Letters to the editor | Edited August 5, 2021

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Crime and punishment

As for your leader calling for a life sentence to be commuted (“Pointlessly punitive”, July 10), for the past 29 years I have spent countless hours meeting with men handing down sentences life without parole. One of them is my biological father. Your arguments about sentencing struck a chord. On Father’s Day, I was reminded of the reversal of many life sentences when I visited several inmates over 60. These penitent men believe they could use their knowledge to not great to convert any troubled youth. That’s a bold claim, but these ex-offenders could help with programs to deal with the rise in crime.

Like too many black Americans, I have family members who have succumbed to gun violence. So although I’m not overly sympathetic towards criminals, I think there should be a possibility for rehabilitation and forgiveness. Many life sentences pass the point of being productive.

New York

I was disappointed by your Benthamite conclusion that prisons are about crime prevention, not reconciliation. That expresses one idea why we punish people and disregards a rich debate about the nature of punishment. Imprisonment is not just to prevent people from committing a crime, it is also a catharsis, and a revenge for a victim of the crime and for a society that is morally disgusted by it.


You held up Norway as a model for sentencing. But consider that Anders Breivik only got 21 years, Norway’s highest life sentence, for murdering 77 people. That puts the value of killing a person at just over three months in prison. Your description of Brenton Tarrant’s life sentence without parole as “wrong” for murdering 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand was just as lame.

You adopted a policy that places a cheap value on the lives of victims. Fortunately, most American jurisdictions are unlikely to accept your recommendations.

Arlington, Virginia

A new war on drugs

“Narco-state on the Med” (July 24) scratched the surface of Captagon’s drug trade in Syria. Captagon is not a new drug. It was first manufactured in the early 1960s and was originally prescribed for depression and narcolepsy. In the 1980s it was banned because of its terrible effects. It has now made a major comeback in the Syrian war as a source of profit for powerful men on both sides of this conflict. This hidden drug is ravaging entire communities and countries. Just ask doctors in Saudi Arabia, who are facing Captagon addiction of epidemic proportions among Saudi teenagers and young men.

For the story in Syria I recommend “Proof of Life”, a book by Daniel Levin, which tells not only how the Captagon generates huge profits in the country, but also how lords drugs combining the business with arms trade and human trafficking, from sex slavery to Western hostages.

St. Gallen, Switzerland

Spreading theories of disease

Your What If? column about why “germ theory” was not accepted in the 1680s based on a false assumption (“Germ of an idea”, July 3). As I noted in a book with the same title as your article, many modern natural philosophers believed that some diseases could spread from person to person, by contagion, because of a tiny pathogen .

With the state of microscopy there were many different “germ theories”. Benjamin Marten, a physician in London, published a theory that was particularly sensitive to the contagion of living things in 1720. Carl Linnaeus, an 18th century botanist, said that living diseases were caused by small diseases that was alive Gradually these ideas spread. By the end of the 18th century, most British physicians probably believed that diseases included typhus, smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, childbed fever and the influenza spread by person-to-person contagion, but were agnostic about the exact nature of the agent.

The story is not about intellectual or cultural failure. It’s about doctors wrestling with unreliable and scattered evidence and developing a range of plausible explanations, some of which were later proven. Our own confusion about how covid-19 spread (via contaminated surfaces, droplets or aerosols) should give us some humility in evaluating the efforts of scientists centuries ago.

Portland, Oregon

Ignaz Semmelweis’ efforts to prevent postpartum maternal deaths from sepsis have been “neglected,” you say. Not quite. His colleagues were so offended by the idea that their tainted hands were killing their patients that they mercilessly attacked Semmelweis. Eighteen years after his discovery, his colleagues took him to an asylum, where he was beaten by the guards and died.

Unfortunately, this is the usual story when someone gives evidence that contradicts groupthink. Alfred Wegener, an amateur geologist, was dismissed by professional geologists for his theory of continental drift, 50 years before his ideas were accepted. Delia Bacon was criticized for suggesting that a group of Elizabethan writers collaborated on Shakespeare’s work, more than a century before the New Oxford Shakespeare edition agreed that a group of writers contributed to Shakespeare’s play.

We do not always welcome new ideas.

Potomac, Maryland

For all intensive purposes

Johnson wrote about eggcorns, solecisms that “may make more sense than the phrases they replace” (July 17). One of the most widespread black eggs appears in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, where “four wood-birds” have become “four call-birds” (although they ‘bird calling?).

Holland, Michigan

My favorite eggcorn is duct tape. The cloth tape with an adhesive backing was originally called duck tape. It was developed to seal ammunition boxes on naval vessels and is made of strong canvas duck, from the Dutch dock, also known as a duck. Duct tape is more suitable, with the same pronunciation and use of tape in air ducts.

Falls Church, Virginia

On the origin of malapropisms, the name Mrs. Malaprop was coined by Richard Sheridan in “The Rivals” as an abbreviation of the French phrase mal à-proposwhich can be translated as “inappropriate” or “at the wrong time”.

San Clemente, California

Johnson’s fake note suggested replacing “one fell swoop” with “one fell swoop”. Macduff cries to Macbeth, “Have you said all? Oh hell! All? What, my pretty chickens in the dam, On one of them I fell?” Shakespeare uses the metaphor of birds to compare the murder of Black’s wife and children to a hawk swooping down on defenseless prey. Surely ” one bird swoop” was the best?

Professor Emeritus
Gresham College

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