Absolute Power

Mohammed bin Salman is modernizing a stubbornly premodern kingdom, Graeme Wood wrote in April. He has also eliminated rivals and critics, creating a climate of fear without precedent in Saudi Arabia’s history.

Graeme Wood’s article is the best argument I’ve read in some time for why the West needs to wean itself off oil. Mohammed bin Salman is very scary, and holds great power only because of our oil addiction. The prospect of him being in power for 40 to 50 years is truly chilling, and should be all the incentive we need to move to renewable energy now.

Thomas Cannon
Leicester, N.C.

No sooner had I read Graeme Wood’s fascinating article on absolute power in Saudi Arabia than I saw the news that 81 people had been executed in one day in the country.

Wood concludes his article with great care and skill, yet suggests that the U.S. must find a modus vivendi to work with the crown prince. Is this possible?

Frank Vogl
Author, The Enablers
Washington, D.C.

I have read The Atlantic for years. While I appreciate that your publication often presents a differing perspective from my own, I find the nature of this interview unconscionable.

I would love to know why, in your opinion, MBS agreed to cooperate for this article. Do you think he likes the attention? Do you think he knew his team could cherry-pick pieces of praise from it? Do you think he thought it could whitewash his tarnished legacy? It seems to me that it did all three.

Alex Chapman
New Orleans, La.

There are no words for what The Atlantic has done here. The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that MBS approved the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia has an unelected, authoritarian regime that brutally suppresses dissent. The status of women there remains subordinate, and the recent “reforms” hardly even qualify as cosmetic. Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen has created one of the world’s most horrific humanitarian disasters. MBS has not condemned Vladimir Putin’s slaughter of innocent Ukrainian civilians. There is no excuse for coddling authoritarian murderers.

Gary Stewart
Laguna Beach, Calif.

I’ve never written a letter to the editor before, but felt compelled to after reading Graeme Wood’s recent article “Of Course Journalists Should Interview Autocrats,” written in response to criticism of his April cover story. Both this article and Mr. Wood’s original profile of MBS were really important pieces of journalism that informed me about a world leader and an accused assassin who has largely fallen out of the news as outrage over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder has ebbed.

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That’s why I was disappointed to read that Mr. Wood’s article had caused a bit of a stir among Western journalists. He was 100 percent correct when he wrote in his follow-up article, “Any publication bragging that it is too sanctimonious to accept an invitation to interview the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is admitting it cannot cover Saudi Arabia.” Although Mr. Wood’s words may have been used by Saudi propagandists and caused controversy here in the West, I am proud of both him and The Atlantic for interviewing MBS.

Eric Wells
Miami, Fla.

It was amazing to me how much character was revealed by the quotations that Graeme Wood chose to put in his frightening portrait of Saudi Arabia’s leader without ever making a statement of his own opinion.

Bruce C. Miller
Alexandria, Va.

Stiff Neck

Richard Russo had run out of sympathy for COVID skeptics, he wrote in April—until he remembered his father.

Thanks for Richard Russo’s thoughtful essay about loss of sympathy for anti-vaxxers. The way Russo related this global issue to his personal experience with his in-laws, and the sometimes-outdated views his late father espoused from his barstool, reaffirmed why he is one of my favorite writers. And his point about how lack of access to good health care has contributed to the anti-vax movement is something I hadn’t fully considered.

However, the bigger problem remains: Those who spread COVID skepticism—or racism, like Russo’s dad—don’t just hurt themselves; they damage society at large. Perhaps, as Russo suggests, writing about others, and reading about them, can give us the empathy many seem to be lacking.

Adam Idelson
New York, N.Y.

Just before reading Richard Russo’s beautiful essay, I was reviewing my students’ answers to various multiple-choice questions on a recent quiz. Just about everyone got most of the questions right, but for one particular question, half of the students selected the wrong answer. When that happens, either the question was phrased in a confusing way or the instructor failed to communicate the underlying principle effectively. It would clearly be inappropriate to conclude that because they selected the wrong response, half of the students must be fools. As Russo so artfully points out, the same is true of refusals to wear a mask or receive inoculations to protect against COVID-19. If a large share of the population refuses to follow public-health recommendations, then something is wrong either with the way important messages are delivered or with the way many people’s life experiences are understood. As a society, we must learn to do better on both fronts. Along the way, Russo’s comments may help restore an appropriate level of compassion for those who suffer needlessly.

Steve Weissman
Lecturer, UC Berkeley
Goldman School of Public Policy

Berkeley, Calif.

The Facts

What we learned fact-checking this issue

In“Can Forensic Science Be Trusted?” Barbara Bradley Hagerty writes about the public’s reverence for forensic science, a field that was given new prominence when the series CSI became a hit in the early aughts. That long-running show, as well as its many spin-offs and look-alikes, offered viewers a glossy, high-tech vision of forensics—a world where compelling evidence is almost always available and savvy investigators produce conclusive findings.

A number of studies about the so-called CSI effect find that familiarity with the show does not seem to sway jurors’ verdicts. Still, research suggests, watching CSI can influence jurors’ expectations about what kind of evidence should be presented in court.

Prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges are all alert to the potential pitfalls of such expectations—as I saw in trial transcripts I read while fact-checking Hagerty’s article. During a 2008 murder trial, an Ohio prosecutor asked prospective jurors if they could set aside their assumptions—“not feeling like Horatio [the protagonist on CSI: Miami] would have done this and that, and the other thing.”

Such approaches are not uncommon, as the law professor Tamara F. Lawson has noted. One Florida judge routinely asks jurors before selection if they realize that some tests performed on CSI aren’t possible in real life, and confirms that they’d be willing to convict without CSI-style evidence. A Maryland judge has reminded jurors that “there is no legal requirement that the State utilize any specific investigative technique or scientific test to prove its case.” Anticipating that jurors will expect fingerprint evidence, prosecutors now frequently have a fingerprint examiner testify, even in cases where no prints were found.

As a prosecutor put it in his closing argument in that 2008 murder trial: “We live in a CSI age. We put on the show.”

Stephanie Hayes, Deputy Research Chief

Behind the Cover

In “Chasing Joan Didion,” Caitlin Flanagan sets out on a journey to visit some of the places in California where the late writer lived. For the magazine’s cover, we wanted to re-create her in a vivid light. We asked the artist Wayde McIntosh to portray her on the beach, in Malibu. McIntosh’s Didion meets our gaze before a backdrop of rich yellows, blues, and greens that evoke the Southern California hills where she once resided.

Gabriela Pesqueira, Associate Art Director

This article appears in the June 2022 print edition with the headline “The Commons.”


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