Weekend Bookchat

January 4, 2009


We begin the new year with an overwhelmingly important piece of old business to address: What should — and can — be done about the Bush torture cabal? This is the subject of three recent books: Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values by Philippe Sands; The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld: A Prosecution by Book by Michael Ratner and the Center for Constitutional Rights; and Administration of Torture: A Documentary Record from Washington to Abu Ghraib and Beyond by Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh. Writing about them in the New York Review of Books, David Cole reminds us that the Bush torture program has, along with fouling America’s moral standing in the world, created the first great challenge for the Obama administration:

In the long run, the best insurance against cruelty and torture becoming US policy again is a formal recognition that what we did after September 11 was wrong—as a normative, moral, and legal matter, not just as a tactical issue. Such an acknowledgment need not take the form of a criminal prosecution; but it must take some official form. We have been willing to admit wrongdoing in the past. In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, officially apologizing for the Japanese internment and paying reparations to the internees and their survivors. That legislation, a formal repudiation of our past acts, provides an important cultural bulwark against something similar happening again. There has been nothing of its kind with respect to torture.

We cannot move forward in reforming the law effectively unless we are willing to account for what we did wrong in the past. The next administration or the next Congress should at a minimum appoint an independent, bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission to investigate and assess responsibility for the United States’ adoption of coercive interrogation policies. If it is to be effective, it must have subpoena power, sufficient funding, security clearances, access to all the relevant evidence, and, most importantly, a charge to assess responsibility, not just to look forward. We may know many of the facts already, but absent a reckoning for those responsible for torture and cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment — our own federal government — the healing cannot begin.

This is not an issue that can be fobbed off with Broder-level banalities about “national healing” and “putting the past behind us.” Healing cannot take place until the source of the infection has been cleansed. There will probably never be a full reckoning for the crimes committed in America’s name under George W. Bush, but at the very least there should be a full accounting of what was done and who did it.

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Marcia Angell reviews three books about the overlooked and ongoing problem of the cozy relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and the research physicians whose work certifies and promotes the value and safety of different drugs:

Take the case of Dr. Joseph L. Biederman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and chief of pediatric psychopharmacology at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital. Thanks largely to him, children as young as two years old are now being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with a cocktail of powerful drugs, many of which were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for that purpose and none of which were approved for children below ten years of age.

Legally, physicians may use drugs that have already been approved for a particular purpose for any other purpose they choose, but such use should be based on good published scientific evidence. That seems not to be the case here. Biederman’s own studies of the drugs he advocates to treat childhood bipolar disorder were, as The New York Times summarized the opinions of its expert sources, “so small and loosely designed that they were largely inconclusive.”

In June, Senator Grassley revealed that drug companies, including those that make drugs he advocates for childhood bipolar disorder, had paid Biederman $1.6 million in consulting and speaking fees between 2000 and 2007. Two of his colleagues received similar amounts. After the revelation, the president of the Massachusetts General Hospital and the chairman of its physician organization sent a letter to the hospital’s physicians expressing not shock over the enormity of the conflicts of interest, but sympathy for the beneficiaries: “We know this is an incredibly painful time for these doctors and their families, and our hearts go out to them.”

The potentially disastrous consequences of drug companies influencing and funding research into the safety of their own products should be obvious, but as Angell notes, even many medical schools hold equity stakes in the very companies that help fund their research.

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Will the prestigious Man Booker Prize be one of the literary victims of Bernie Madoff’s disastrous Ponzi scheme. The Man Group, a hedge fund that has supported the award since 2002, was heavily invested in funds linked to Madoff, but the word so far is that funding for the award — and its big cash prize — will not be affected. We’ll see.

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Upcoming book discussions at the TPM Cafe: Rose George’s The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters (Jan. 5-9); Randall Stross’s Planet Google: One Company’s Audacious Plan To Organize Everything We Know (Jan. 12-16).

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Science writer Chris Mooney reviews two new books about climate change and muses on the problem of explaining a long-term tragedy to a country (and journalists) preoccupied with short-term concerns. Axl Rose’s literary influences.  Wanted: Volunteers to help proofread over 30,000 titles in the Project Gutenberg digital library. Karl Rove reveals George W. Bush’s reading lists, which Mark Tran finds unexpectedly revealing. And a master crime novelist is mourned by his fans.