless Society,” New York Times, Sunday, June 9, 2002
Association of American Publishers
The American Booksellers Association, “Bookselling This Week”  (Quoted from in this essay.) In addition:

from “Bookselling This Week” http://news.bookweb.org/559.html:
According to Newsweek, at the very least, it almost happened elsewhere. In the weekly news magazine’s June 17 issue, columnist Anna Quindlen wrote that the Educational Testing Service (ETS), a national test-preparation company that was preparing Georgia’s End-of-Course Test, wanted to use excerpts from her book HOW READING CHANGED MY LIFE. However, when Quindlen was shown the passages, she found that the selections had been edited in an effort to avoid “controversial issues.” For example, “in the sentence that read ‘The Sumerians first used the written word to make laundry lists, to keep track of cows and slaves and household good,’ the words ‘and slaves’ had been deleted,” Quindlen explained in the article. She stressed that, unlike NYSED, the “people preparing tests for the state of Georgia at least had the common courtesy to ask permission to mess with my stuff. I declined.”

National Coalition Against Censorship. The examples used in this essay are taken from “Examples of Literary
           Works Altered on New York State Regents English Language Arts Examinations”, with permission


“Don’t get up to any monkey business!”

In the previous issue, I wrote about the problem we have lived with since atomic energy was used for making weapons of mass destruction (as we say now). The discussion has lately circled around “Copenhagen,” the marvelous play by Michael Frayn in which he imagines the meeting in September 1942, in Copenhagen, between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. In particular, I wrote about the fascinating symposium on “Copenhagen” held in early March at the Smithsonian, in Washington. Now the papers and a video of that program have been released, and I would like to bring one of them, in particular, to your attention.

The journalist-historian Richard Rhodes, whose THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB is considered among the best books on the subject, presented a paper about Niels Bohr at the Smithsonian symposium. I looked forward to reading it at leisure and have been gratified, and provoked, too, into attempting another way than I had of thinking about nuclear power in the world.

Rhodes points out that fifty-five million lives were lost during World War II, and argues that the carnage was brought to an end because of our use, twice, of the atomic bomb. In the nearly fifty-seven years since, wars have claimed about a million lives every year: but, terrible as this is, the wars have remained at the level of conventional weaponry. Rhodes argues that war remains conventional – historical, not universal– because of the fact of nuclear energy. He believes, too, that Bohr understood completely the nature of this new kind of energy, because he understood, very deeply, its scientific meaning: that it changed our understanding of the order of the world.

Bohr managed to escape from Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1943, and journeyed to London, where he attempted to persuade Churchill to support an atomic program. Churchill dismissed him. He went on Washington, and there his espousal of an Allied program to develop an atomic bomb convinced Roosevelt of its necessity.

“[Bohr] knew about not only atomic bombs,” Rhodes tells us:

at Los Alamos that spring he had learned from Edward Teller about the possibility of hydrogen bombs as well, weapons with essentially unlimited destructive potential. These possibilities were worrying his younger Los Alamos colleagues. Bohr’s insight had brought them a measure of comfort, as the Austrian emigré theoretician Victor Weisskopf would remember. “In Los Alamos,” Weisskopf said later, “we were working on something which is perhaps the most questionable, the most problematic thing a scientist can be faced with.” Weisskopf meant they were working on what we today call weapons of mass destruction—a new experience for physicists, who up to then had thought of their discipline as almost theologically otherworldly. “At that time,” Weisskopf continued, “physics, our beloved science, was pushed into the most cruel part of reality and we had to live it through. We were, most of us at least, young and somewhat inexperienced in human affairs, I would say. But suddenly in the midst of it, Bohr appeared in Los Alamos.

“It was the first time we became aware of the sense in all these terrible things,” Weisskopf concluded, “because Bohr right away participated not only in the work, but in our discussions. Every great and deep difficulty bears in itself its own solution . . . . This we learned from him.” Bohr was characterizing the complementarity of the bomb, its potential not only for devastation but also, as he saw, its potential for limiting war. The principle of complementarity had been central to his formulation of quantum physics; he had scolded Heisenberg for introducing it only in limited form in quantum mechanics as the Uncertainty Principle, because Bohr understood complementarity to be one of the deep organizing principles of the natural and human world.

It is moving to listen to one who speaks so clearly as Weisskopf of “physics, our beloved science” “pushed into the most cruel part of reality….” It is good and necessary to know again that the science was done by men and women like ourselves, although of course not at all like ourselves: not only for what they made, but what they knew. “‘The whole enterprise,’ Bohr told Roosevelt, ‘constitutes...a far deeper interference with the natural course of events than anything ever before attempted, and its impending accomplishment will bring about a whole new situation as regards human resources. Surely, [Bohr went on] we are being presented with one of the greatest triumphs of science and engineering, destined deeply to influence the future of mankind.’”

Was Bohr correct, as Rhodes thinks him to have been: that the weapon is so dreadful that no nation would dare use it again, because the situation it has made cannot be resolved by war? Rhodes explains that Bohr believed that the discovery of fission would change the moral and social condition of the world, also. He believed, therefore, that all nations should have open access to this fundamentally new kind of energy. He believed that the best hope was for nations – the Americans and the Soviets, in particular – to become transparent to each other in nuclear development, for the alternative was secrecy and a dread competition, an arms race.

But the nations did not achieve openness. Instead, the “secrets” were passed by spies. Instead of the mutual security Bohr had hoped for, mutual deterrence became the object, the arms race its method, and technological spying the means of gauging its reach. Rhodes takes up Bohr’s call, nonetheless: “Now in the aftermath of that arms race, Bohr’s argument for openness remains no less valid than it was in 1944. Common security against nuclear danger requires transparency; a world free of nuclear weapons will have to be completely transparent where nuclear technology is concerned, each side able to inspect factories and military installations on the other side’s territory whenever it has reason to do so.”

Rhodes writes that Bohr argued with all his intelligence and moral being that nuclear energy cannot be used for war because it resolves nothing.

Rhodes’s position has bothered me since I heard him give his paper: that total war – world war – has become historical, not universal, a manifestation of destructive technologies of limited scale. Does he mean that, because no other nation would dare to use nuclear weapons – the U.S. exempts itself from refusing this possibility – war will only be fought with limited rather than nuclear weapons? But this is not so; that is, possibly it is not so. Recently, the administration sent cabinet members hurrying to Delhi and Lahore, as those capitals shouted the words “nuclear arsenal” over disputed Kashmir. The two nations were, it seems, persuaded to back off, and the atomic clock advanced no closer to midnight.

But wars are fought not only by nations.

Only a few weeks before that latest in a recurrent cycle of face-off over Kashmir, an American ex-military officer appeared on several serious media programs. He was campaigning for the “limited” use of “tactical” nuclear weapons. Indignant at how “our enemies” in various parts of the world were (he said) digging themselves into bunkers built deep in rock and cave, he proposed using needled-nosed “bunker-buster bombs,” pointed by our military’s vaunted precision-guidance systems, to penetrate those rock-bound fastnesses. These missiles come in “conventional” and “nuclear” models; he preferred the latter as being wonderfully effective. He assured his listeners that no fallout would reach ground level. (He is not correct about this, I’ve read.) In his enthusiasm, he glowed like Slim Pickins’ Major “King” Kong, ready to ride the bomb down.

A few months ago, the administration leaked a Pentagon report, the Nuclear Posture Review, proposing that our military consider seven nations be targeted by our nuclear arsenal in case they acted up against our “interests” (as they say now). The President’s security advisor insisted, during the alarmed outcry, that the Review also proposed reducing our nuclear stockpile. Nonetheless, the loony idea was out and circulating again: “tactical” nuclear weapons are a possibility. And so the loony ex-officer popped up in the media. Meanwhile, the President has just formally abrogated the ABM Treaty. The development of a missile defense test bed site proceeds at Ft. Greely, Alaska, as I wrote in “The Bear.” This missile defense system, a program wrapped in secrecy, intends the “weaponization” of space with American, and only American, arms.

And so, we go directly to Kashmir. It was beyond whatever one thinks irony is, that a high emissary from the State Department, then the Secretary of Defense himself, flew with urgency to Delhi and Lahore carrying documentary warnings of the horrible aftermath loosened by nuclear bombs. It was as if, from this distance, certain members of our government had suddenly realized what mischief might come of their President’s loose way with language.

Common security against nuclear danger requires transparency. Rather than a mere hope, I would accept Bohr’s call as a clear-eyed principle, to be held and acted upon with determination when so much in the world works against it, at home and abroad. It should be engraved in our memories as historical fact that the only nation to have used this dreadful weapon is our own. We have seen photos and read studies of and novels about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Terrible, terrible things happened to the bodies and minds of human beings and the world in which they lived. Rhodes gave me another way of imagining it with words.

When uranium fissions, a small amount of mass is converted into energy in the form of heat, a process that is several million times more energetic than chemical burning. Albert Einstein had first quantified this mass-energy conversion in his famous formula E = mc2. Since the c in Einstein’s formula designates the speed of light, a very large number, and that very large number is squared, the formula emphasizes that even a small amount of mass, when it fissions, will release a stupendous amount of energy. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, for example, was a crude first-generation weapon, handmade at Los Alamos, with an efficiency of less than one percent. It contained about 150 pounds of U235; it exploded with energy equivalent to about 13,500 tons of TNT; but 13.5 kilotons means that less than one gram of U235 was completely converted into energy.

We have built for ourselves a governing structure that guarantees free speech, even open discussion; we believe we have the constitutional right to say anything (short of shouting “Fire” in a theater, let’s say), without legal consequence. But moral consequence is another matter. One moral consequence is the separation of words from the things they represent. “Nuclear weapons.” “Weapons of mass destruction.” These words are attached to enormous potentials of energy unloosed, causing great harm in the world. They were born in the realm of pure science, whose dimensions we who are not of that realm can barely grasp in words. Let our politicians learn to use this our language carefully, precisely, with historical accuracy and a sense of nuance. Let the rest of us read about Copenhagen, the bomb, Bohr and Heisenberg, and reflect on the changed condition of the world. Then let us read Orwell again, carefully, and often.

—Katherine McNamara

See also:
“The Bohr letters: No more uncertainty,” William Sweet, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, May-June 2000

“With the release of Niels Bohr’s draft letters, any doubt about the purpose of Heisenberg’s visit to Copenhagen should be erased.”

The Colossus,” Archipelago, Vol. 6, No. 1


The Copenhagen Symposium in Washington, D.C., March 2, 2002, papers and program

Documents Related to the Cold War

New push for bunker-buster nuke,” Christian Science Monitor, May 9, 2002

George Orwell, 1984 (Signet Classic / New American Library)

____________, “Politics and the English Language,” INSIDE THE WHALE and Other Essays (Penguin Books).

Richard Rhodes, THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB (Simon & Schuster; Touchstone. 1988 Pulitzer Prize in

  Nonfiction and the National Book Award)

__________________, DARK SUN: THE MAKING OF THE HYDROGEN BOMB (Simon & Schuster. A

finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in History)

__________________, “A Great and Deep Difficulty”: Niels Bohr and the Atomic Bomb. Symposium on

“The Copenhagen Interpretation: Science and History on Stage,” National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution, March 2, 2002

Previous Endnotes:
The Colossus, Archipelago, Vol. 6, No. 1

The Bear, Vol. 5 No. 4

Sasha Choi Goes Home, Vol. 5, No. 3

Sasha Choi in America, Vol. 5, No. 1

A Local Habitation and A Name, Vol. 5, No. 1

The Blank Page, Vol. 4, No. 4

The Poem of the Grand Inquisitor, Vol. 4, No. 3

On the Marionette Theater, Vol. 4, Nos. 1/2

The Double, Vol. 3, No. 4

Folly, Love, St. Augustine, Vol. 3, No. 3

On Memory, Vol. 3, No. 2

Passion, Vol. 3, No. 1

A Flea, Vol. 2, No. 4

On Love, Vol. 2, No. 3

Fantastic Design, with Nooses, Vol. 2, No. 1

Kundera’s Music Teacher, Vol. 1, No. 4

The Devil’s Dictionary; Economics for Poets, Vol. 1, No. 3

Hecuba in New York; Déformation Professionnelle, Vol. 1, No. 2

Art, Capitalist Relations, and Publishing on the Web, Vol. 1, No. 1



The Bear,” Archipelago, Vol. 5, No. 4, and the ABM Treaty:

June 11, 2002: Thirty-one Members of the U.S. House of Representatives filed suit against the Bush Administration for violation of the ABM treaty. A list of the Members (no Senators joined the suit) and the text of the Complaint (Civil Action No. 02-1137(JDB)) are posted on this site. See also, Neely Tucker, “Lawmakers Sue Over ABM Pact Withdrawal,” Washington Post, June 12, 2002.

August 28, 2002: “On behalf of itself and seven co-plaintiff organizations, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a major national environmental organization, today filed suit in the Federal Court for the District of Columbia to compel the Defense Department to prepare environmental impact statements on its missile defense activities in Alaska and elsewhere before proceeding with the construction of new test and ‘emergency deployment’ facilities.

“Joining NRDC as plaintiffs in the suit are Physicians for Social Responsibility, Greenpeace USA, Alaska Public Interest Research Group, Alaska Action Center, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Kodiak Rocket Launch Information Group, and No Nukes North: Alaskan and Circumpolar Coalition Against Missile Defense.”
—Press release, Alaskan and Circumpolar Coalition Against Missile Defense

Letters to the Editor,” Archipelago, Vol. 6, No. 1. Congressman Bob Filner on limiting military exemption from environmental regulation:
 May 2002: The House passed the FY ‘03 Defense Authorization bill, which “included exemptions to the Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act and changed protections for wilderness areas. A strong attempt to strip these provision from the bill was led by House Democrats and a handful of Republicans. Although the votes were close, both attempts were defeated. Because of the strong show of opposition to the anti-environmental language in the House, these provisions have a better chance to be stripped in the conference committee.” See this text in whole.
 As of June 24, the bill has not yet gone through the Senate.
 H.R. 4546, FY ‘03 National Defense Authorization Act Bill and Report Language appears on the web site of the House Armed Services Committee.


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