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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2017
November
16
Thursday
Yvonne Zipp
Deputy Daily Editor

Can you put a price on killing an endangered species?

The current rate for an African elephant: about $50,000 in fees.

The Trump administration announced hunters will be allowed to bring trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia to the United States – if there is evidence that the hunt benefits conservation efforts for that species. The move comes after the lifting last month of a similar ban on lion trophies – put in place after the outcry over the death of Cecil the lion in 2015. The US had banned imports of elephant trophies in 2014, given “calamitous population decline.”

Research on hunting’s benefits to conservation is mixed. A 2014 study found fees could help preserve a species (in that case white rhinos). A 2016 US House study countered that corruption often meant money didn’t reach conservation programs.

More than 10,200 African elephants were hunted for trophies between 2004 and 2014, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Some 71 percent of all hunting trophies went to the US.

Sport hunters point out that poachers kill far more elephants. Still, as China shuts down its ivory trade, and others take steps to protect the world’s largest land mammal, the value of some of Earth’s grandest creatures continues to demand deep consideration.

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And now our five stories, designed to show you faith, community spirit, and a search for equality at work.

1. Does Washington have buyer's remorse over assertive Saudi Arabia?

Observers are concerned that the US is pinning too many of its hopes for the Mideast on the abilities of an untested young Saudi leader. What does that mean for policy options, and for regional dynamics?

Yvonne
 

The 30 Sec. ReadWhere is the US policy in the Middle East going? That’s a question currently reverberating around the State Department and among veteran Middle East experts. Once again, President Trump appears to be out of step with senior officials at both State and the Pentagon. In this instance, concerns are being raised about an apparent carte blanche he’s issued the Saudis, and a wave of Saudi activism that some fear may be costly to the United States. Increasingly, Saudi Arabia is confronting its rival, Iran – most recently in Lebanon and Yemen – even as its young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, shores up his power internally. And this as Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is thought to be working closely with the crown prince on a grand plan for the region that may include resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Aaron David Miller, who has advised presidents from both parties, says US policymakers have long sought a Saudi Arabia that would be more assertive. “But … what you’re hearing increasingly is remorse about what we’ve wished for. No one knows where all this is heading, but it’s pretty clear that not all the potential outcomes are in our interest.”

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1. Does Washington have buyer's remorse over assertive Saudi Arabia?

From the outset of his presidency, Donald Trump has signaled his intention to refashion Middle East policy in a big way – and to return Saudi Arabia, sidelined in President Obama’s regional vision, to a preeminent spot in US policy.

Mr. Trump broke decades of presidential precedent by making Saudi Arabia the first foreign destination of his presidency. He has seemed to issue, through speeches and tweets, an American carte blanche to Saudi actions: both in the region – as the Saudis have ramped up efforts to counter Iran’s rise – and domestically.

When Saudi Arabia’s young king-in-waiting, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, recently launched a lightning anticorruption and power-consolidation operation – detaining so many princes and high officials that he had to add a Marriott Courtyard to the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton he’d commandeered as a detention facility – Trump quickly tweeted that King Salman and the prince “know exactly what they are doing.”

Trump had already assigned his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to work closely with the equally young and untried crown prince – known widely in Middle East circles as “MBS” – to come up with what the dealmaker-in-chief has promised will be the “ultimate deal.” Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to be just one part of a grand Middle East peace plan featuring a path to full relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Saudi Arabia chief among them.

Yet now as the Saudi kingdom risks getting bogged down by its domestic upheaval, and especially as Saudi actions toward Lebanon threaten to add another foreign policy misfortune to a list topped by a disastrous war in Yemen and a botched row with neighboring Gulf kingdom Qatar, some US officials and longtime regional experts are questioning the wisdom of Trump’s Saudi carte blanche.

The question reverberating around the State Department and among Middle East experts, many with long experience with the Saudis, is: Where might this lead?

Among the chief worries is this: that the president’s full and unquestioning embrace of the Saudis and their king-in-waiting could lead to the US being dragged into a conflict with Iran. Moreover, some warn that a Saudi perception of carte blanche – and the absence of any restraint or cautionary advice from the US – could actually harm a longtime US ally by paving its path to deeper blunders.

“Trump’s unquestioning support and evident encouragement have unleashed the Saudis to do things we’ve long hoped for, namely to assert themselves in the region and to take on more of their own security,” says Aaron David Miller, vice president for new initiatives and Middle East Program director at the Wilson Center in Washington.

“But now that the president has emboldened the prince to launch into these actions, what you’re hearing increasingly is remorse about what we’ve wished for,” he adds. “No one knows where all this is heading, but it’s pretty clear that not all the potential outcomes are in our interest.”

 

President Trump talks with Saudi King Salman as they pose for photos with leaders at the Arab Islamic American Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center, May 21 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. At right is Jordan's King Abdullah II.
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Evan Vucci/AP

Tillerson's stance

Clearly the White House, with the president in the lead, is delighted with the Saudis’ new assertiveness, particularly when it comes to efforts at countering Iran. But that unvarnished enthusiasm does not extend to either the State Department or the Pentagon, where support for Saudi actions is tinged with concerns about where what some see as adventurism could lead – and what any resulting instability could cost the US.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had already diverged from his boss in June in response to the Saudis’ row with Qatar, ostensibly over lax treatment of jihadi extremism: Trump cheered on the Saudis, Mr. Tillerson plunged into the dispute to find a diplomatic solution.

Then this month – only days after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri appeared suddenly in Riyadh and went on Saudi television to announce his resignation, reading a statement that accused Iran of meddling in Arab politics – Tillerson included Saudi Arabia in a stark warning to regional actors not to undertake actions that could threaten the stability of Lebanon.

“The United States cautions against any party … using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country,” Tillerson said in a Nov. 10 statement. State Department officials later confirmed that the secretary indeed included Saudi Arabia in his warning.

Mr. Hariri, who remains in Riyadh but plans to travel to Paris for discussions with French officials, has insisted that he is not in the Saudi capital under duress. But regional analysts have posited that the Saudis indeed engineered the Lebanese leader’s resignation over unhappiness with his 11-month tenure.

Over that time, the Iran-backed Hezbollah has used its place in a fragile coalition government to expand its power within Lebanon and in conflicts in neighboring Syria and in Yemen – both of which are prime concerns of the Saudis.

The upheaval in Lebanon has raised fears of a new war that could draw in Israel and make a shambles of Trump’s pursuit of a broad regional peace deal. More broadly, some US officials worry that Saudi missteps could draw the US into yet another Middle East conflict.

“It does seem that the US, in the sense of the State Department and the Pentagon as opposed to the White House, has a growing fear that it will be left to pick up the pieces of some of these Saudi initiatives and to try to make the best of bad situations,” says Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and energy policy program at the Washington Institute for near East policy.

'This is the new days'

After the wave of detentions inside Saudi Arabia, and then the Hariri drama, Mr. Henderson says he has “got the sense that the US, or at least certain sectors of the government, thinks that Saudi Arabia in general and MBS in particular are trying to keep too many balls in the air at the same time.”

What has emerged since the “curious case of Qatar,” Henderson adds, is a pattern in which the Trump White House “has supported MBS to the evident frustration of [Defense Secretary James] Mattis and Tillerson.”

Regional actors have taken note of what looks to be Tillerson’s more nuanced and cautious approach to the Saudis and their actions, analysts say, but they generally add that there’s a broad understanding that it’s the president and Mr. Kushner who count.

“Sure, the secretary of State has made a point to communicate his differences with some of what the Saudis are doing, but the real question is, so what?” says Mr. Miller, who has served as a Middle East policy adviser in both Republican and Democratic administrations. “Does it really matter what Rex Tillerson says or does while the president and his son-in-law continue to demonstrate that they are all in with the king and MBS, both in terms of their anti-Iranian initiatives and their role in a grand peace plan?” he says.

“Maybe in the old days of US foreign policy, what the secretary of State said and did mattered,” he adds, “but this is the new days.”

Hezbollah a concern

That said, Miller underscores the reality that Saudi Arabia faces complex economic and political challenges at home, even as it confronts an increasingly worrisome security environment outside its borders.

Among those legitimate security concerns, he adds, none surpasses the challenge of Iran’s expanding regional influence, and in particular its evident success at fashioning Hezbollah into a formidable regional proxy.

Pointing to a rocket attack this month on Riyadh’s airport that the Saudis claim was carried out by Iran- and Hezbollah-backed Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen, Miller says the establishment of a ballistic missile capability on Saudi Arabia’s border would be an ominous destabilizing factor in the region.

“It appears the Iranians are trying to turn Yemen’s Houthis into the equivalent of what Hezbollah represents on Israel’s border,” Miller says. “Of course the Saudis want to figure out some way to prevent that from happening.”

What worries analysts and some US officials alike is that the Saudis appear to lack an effective strategy for confronting Iran, and that the disastrous Saudi-led war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen don’t engender much confidence in other initiatives the king and crown prince are undertaking.

Except, it appears, in the White House.

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2. For transgender community, a year of promise and peril

Even as America continues to wrestle with questions about identity, the transgender politicians who won their elections last week say they weren't running on gender, but rather everyday issues that mattered to all their constituents.

Yvonne
Danica Roem, a Democrat who ran for Virginia's House of Delegates against GOP incumbent Robert Marshall and won, cast her vote at Buckhall Volunteer Fire Department on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, in Manassas, Va. She is the first openly transgender person elected and seated in a state legislature in the US.
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Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/AP
 

The 30 Sec. ReadFor transgender politicians, this has been a year of more victories and more violence. On Nov. 7, eight openly transgender people won in state and local elections. The counterpoint to that growing acceptance: A record 25 transgender people have died so far this year as a result of violence, two more than last year. The election results suggest that the American public is now willing to vote for qualified trans men and women. Winners, such as City Councilor Lisa Middleton in Palm Springs, Calif., say they didn’t run on gender identity. Her campaign, she says, was based on local issues: transparent leadership, public safety, and renewable energy. A marginalized minority, subject to violence and discrimination, they’re now emerging from the shadows. “The way they’re choosing to fight back is – for the first time in history – within the system,” says Juliana Martinez, an assistant professor at American University in Washington, who specializes in gender and sexuality. “Society is at a point where trans people can do this now. This was unthinkable 10 years ago, maybe even five years ago.”

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2. For transgender community, a year of promise and peril

Lisa Middleton ran for city council in Palm Springs, Calif., this year, she says, because she felt the time was right for her as a civil servant.

She had served her community for nearly a decade as a neighborhood representative and then member of the city planning commission. She built relationships with residents, business owners, and local leaders. She gained campaign experience helping city councilman Geoff Kors mount a winning bid for office in 2015.

She also ran because she felt the time was right for her as a transgender woman.

“I didn’t get into this to make a symbolic statement about being a transgender candidate that got close,” says Ms. Middleton, who was among eight openly trans candidates who won state and local elections across the country on Nov. 7. “It was time for our community not to come close, but to pull it off.”

The historic number of victories highlights a paradox in the perception of and politics surrounding America’s transgender community. On the one hand, hostility against them is at an all-time high: This year 25 transgender people have died as a result of violence, two more than the record 23 killed in 2016. Advocates also point to what they say is a systemic effort among conservative leaders to strip transgender individuals of hard-won rights.

At the same time, the election results show that voters are increasingly willing to throw their support behind openly transgender candidates. And trans people are recognizing that support – and putting in the work to build coalitions and get themselves elected. That’s a remarkable step for a group that has long fought its equal-rights battles in the streets, if not in the shadows, says Juliana Martinez, an assistant professor at American University in Washington who specializes in gender and sexuality.

“The way they’re choosing to fight back is – for the first time in history – within the system,” she says. “Society is at a point where trans people can do this now. This was unthinkable 10 years ago, maybe even five years ago.”

Beyond backlash

The narrative fits into the surge in political activism among groups who have felt targeted by the Trump administration. Since the president’s inauguration in January, women, racial and religious minorities, and even scientists have stepped up in unprecedented numbers to run for office. That broader push helped set the stage for folks like Virginia state delegate Danica Roem, Minneapolis city councilwoman Andrea Jenkins, and Middleton to bring openly trans voices into politics.

“When people are upset with the establishment or upset with where the country is heading, it becomes amenable for outsiders to take on [the system],” political scientist Jennifer Lawless told the Monitor in April.

Newly-elected city council members Phillipe Cunningham (l.) and Andrea Jenkins pose after an interview Nov. 9 at City Hall in Minneapolis. The two black transgender representatives-elect add to what advocacy groups have described as a banner election for transgender people in public office.
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Jim Mone/AP

But for the trans community, it’s about more than President Trump. Nearly all the victors hit historic gender milestones by winning – and faced down the brand of animosity particular to the transgender experience to do so. What won them their seats, they and their supporters say, had little to do with gender.

Middleton’s years of service in Palm Springs allowed her to run a campaign that focused on advancing things like transparent leadership, public safety, and the local renewable energy industry. “I felt absolutely grounded in our neighborhoods and what the different issues would be,” she says.

Ms. Jenkins, who now holds a seat in the Minneapolis city council, spent 25 years in various public service roles in and around the city before entering the race this year. And Ms. Roem, a newspaper reporter who beat Republican incumbent Bob Marshall for his seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, famously focused on fixing the traffic issues tormenting residents in Fairfax County.

“Being transgender isn’t the whole of her identity, the extent of her purpose or the crux of her mission,” Frank Bruni wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “[H]er job as a lawmaker is to attend to the nitty-gritty that has an immediate, measurable impact on all of her constituents.”

He was talking about Roem, but he could have meant any of the candidates.

'The war is far from over'

Middleton says she won because voters believed she was the best candidate for the job. She also acknowledged that she and her longtime partner moved to Palm Springs because of its LGBTQ-friendly atmosphere. “If I were running in a community in the Deep South or in many other places where the incumbent president has done extremely well, I’m sure my campaign would have faced far more difficult odds,” she says.

Indeed, for many liberals, the excitement of the Nov. 7 elections is tempered by the fact that the victories took place at a time when minority groups feel especially vulnerable to hostility from the state. This past year, the transgender community has faced multiple attempts to pass versions of North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” and a bid by the Trump administration to ban trans people from military service.

“There are individuals at all levels of government who do not recognize trans people and their personhood,” says Tia Gaynor, an assistant professor of public administration at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who specializes in diversity and government. “While this is a battle win, the war is far from over.”

Still, the election results suggest that the American public is, perhaps for the first time, willing to vote for qualified trans men and women who put their names on the ballot. That could, over time, encourage more transgender folks to run – and eventually mean a greater share of representation in political office.

“Nothing succeeds like success,” says Rebekah Herrick, a political science professor who studies representation and gender at Oklahoma State University. “And once you get people elected to office, I think it can change other people’s behaviors.”

Middleton, too, recognizes that winning is just the beginning: “Those forces that have for decades opposed LGBT equality are not going to suddenly say, ‘Oh my gosh, we were wrong,’ and stop fighting us. We will be watched very closely.”

“It’s an opportunity,” she adds. “Now we have to make good on that opportunity.”

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3. Jordanian mothers and a new civil rights battle

For Jordanian women, not being able to offer citizenship to their children remains a question of basic rights – one that is gaining new urgency amid the refugee crisis.

Yvonne
 

The 30 Sec. ReadJordan has made dramatic breakthroughs this year on women’s rights. It scrapped a marry-your-rapist law and criminalized sexual harassment. Yet it remains far behind other Arab countries whose female citizens now may confer citizenship on their children. And Jordan's children suffer for it. If their fathers are not Jordanian citizens – whether refugees or foreign workers – neither are they, meaning they cannot own property, buy a home, open a business, or work in several desirable professions. But the reason Jordan lags behind in this instance has more to do with its demographics than with attitudes toward women. Opponents of changing the citizenship law are Jordanians of tribal origins, who pride themselves on being the “original” Jordanians and fear being overwhelmed by new citizens. Already they are nearly outnumbered by Jordan’s Palestinians. Despite government attempts to grant special “privileges” to the children of Jordanian women and noncitizen fathers, they continue to demand basic civil rights. Says one advocate: “This citizenship law is against the basic principles of human rights. We fought it then and are fighting it now.”

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3. Jordanian mothers and a new civil rights battle

Ahmed Zubeidi is a living ghost.

The 23-year-old is unable to get a job, enter a hospital, or own a mobile phone. He cannot marry or even leave his village on the desert outskirts of the city of Mafraq by the Jordan-Syria border.

He has no passport, no national ID. For Jordan, it was as if he had never existed. But his mother is a Jordanian.

“I am not a refugee or an [internally displaced person],” Mr. Zubeidi says from his cousin’s home. “I am a Jordanian, the son of a Jordanian. But they don’t see it that way.”

Zubeidi is one of an estimated hundreds of Jordanian residents who have been left stateless, and one of hundreds of thousands denied basic rights – all because their Jordanian mothers chose to marry foreign or unregistered fathers. He requested his first name be altered due to the social stigma of being stateless.

Despite making huge breakthroughs in women’s rights this year, scrapping a marry-your-rapist law and criminalizing sexual harassment, Jordan remains far behind other Arab countries whose female citizens now confer citizenship on their children.

Jordan's lag has much to do with its complex demographics, as opposed to its attitudes toward women. Yet it goes against Jordan’s image as a progressive nation, and despite government attempts to grant them special “privileges,” the children of Jordanian women and non-citizen fathers continue to demand basic civil rights.

Outdated laws

Despite boasting constitutions enshrining equal rights to all citizens, most post-colonial Arab and African states added citizenship laws in the 1950s and '60s that defined a citizen as the son or daughter of a male citizen.

“This citizenship law is against the basic principles of human rights, we fought it then and are fighting it now,” says Layla Naffa of the Arab Women Organization of Jordan, which advocates for women’s citizenship rights.

Egypt became the first Arab country to amend its law in 2004 to redefine citizenship as being passed down by either parent, followed by Algeria in 2005, Iraq in 2006, Morocco in 2007, and Tunisia in 2010. Even Saudi Arabia, regarded as one of the most closed, conservative Arab states, announced last month that its Interior Ministry and its advisory Shura Council were studying a measure giving citizenship to the children born of Saudi mothers and foreign fathers.

Yet in Jordan and Lebanon, the law remains unchanged. Some 85,000 Jordanian women married to foreigners cannot pass on their citizenship to an estimated 400,000 children.

Lost in the system

Many of their offspring, like Zubiedi, fall into gaps in the system.

Zubeidi’s parents were cousins, Jordanians hailing from the same tribe. Yet while his mother was registered as a Jordanian citizen at birth, his father was never registered due to his nomadic Bedouin lifestyle. Zubeidi’s father died prematurely while Zubeidi was an infant, and the boy was later listed as stateless as his father was not present when the birth certificate was issued.

Many Jordanian women marry foreign workers who staff the industrial cities near Mafraq and Amman: Egyptian, Pakistani, and Bengali workers. Yet should their husbands return to their home countries, be deported, or die before registering their children, they, like Zubeidi, would be stateless. Those husbands who remain with their Jordanian wives pass on only their foreign citizenship.

Even for those with foreign passports, life in Jordan is not easy.

Children of Jordanian women and foreign fathers cannot own property, buy a home, or open a business. They are not allowed to work in many professions – including as doctors, lawyers, and engineers, fields reserved for “Jordanians.” Deemed “foreigners,” they are allowed to do menial work in the agriculture, construction, and service sectors.

Non-Jordanians also do not have the right to an inheritance. This is a huge issue for many, as they are forced to register their homes, cars, and businesses in their Jordanian mother’s name. Should their mother pass away, their property, homes, and cars they purchased go to their mother’s brothers and other “Jordanian” male relatives, leaving many destitute.

“When I am gone, my sons will lose everything,” says Zainab Abu Tabeekh, whose family home, bakery, and car are registered in her name – and cannot be passed on to her three sons or Egyptian husband.

Political football

But in Jordan, opposition to changing the citizenship law has little to do with women’s rights, and everything to do with demographics.

Jordan is home to an estimated 3 million Palestinian refugees who have been granted full citizenship and are nearly equal in number to the 3.5 million Jordanians of tribal origins, who pride themselves as being the “original” Jordanians.

Opponents of revising the law fear that the 150,000 Gazans in Jordan, the only Palestinian refugees who have never been naturalized, would use the measure to gain citizenship for them and their families. Then there are concerns that many of Jordan’s 1.3 million Syrians would intermarry with Jordanians, outnumbering “original” tribes.

This has made the issue a rallying cry for nationalists and tribalists who want to appeal to “original Jordanians” and rile up their base, transforming the humanitarian issue into a political football.

The topic has divided loyalties and created strange political bedfellows in Jordan; many lawmakers for women’s rights are against citizenship rights, many conservative Islamists are standing with feminists for the very first time.

“I am all for women’s rights and equality, but the naturalization of Jordanian women is a political issue, not a humanitarian one,” says Nabil Gheishan, a member of parliament at the forefront of women’s rights who helped spearhead Jordan’s recent scrapping of its marry-your-rapist law.

“For a century, Jordan has been the sponge that has soaked up the humanitarian crises and wars in the region,” says Mr. Gheishan. “The sponge is full, it just can’t take any more people.”

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood finds itself in a rare position: on the side of the Jordanian women’s movement.

“This is nothing less than a catastrophe,” says Dima Tahboub, MP for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front party and one of the group’s two women in parliament. 

“We as a movement are completely against this practice, as it makes women second-class citizens under the law.”

Opponents point out that energy- and water-poor Jordan lurches from one budgetary crisis to another. With the government already raising taxes to avoid insolvency, how would Jordan deal with another 400,000 Jordanians in need of services – a 20 percent increase in citizens?

“Jordan is the only country where outsiders are as many as the original inhabitants,” says Abdul Hadi Majali, a former ambassador to the US, former parliament speaker, and powerful tribal power-broker.

“Let me put it this way, would the Trump administration grant citizenship to 70 million Mexican migrants?” Majali said. “In terms of demographics and percentages in Jordan, that is what we are talking about.”

Privileges, not rights

In 2014, in response to four years of protests by Jordanian women inspired by the Arab Spring, the government agreed to grant “privileges” to the children of Jordanian women to facilitate yearly renewable residency permits and their entry into public schools and government health centers.

Yet activists and children of Jordanian women, some 65,000 of whom have signed up for the benefits, say it does not go far enough.

Non-citizen children of Jordanian women still lack the Jordanian equivalent of a social security number, without which they cannot sign work contracts in either the public or private sector. And they cannot own property without approval from the cabinet itself.

“I think the problem is with the concept of the privileges themselves,” says Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Middle East researcher for Equality Now in Jordan, a US-based women’s rights advocacy group that is campaigning for changes to the nationality law in Jordan.

“At any moment, any minister can come and say we don’t need these privileges and repeal them,” she said. “If they have civil rights, they have it forever – whether future governments or politicians want it nor not.”

The Interior Ministry says it works to enforce the privileges and, to ensure compliance, even has a special committee to hear the complaints of those who have not received their privileges from various government agencies. 

“These are persons living on Jordanian soil, and they have the right to a dignified life,” says Abdul Salem Qadhi, head of the Interior Ministry’s human rights directorate.

Few solutions

One way to overcome the legislative hurdles would be a show of support from King Abdullah. Were he to endorse the change, many MPs might feel pressured to vote along with his wishes.

But even then, the decision – as it touches social, tribal, and nationalist nerves – may be dead on arrival in parliament, leaving  residents like Zubeidi despairing.

“When I meet my maker and God asks me: what have you done with your life, what will I say?” says Zubeidi.

“I sat in my home like a ghost.”

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4. What 'thoughts and prayers' really means to the devout

After the Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs shootings, the debate online shifted to whether praying is "doing anything." That sentiment echoes an anti-apartheid meeting in the 1980s, when a South African minister asked people to pray for a solution for her country. A young man stood up and said, "I’m getting sick of praying. I want to do something," one religious scholar told reporter Stephen Humphries. "At that point she said, in a very stern voice, ‘Prayer is doing something.' "

Yvonne
A man holds his head during a prayer at a vigil Oct. 3, 2017, for the victims of a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival in Las Vegas.
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Chris Wattie/Reuters
 

The 30 Sec. ReadThe public offering of  “thoughts and prayers” after a tragedy may be sincere. But after a string of mass shootings, some Americans are mocking the phrase as a false offering of comfort, delivered with no expectation of political action or a path to a solution. We asked theologians, scholars, faith leaders, and some of those who live in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where a gunman killed 26 people in a Baptist church, how they view prayer. One recent survey showed that 55 percent of all American adults said that they pray every day. Of course, for some, prayer is a petition or a complex liturgy. For others, it may be an act of praise or listening or meditation. But is prayer doing something, or doing nothing? “There is a wonderful African proverb: ‘When you pray, move your feet,’ ” says Leonard Sweet, a professor at Drew Theological School at Drew University in Madison, N.J.  “If it is serious prayer and systemic prayer, it should move your feet to deal with systemic issues that are bringing this on.”

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4. What 'thoughts and prayers' really means to the devout

It’s a familiar performance in a long-running drama: Following a mass shooting, proponents and opponents of gun control take to the national stage, find their blocking on the scene, and recite the same impassioned lines of dialogue. But the circumstances of last week’s gun massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas, flipped the usual script. When politicians doled out their automatic condolences of “thoughts and prayers,” gun control advocates responded with rhetorical jiu-jitsu.

“The murdered victims were in a church. If prayers did anything, they’d still be alive,” tweeted “Star Trek” actor Wil Wheaton, one of a number of Twittizens who used the cruel irony to mock Republican politicians. (He later apologized for offending “people of faith.”)

The recurring “thoughts and prayers” meme stokes fiery exchanges in a political and cultural war where gun control and religion are frontline issues. But after the shooting in Texas, the debate is no longer just about whether politicians’ stock platitudes represent a sufficient response to gun violence. It’s an argument over the very efficacy of prayer itself. Is God a refuge and strength, an everpresent help in times of trouble, as a Psalmist once put it?

“We are fundamentally spiritual beings,” says Richard Mouw, professor of faith and public life at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. “It’s a part of our deep longings and hopes and fears that we do have a sense of the divine. In the moments of tragedy in our lives there’s an impulse, there’s an instinct to turn to however we understand the higher power.”

But beyond the individual supplications of the religious, there’s little agreement over the proper role of prayer after a tragedy. Does prayer constitute taking meaningful, practical action? Or does invoking “thoughts and prayers” merely offer the appearance of acting?

That cliché, plucked from the inadequate lexicon of words to express grief, is a phrase employed by countless Republicans and Democrats over decades (including politicians from both parties last week). Its durability may stem from the fact that it nods to both secular and religious audiences and also fits neatly into a sound bite or a tweet. But it has to come to represent, for some, a parsimonious response that fails to convey a full reckoning of the tragic loss of life in each incident.

In 2015, President Barack Obama responded to the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., by declaring, “Thoughts and prayers are not enough.” Since then, the primarily Republican “Thoughts and Prayers” contingent have been satirized (and trolled) by an online videogame, an episode of the Netflix series “BoJack Horseman,” a gospel choir on Samantha Bee’s TV show “Full Frontal,” and an online comic by Stephen Byrne in which two superheroes, Thought and Prayer, discover that their respective powers are ineffectual against a robber with a gun.

First responders join in prayer following a Veterans Day event, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, near the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. A man opened fire inside the church in the small South Texas community on Sunday, killing more than two dozen.
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Eric Gay/AP

Different faith traditions – and different people within those traditions – encompass a broad array of ideas on what prayer does.

“Is prayer enough to stop an individual from acquiring an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and gunning down 50 people at a concert?” asks Rabbi Yael Ridberg of Congregation Dor Hadash, a Reconstructionist synagogue community in San Diego. “No. But that’s only if you think the prayer is supposed to solve that problem. That is not going to solve that problem. Prayer is a reaction to, or a need after the fact.”

For religious scholar Reza Aslan, the question isn’t: “Does prayer work?” Or, “Is prayer enough?” “Paul Ryan and most Republican politicians are saying, we will just hide behind the view that a majority of Americans have, which is a prayer is an effective tool and not do anything,” says Mr. Aslan, author of a new book, “God: A Human History.” “In a sense, we are inoculated from action, because most Americans do believe that prayer is a form of action.”

'Please keep praying for a solution'

Deliberation over the proper balance isn’t exclusive to the gun-control debate. During the 1980s, Dr. Mouw recalls attending an anti-apartheid meeting in Grand Rapids, Mich., in which a black South African church minister had been invited to speak.

“We talked about the [economic] divestments and church pressures and various things,” says Mouw, author of “Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.” “At the end, she said, ‘Do all of these things but please keep praying for a solution to all of us in South Africa.’ A young African-American man stood up said, ‘I’m getting sick of praying. I want to do something.’ At that point she said, in a very stern voice, ‘Prayer is doing something. You’re petitioning the highest ruler in the universe.’”

People pray in a variety of ways. For some, it’s a simple call from the heart. For others, it’s the recitation of a complex liturgy. Prayer can be for oneself or it can be an act of intercession. It can be an act of petition or an act of praise. It can be silent or spoken aloud. Though the practice of supplication has been declining in recent decades, it nonetheless remains deeply woven into Americans’ lives – and thus their political outlooks.

“In our big 2014 religious landscape study, we found that 55 percent of all American adults said that they pray every day,” says Greg Smith, Associate Director of Research at the nonpartisan, nonprofit Pew Research Center. “Another one in five, 21 percent, say that they pray ‘occasionally,’ maybe on a weekly or monthly basis, but not every day. The remaining quarter or so of the public, 23 percent, say that they seldom or never pray.”

Another trend? More Americans now say they’re spiritual but not religious. Many people now gather for daily contemplation in yoga studios, not just to perfect flexible poses, but to deal with stressful events.

“What you meditate on can be breath, it can be counting, it could be a mantra, it can be connecting to your heart space and talking to God. It’s not only a Buddhist thing, prayer is absolutely meditation,” says Emily Peterson, lead trainer for a mindfulness-based trauma recovery program called TIMBo (Trauma Informed Mind Body) in Brookline, Mass. Ms. Peterson offers one additional definition of her practice. “The Dalai Lama, a while ago, was asked, ‘What’s the most important meditation one can do?’ He said, ‘Critical thinking, followed by action.’ ” 

'When you pray, move your feet'

Theologian and author Leonard Sweet believes that prayer is a vital first step toward dealing with gun violence. “In a football game, your aim is to score a touchdown. But before you can score a touchdown, you huddle. But the game is not a huddle.”

Prayer is not an empty puff of air thrown up into the heavens, but something that takes flesh in some kind of materialization in real life, says Mr. Sweet, a professor at Drew Theological School at Drew University in Madison, N.J. “There is a wonderful African proverb: ‘When you pray, move your feet,’ ” says Sweet, who posts sermons at PreachtheStory.com. “If it is serious prayer and systemic prayer, it should move your feet to deal with systemic issues that are bringing this on.”

Republicans such as House Speaker Paul Ryan have been accused of dragging their feet on this issue. But other conservatives push back at the accusation that Republicans are acting in, well, bad faith.

“I absolutely believe the biblical concept that ‘faith without works is dead,’ ” says David French, a senior writer for National Review. “But what they tend to mean when they say, ‘You should pray and take action,’ is that they mean you should pray and take the action I want you to take. If you actually look at these politicians that they get angry at, or these conservatives on Twitter that they get angry at, each one of us has advocated or proposed or engaged in dialogue about various things that could be done to try to stop mass killings, to try to ameliorate the problem.” For example, he says, solutions could include stepping up enforcement of existing law – including increased prosecutions for those who lie on background check forms – and shoring up existing reporting processes so that names don’t fall through the cracks, as was the case in Sutherland Springs.

In the wake of the Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs shootings, Mr. French has been inspired by a verse in II Chronicles that stresses the importance of humbling oneself to listen for answers in how to deal with confounding acts of evil.

“[Christians] use a word that is fraught with very deep meaning, and that is ‘relationship,’ ” says French. “They feel that they have a relationship with God. That feeling of relationship with God is directly connected to prayer. It’s a feeling of communing with God. There is deep comfort. There is deep peace. There is resolve. There is insight.”

'Prayer, to me, gathers people together'

In Sutherland Springs, faith is at the forefront of a community that remains in a tight embrace since the Nov. 5 shooting that killed 26 churchgoers. At a prayer vigil last week, Pastor Stephen A. Curry, asked a candlelit throng, “Who are we going to be tomorrow? We are going to be people who go and live our lives, not in fear, but with compassion for our neighbors. Who are we going to be tomorrow? We are going to be people who do not let things like chaos and destruction interrupt who we are, or change who we are called to be.”

“Prayer, to me, gathers people together,” says Eileen Anderson, secretary of the Sutherland Springs Historical Museum. Before the shooting, Mrs. Anderson prayed daily for the world. Now, the Roman Catholic asks that world respond in kind.

“I couldn’t tell you how many calls I’ve had saying, ‘Eileen are you OK?’ ” she says, tearing up. “And I say, ‘Yeah, we’re fine. It’s the people down the road here that need us, need our prayers.’ ”

Staff writer Henry Gass contributed to this article from Sutherland Springs, Texas.

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5. Schools band together to help rural students

Ohio offers a model for how far-flung and sparsely populated schools can provide rural students with the same access to postsecondary opportunities as their urban and suburban peers.

Yvonne
 

The 30 Sec. ReadIn rural Ohio, an experiment is going on, one aimed at helping high-schoolers from former factory towns. School districts are pooling resources so that students can participate in a state program that allows them to take university courses for full credit alongside their high school classes. At the heart of the effort is Meadowbrook High School in Byesville. Funded by a $15 million state grant shared among the member districts, Meadowbrook decided in 2013 to convert its seldom-used library into Colt College, a facility built for a dual-enrollment program. The classrooms are equipped with computers, distance-learning technology, and a lounge area. “It feels different. It looks different. It’s like you’re in college. And that’s what we want our kids to experience,” says Rolling Hills superintendent Ryan Caldwell. The result is a new culture. Currently, 92 percent of students graduate on time — 11 points above the state average. And from 2013 to 2016, the number of its graduates enrolling in associate’s or bachelor’s degree programs rose dramatically, from 28 percent to 47 percent. “If they hadn’t had Colt College right in the school,” says recent graduate Aaron Twigg, “I wouldn’t have taken a college class.” 

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5. Schools band together to help rural students

Turning around struggling high schools is the toughest work in education reform. Research found that a $3.5 billion federal program meant to fix the nation’s lowest performing schools – which focused disproportionately on high schools – did little to improve student achievement. In this three-part series, The Hechinger Report is visiting high schools that have beaten the long odds to learn what’s behind their success in improving graduation rates and sending more students to college.

In this small, rural town situated among the farmland and rolling hills of southeastern Ohio, residents of a certain age worry about the younger generation. They recall a time when industrial jobs provided a solid path to the middle class for those with a high school diploma and a willingness to work hard. They know those days aren’t coming back.

“The mindset 15 to 20 years ago was you could just graduate high school and land a job at one of the factories,” says village mayor Jay Jackson. “But a lot of those jobs have moved on and the ones that are here require some higher education.”

Meadowbrook High School in Byesville, part of the Rolling Hills school district, operates in a county beset by declining population and low-wage jobs. The median household income is 24 percent lower than that of the nation as a whole and fewer than 14 percent of adults have a four-year college degree. School officials say that 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a measure of poverty.

Yet Meadowbrook, which serves 490 students from across a sprawling 128-square-mile district, is thriving when it comes to graduation rates and participation in higher-ed. In just a few years, the school has managed to create a culture in which going to college is becoming the norm rather than the exception. 

Administration and faculty trace this emphasis on higher education to the school’s participation in a novel cooperative effort with other rural school districts across the state. The Ohio Appalachian Collaborative, as it’s called, began with 21 separate districts coming together in 2010 to pool resources and secure outside funding on a scale that the individual districts could not have managed on their own. The result is a model for how far-flung and sparsely populated schools can provide rural students with the same access to postsecondary opportunities as their urban and suburban peers.

“We’ve seen tremendous success,” says district superintendent Ryan Caldwell. “We think the impact is going to be tremendous for this community.”

At Meadowbrook, the higher-ed focus is evident: from incoming freshmen who speak confidently to visitors about their college plans, to the vibrant classrooms set aside for the 38 percent of juniors and seniors who are participating in a dual-enrollment program this fall – taking university courses for full credit alongside their high school classes. 

Currently, 92 percent of Meadowbrook students graduate on time – the school’s highest rate in recent memory and 11 points above the state average. And from 2013 to 2016, the number of its graduates enrolling in associate’s or bachelor’s degree programs rose dramatically, from 28 percent to 47 percent, according to school officials. (By comparison, data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows only 59 percent of rural high school graduates typically go on to college.) The school, which is still working on improvement in other academic areas, is offering its students something they haven't had previously.

From long shot to reality 

For Aaron Twigg, a 19-year-year old who graduated from Meadowbrook last year, college seemed like a long shot at best. “I blew off the first two years of high school,” he acknowledges.  Mr. Twigg, who grew up in a single-parent household, said the expense associated with going to college made it seem like something he’d never be able to do.

Senior Brooke Clendenning, from Meadowbrook High School in Byesville, Ohio, is on pace to graduate this spring with a full year's worth of college credits on her transcript, at no cost to her or her family.
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Amadou Diallo/The Hechinger Report

At the start of his senior year, thanks to Meadowbrook’s in-house college program and relationships with teachers who “expected more out of me,” Twigg enrolled in college composition and literature classes. After doing well in them, he began for the first time to consider college as a real possibility.

Ohio has long sought to boost college enrollment by letting high school students take college classes, at no cost, before they graduate. Since 1989 the dual-enrollment program has been open to any student able to pass an assessment test. Textbooks are also provided free of charge. The latest iteration of the program is called College Credit Plus (CCP), and supporters say it provides a crucial pathway to college for those who otherwise could not afford it.

The program’s funding model, however, effectively shuts out rural students, because the high schools must pay for the classes. The conservative-led state legislature chose to fund CCP by making a student’s local district pay for tuition and books, with funds coming out of the high school’s per-pupil budget. Critics argue that the cost is prohibitive in sparsely populated communities.

“In rural areas there’s often not the tax base you find in an urban or suburban school to fund additional programs,” says Lavina Grandon, co-founder and board president of the Rural Community Alliance, a nonprofit school advocacy organization. 

As a result, the dual-enrollment initiative is one that many rural schools would love to embrace but can’t afford. 

“On the one hand we really encourage kids to get college credit, but on the other hand it’s a financial disincentive for school districts,” says Jim Mahoney, former executive director of Battelle for Kids, a Columbus-based education nonprofit that established the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative. “In Ohio, we have dramatically shifted a lot of the tax burden for education spending away from the state and onto local school districts,” he notes.

Or, as Superintendent Caldwell puts it, “CCP has the potential to bankrupt a school district.”

Meadowbrook spends $15,000-$20,000 per year on college texts, says principal Molly Kaplet, adding that rapidly changing curricula at some colleges has meant that those textbooks may only be of use for a year or two.

As of 2016, Ohio high schools are charged $166 per credit hour when a student attends classes on a college campus. At a rural school like Meadowbrook, which already receives less per-student funding than the state average, sending significant numbers of students to a college campus isn’t financially feasible. The state allows a 50 percent rate reduction if the high school provides the classes in its own building – but that requires having staff that’s certified to teach college-level courses, a rarity in most rural schools.

Collaboration essential

The cost made collaboration a necessity, says Superintendent Caldwell, who embraced the idea not only of applying for grants as a group as the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative, but also of sharing resources among the member districts, regardless of proximity. “We’ve had to be very innovative and aggressive,” he says. 

Caldwell also notes the importance of sharing college-level certified teachers among districts. “One may have a math teacher. We have a Spanish teacher. Another may have a business teacher. They may be all over the region but we’re all committed to sharing them so we can offer a full college curriculum to our students.”

Ray Mertz, a social studies teacher at Meadowbrook High School in Byesville, Ohio, is using a school-provided grant to pay for a master's degree, which will allow him to teach college-level political science courses to local students.
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Amadou Diallo/The Hechinger Report

A sense of urgency

The urgency to provide dual-enrollment classes on site came not just from the financial savings. Principal Kaplet found it difficult to create a culture of academic achievement when her school’s most motivated learners were spending the bulk of their time on a college campus. “You’re losing a connection with those students,” she says. “We saw our best and brightest students leaving.” 

So, in 2013, the school embarked on an ambitious mission. Funded by a $15 million state grant awarded to the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative and shared among its member districts, Meadowbrook decided to convert its seldom-used library into Colt College, a facility built for its dual-enrollment program. Named for the school’s mascot, Colt College is a bright and welcoming collection of classrooms equipped with computers, distance-learning technology, and a lounge area – all for the exclusive use of its dual-enrollment students.

“We spent a lot of money on this because when you walk through those doors it’s unlike any other part of our school,” says Caldwell. “It feels different. It looks different. It’s like you’re in college. And that’s what we want our kids to experience.”

Although it’s housed on the Meadowbrook campus, students from across the region benefit by taking distance-learning classes led by instructors at Colt.

Investing in teachers, too 

A second grant, also awarded to the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative, secured funds that Caldwell uses to pay for teachers to earn master’s degrees, allowing them to teach the college-level courses. Five years ago, Caldwell notes, Meadowbrook couldn’t even offer an Advanced Placement class because the school had no teachers with the required credentials. Today, the school counts 11 teachers on staff who are certified to teach college classes. They expect to add five more next year.

“I always wanted to teach higher-level history and government,” says Ray Mertz, a social studies teacher who joined Meadowbrook in 2014. During his job interview, Mr. Mertz was asked if he would be willing to go back to school to get a master’s degree, paid for by the school. Mertz jumped at the chance. “This is one of the reasons I came to Meadowbrook,” he says.

Boosted by a dedicated physical space, certified staff, and a concerted effort by administration and faculty to promote Colt College, Meadowbrook’s dual-enrollment population quickly surged. In 2012, the year before Colt College was launched, school officials say that approximately 25 of their students were taking college classes, all of them off-campus. This fall, with 32 courses to choose from, 90 students are taking college classes without leaving the building. 

“When our kids started staying,” says Kaplet, “our athletics improved, our clubs improved. The character of our whole building changed. The culture changed. These students were being role models and our younger kids were saying ‘I want to do that.’ ”

“If they hadn’t had Colt College right in the school, I wouldn’t have taken a college class,” says graduate Twigg, noting that in high school he had no access to transportation to make the 30-mile commute to Ohio University Zanesville, one of the nearest campuses offering dual-enrollment classes. Since graduation, Twigg has been working a series of full-time jobs with plans to enroll in Belmont College in Clairsville, Ohio, next spring, applying his Colt College credits toward a two-year welding degree program.

College path more common

Meadowbrook officials say it’s now much more common to see students like senior Brooke Clendenning, from nearby Senecaville, who began ninth grade with plans for college. She is on track to graduate high school with two semesters’ worth of undergraduate studies under her belt. Ms. Clendenning, described by her teachers as highly motivated, settled on the idea of taking early college classes back in middle school and started the dual-enrollment program the summer before her junior year. “For me it’s more fun to come to school,” she says, “because I have the opportunity to get ahead and learn higher-level things.”

But, she notes, the workload increased, “and I would always put off my work until just before the due date.” Having teachers on hand who have known her since freshman year helped. 

“They’re learning how to fall on their face with support," explains Kaplet. “In an actual college, they would be on their own.” Such support is important, she says, because poor performance carries steep consequences. State legislators have mandated that any student who gets an F must reimburse the district for the cost of tuition and books.

While Superintendent Caldwell is confident that Meadowbrook's turnaround can be replicated in other communities, he emphasizes that results don’t come without support at the district level and a lot of hard work. In particular, he notes the willingness among the school's staff to go back to earn master's degrees, without any corresponding salary increase.

Meadowbrook has to manage 14 partnerships with outside schools and colleges to make their course offerings a reality, Kaplet points out. “Our counselors,” she explains, “put in an insane amount of hours just communicating with the different colleges on application requirements, getting records in, testing, and placement.”

The payoff, she says, is not just in providing opportunities for motivated students such as Clendenning, but in changing the mindset of students such as Twigg who didn’t even have college on their radar.

“We now have kids taking the [assessment] test who never would have thought about going to college," says Kaplet. "In eighth grade, Aaron [Twigg] was an underachiever. He started applying himself more, took a college class, and is going to be the first kid in his family to go to college.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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The Monitor's View

Protecting the innocent from cyber warriors

 

The 30 Sec. ReadAmid rising fears about cyberattacks by foreign entities, digital experts are calling for new international norms and agreements that recognize the need to wall off civilians from cyberharm. Under the Geneva Conventions that serve to protect the innocent during a conflict, cyberwarfare is already restricted to military targets. Yet these humanitarian rules apply only during war. Many cyberattacks today are stealthy events by an adversary whose identity cannot be easily detected. Governments are responding by beefing up their cybercapabilities. This risks the possibility of widespread and mutual destruction of digital networks. Just as the Geneva Conventions set legal bumpers for the use of physical weapons, the world needs a pact that restrains digital attacks. Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, Brad Smith, has called for a “digital Geneva Convention.” Another idea is for tech companies to prevent their products from being weaponized. With each new type of weapon, the world must again find the means to protect the dignity of innocent lives.

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Protecting the innocent from cyber warriors

In new warnings about cyberattacks by foreign entities, Britain and the United States have lately left the impression that innocent civilians, and not just governments, might become victims on a digital battlefield. On Nov. 15, for example, the US said North Korea is targeting banks, airlines, and telecom firms. And Britain claimed Russian hackers have targeted energy networks and the media. Prime Minister Theresa May accused the Kremlin of a campaign of cyber “disruption.”

The warnings are credible given evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections and North Korea’s 2014 hacking of Sony Pictures. Last spring, the so-called WannaCry virus shut down hospitals in Britain, rail ticket operations in Germany, and some FedEx operations in the US. Terrorism experts also warn of Islamic State or Al Qaeda shutting down critical infrastructure, such as electric grids.

“Algorithms can be as powerful as tanks, bots as dangerous as bombs,” says top United Nations official Michael Moeller.

Amid these rising fears, however, digital experts are calling for new international norms and agreements that recognize the need to wall off civilians from cyberharm. The idea is to replicate the kind of pacts that have largely curbed instruments of war, such as chemical weapons.

Under the Geneva Conventions that serve to protect the innocent during a conflict, cyberwarfare is already restricted to military targets. Just as warplanes cannot drop bombs on civilian hospitals, government hackers cannot hit civilian facilities, such as a factory.

Yet these humanitarian rules apply only during war. Many cyberattacks today are stealthy events by an adversary whose identity cannot be easily detected. Governments are responding by beefing up their cybercapabilities to respond in kind. This risks the possibility of widespread and mutual destruction of digital networks.

Just as the Geneva Conventions and other agreements have set legal bumpers for the use of physical weapons, the world needs a pact that restrains digital attacks. Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, Brad Smith, has even called for a “digital Geneva Convention” out of his perception that “nothing seems off limits” in cyberattacks these days.

“Now is the time for us to call on government to protect civilians on the Internet in times of peace,” he said. “We need a convention that will call on the world’s governments to pledge that they will not engage in cyberattacks on the private sector, that they will not target civilian infrastructure whether it’s of the electrical or the economic or the political variety.”

Another idea is for tech companies to prevent their products from being weaponized. Last month, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is guardian of the Geneva accords, visited companies including Facebook and Microsoft to ask that they alter their technologies to prevent them from being used as instruments of war.

Such ideas are grounded in a powerful concept well developed since the mid-19th century that even enemies must recognize the innocence of noncombatants. With each new type of weapon, the world must again find the means to protect the dignity of innocent lives.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Rekindling a marriage’s flame

 

Sometimes we lose the zest, joy, and spontaneity of a relationship or an activity we once found invigorating. But as today’s contributor has found, there’s a way to rekindle the passion of inspired commitment. As her 10th wedding anniversary neared, she longed to rediscover the fire of purpose and inspiration in her marriage. The realization that this could start with her own thoughts and prayers inspired her to actively look for the ways her husband expressed God’s goodness. This approach brought about a “rebirth” in the marriage that her husband also noticed. Acknowledging God as the source of all good unfolds the joy and inspiration of a fulfilling life.

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Rekindling a marriage’s flame

During the first decade of marriage, my husband and I fell comfortably and naturally into the routine of work and family responsibilities. We had a sweet, loving relationship, with mostly ups and very few downs. However, as steady as things were, we were still two people evolving at our own pace, with interests and activities that sometimes converged and often diverged. To a certain extent, we had let our relationship become a bit dusty. As we neared our 10th anniversary, I was longing to rediscover the fire of purpose in the relationship.

Who doesn’t want to feel heightened purpose and an eager anticipation of good? I’ve found that passion, in its spiritual sense, is more than added spice or physicality; instead, it’s a God-given quality that animates with inspiration and pure love. But sometimes after a while, zest, joy, and spontaneity become overshadowed by the routine or mundane, whether in a relationship or an activity we once found invigorating.

Does this mean that love is coming to an end? Or is there a way to fan the flame and rekindle the passion of inspired commitment to that something or someone we love?

When I met my husband, I had been praying daily to see qualities such as integrity, kindness, responsibility, respect, and commitment to good expressed in a life-companion. These were spiritual qualities I perceived to be foundational to a relationship. I had come to see through Christian Science that the true source of such qualities is God, divine Love, our creator, and they are reflected throughout God’s spiritual creation. Rather than focusing on finding a person to marry, I was on the lookout for the expression of these qualities in those around me. When I met the man who ultimately became my husband, I recognized these qualities expressed in him right away.

But after we’d been married for a while, my focus shifted. I had been consistently praying in support of our marriage, but this dropped off and was replaced by the day-to-day business of being a family. And the zest? The inspiration? That, too, gradually faded. In some important ways, it felt to me as if we were on completely different life paths, and I wondered how to bring those paths back together.

As I prayed for answers, I found a helpful insight in Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy’s book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.” She wrote, “The admission to one’s self that man is God’s own likeness sets man free to master the infinite idea” (p. 90). I had been thinking that if only my husband would develop interests similar to mine, we could rediscover our bond. But now I understood that he didn’t necessarily need to change at all. Instead, I could shift my view of him. I could pray to discern more of the infinite qualities of his true spiritual selfhood as a child of God. This could help us both experience a more fulfilling marriage.

So I took up daily prayer to watch for and witness my husband’s spirituality – that is, to recognize in him, once again, the expression of God’s goodness through the divine qualities that had attracted me to him in the first place. This brought about a rebirth in our marriage. The vitality I had been missing, the deeper companionship I sought, was restored. He, too, noted that our marriage was better than ever.

I’ve come to see that prayer isn’t just last-minute emergency life support. It can turn our thought to God, the source of all good, and inspire a more permanent perception and active expression of that goodness. The willingness to acknowledge that qualities such as kindness and worth are inherent in everyone unfolds the joy and inspiration of a fulfilling life.

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Pachyderms on patrol

Elephants use their trunks to smell for possible danger in Kenya's Tsavo East National Park. The Trump administration is lifting a federal ban on the importation of trophies from African elephants killed for sport from Zimbabwe and Zambia.
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Karel Prinsloo/AP/File
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( November 17th, 2017 )

Yvonne Zipp
Deputy Daily Editor

Thanks for joining us. Today, Sen. Al Franken (D) of Minnesota became the latest politician to have sexual assault allegations leveled against him. Tomorrow, we'll have a story about efforts in both houses of Congress to overhaul their approach to sexual harassment. 

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