Weekend Reading: The Opioid Crisis, Afghanistan Falls to the Taliban, Tragedy in Haiti, and More

The best reporting and writing from the past week, and context to understand it.

There’s a lot of great journalism out there. Every week, in a format short enough that it won’t be clipped by your inbox, we aim to share some of the best, with additional context for understanding the biggest news of the day. This is a weekly digest of stories you can savor and reporting you can rely on.

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Richard Sackler Says Family and Purdue Bear No Responsibility for Opioid Crisis
Jan Hoffman, The New York Times

The latest in the saga of the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma, and it could be seen as just another boring question-and-answer inherent to so many legal proceedings. But if you look at the questions being asked and the hard-to-believe responses from Dr. Richard Sackler about his family’s culpability in the nation’s opioid crisis, it’s profoundingly enraging. Not only does the settlement deal allow for resolution of the numerous existing lawsuits, but it would also grant immunity from future civil claims and shield the family individually.

  • 🗄️ From 2017: The Family That Built an Empire of Pain — Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker: Before Keefe authored Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, which came out in April, he tackled the subject of the Sackler family and their contribution to the opioid epidemic in The New Yorker.

  • 🗄️ From 2020: America’s Other Epidemic — Beth Macy, The Atlantic: Just an incredible introduction to this story. After introducing Nikki King, who’d seen untold pain by her teenage years due to the opioid epidemic as it raged in Kentucky, the author tells this detail:

    She remembers a teacher asking her classmates what they wanted to be when they grew up. “A drawer,” one boy said. “You mean an artist?” “No, a draw-er” — someone who draws disability checks and doctor-shops for OxyContin prescriptions. The pills could be had for next to nothing through Medicaid and then resold on the black market for $1 a milligram. It was the only future he could imagine for himself.

  • 🗄️ From 2016: ‘How’s Amanda?’: A Story of Truth, Lies and an American Addiction — Eli Saslow, The Washington Post: Simple rule of media-consumption: Read anything and everything that Eli Saslow writes and you won’t be disappointed. This classic story is five years old, but it’s just as resonant now as it was when he first wrote it. Another stunning lede that hooks the reader immediately:

    She had already made it through one last night alone under the freeway bridge, through the vomiting and shakes of withdrawal, through cravings so intense she’d scraped a bathroom floor searching for leftover traces of heroin. It had now been 12 days since the last time Amanda Wendler used a drug of any kind, her longest stretch in years.

  • 🎥 Opioids, III — Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, HBO: John Oliver does more good than dozens of well-written articles could possibly ever hope to achieve when it comes to reach. His show is rooted in such journalistic underpinnings that it’s just immensely satisfying to watch him layer on jokes for a place of moral certitude.

Biden’s Betrayal of Afghans Will Live in Infamy
George Packer, The Atlantic

A well-written criticism of the moral failings behind the ignominious end to America’s 20 years in Afghanistan as the Taliban resumed power in Kabul with hardly a shot fired.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the 20-year debacle in Afghanistan — enough to fill a library of books. Perhaps the effort to rebuild the country was doomed from the start. But our abandonment of the Afghans who helped us, counted on us, staked their lives on us, is a final, gratuitous shame that we could have avoided.

  • 📖 The Taliban Has Retaken Control of Afghanistan. Here’s What That Looked Like Last Time. — Kevin Sieff, The Washington Post: With the 20th anniversary of September 11th coming up soon, it’s a bitter reality that Afghanistan, a country in which U.S. troops have fought for two decades, will look very much as it did before the Americans arrived. The Taliban was a ruthless ruling force, and it’s spent the past few days trying, to varying degrees, to convince the international community that it won’t be falling back into its old ways. This piece reminds just what those old ways were.

  • 📖 The Return of the Taliban — Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker: Not unlike Packer’s Atlantic piece, Jon Lee Anderson writes with a certain grand, historic scope. “In that regard, the United States joins a line of notable predecessors, including Great Britain, in the 19th century, and the Soviet Union, in the 20th. Those historic precedents don’t make the American experience any more palatable. In Afghanistan — and, for that matter, in Iraq, as well — the Americans did not merely not learn from the mistakes of others; they did not learn from their own mistakes, committed a generation earlier, in Vietnam.” But the most resonant parts of the piece are the first-person elements from his time as a foreign war correspondent in Afghanistan 20 years ago.

‘I’m the Only Surgeon’: After Haiti Quake, Thousands Seek Scarce Care
Maria Abi-Habib, The New York Times

Dr. Edward Destine did all he could after a massive earthquake rocked Haiti. It was much more devastating than the earthquake that hit the island in 2010. “‘I would like to operate on 10 people today, but I just don’t have the supplies,’ he said, listing an urgent need for intravenous drips and even the most basic antibiotics.” The death toll was catastrophic, leaving more than 2,000 dead.

  • 📖 Explainer: Why Haiti Is Prone to Devastating Earthquakes — Ben Finley, Associated Press: How is it that two of the biggest and most well-known earthquakes of the past decade both hit the small island nation of Haiti?

    The Earth’s crust is made up of tectonic plates that move. And Haiti sits near the intersection of two of them — the North American plate and the Caribbean plate. Multiple fault lines between those plates cut through or near the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. What’s worse, not all of those fault lines behave the same way.

  • 🗄️ From 2010: Suffering — George Packer, The New Yorker: George Packer again, writing on another international tragedy, tackled the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake in The New Yorker’s pages.

    Haitian history is a chronicle of suffering so Job-like that it inevitably inspires arguments with God, and about God. Slavery, revolt, oppression, color caste, despoliation, American occupation alternating with American neglect, extreme poverty, political violence, coups, gangs, hurricanes, floods — and now an earthquake that exploits all the weaknesses created by this legacy to kill tens of thousands of people.

  • 🗄️ From 2000: The Good Doctor — Tracy Kidder, The New Yorker: Before Tracy Kidder wrote about Paul Farmer in the celebrated book Mountains Beyond Mountains, he wrote about Farmer in the pages of The New Yorker. Farmer, the physician and philanthropist who spent time in Haiti working for the betterment of the country, is still there and was mentioned in Maria Abi-Habib’s New York Times article above.

More of Our Favorites From the Past Week

The Spine Collector — Reeves Wiedeman, Vulture/New York 

The Dresden Job — Joshua Hammer, GQ

Bad News — Joseph Bernstein, Harper’s

Owen Wilson Is Doing Great, Thanks — Ryan D’Agostino, Esquire

The Coronavirus Is Here Forever. This Is How We Live With It. — Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic

The Follow-Up

The news doesn’t stop. If you checked out last week’s edition and found the topics interesting, here’s a collection of stories published since.

The 20th Anniversary of 9/11

The Complexity of Climate Change

The Atomic Bomb

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The Postscript

This week, elsewhere on The Postscript.

Losing the News

The Charleston Gazette-Mail, once known for its dogged accountability journalism, survived a merger and bankruptcy. Will it survive a new owner with ties to the industries its reporters have covered?

Stories That Matter: How a Collaborative Multimedia Investigation Changed Police Dog Rules and Won a Pulitzer

Reporters from The Marshall Project, AL.com, IndyStar, and the Invisible Institute dug into the use of "bite dogs" by law enforcement, leading at least three jurisdictions to institute reforms.