Monitor Daily Podcast

April 13, 2017
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Monitor Daily Intro for April 13, 2017

Heads swiveled today when the US dropped the “mother of all bombs“ in Afghanistan, targeting an ISIS tunnel and cave complex. Officially known as the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, the MOAB is America’s biggest non-nuclear bomb. This is was its first-ever use.  

Here in the newsroom, we talked about whether the bomb’s deployment might have sent a message to North Korea, a master military tunnel builder. Pyongyang certainly is getting other military messages as its provocative acts rattle East Asia: A US aircraft carrier strike group is steaming toward the Korean peninsula, and Japan appears ready to join it.

But words matter in preventing a crisis as well. Are the US and China cooperating in that arena? China’s language toward its ally Kim Jong-un has toughened since President Trump and President Xi met last week. Its Global Times newspaper warned Kim yesterday that Washington meant business – and foreshadowed tougher sanctions from Beijing if things get worse. 

Those kinds of communications are crucial – and can be equally powerful in keeping tensions from escalating to the battlefield.  

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Shedding an isolationist outlook

As a candidate, Donald Trump called NATO obsolete. But yesterday, standing alongside NATO's visiting secretary-general, he praised the security alliance as a vital institution. It was a welcome accolade for those who had been rattled by his “America First” inauguration speech – and who still see the US as the much-needed leading voice on the world stage.


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Former President Obama dabbled in the notion of America “leading from behind.” President Trump appeared ready to run an America that wasn’t going to lead at all, but would instead retreat from a global role it could no longer afford. Yet evidence that Mr. Trump is conforming to the role that the world expects of America has been piling up in recent weeks – on China, on North Korea, and especially on Syria. For many world leaders, America’s leadership is indispensable, if not always appreciated – thus the alarm that echoed globally when an isolationist candidate won the White House. “America is the pillar of the global international order,” says David Milliband, former British foreign secretary, “and that is not a pillar the world can easily do without, at a moment of unprecedented challenges.”

Shedding an isolationist outlook

Evan Vucci/AP
President Trump called NATO "a bulwark of international peace and security" at a news conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, April 12, 2017.

Donald Trump, presidential candidate, was going to buck seven decades of American leadership and imperial engagement with the world by turning inward and implementing an “America First” foreign policy.

Donald Trump, president of the United States, appears to be finding that the world is not ready for a withdrawn and isolationist America.

Indeed the rapid evolution of a maverick and topsy-turvy presidency to its current awkward embrace of a more traditional internationalist role suggests the world still craves the kind of stabilizing and order-producing – if certainly imperfect – leadership the US has provided since World War II.

“Trump came in promising that America would stick to its own knitting, but he’s realizing the US has a unique role to play in the world that in many ways neither the US nor the world can do without,” says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington.

“It’s happening by fits and starts, and it’s still early to call it decisive,” he adds, “but the signs are pointing to a shift away” from retreat and isolationism.

For many world leaders, US leadership is important not just for stability and order, but for the defense of shared, cherished values.

So many of the world’s higher aspirations since the end of World War II – democratic governance, universally recognized human rights, more equitable prosperity and development – have their roots in an international system devised by the West and led by the US, says David Milliband, the former British foreign secretary. But it’s a system of values that would be gravely weakened by the retreat of its primary backer, he says.

“These universal values need to be defended because they are under constant threat,” says Mr. Milliband, now president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee in New York. “And clearly America needs to be at the forefront of that defense.”

Barack Obama dabbled in the notion of pulling America back – he used the West’s Libya intervention in 2011 to test-fly the idea of America “leading from behind,” for instance.

Trump’s America, on the other hand, wasn’t even going to lead, but would worry about itself first and retreat from a global role it could no longer afford.

Yet like the adolescent boy who protests but then adjusts to his first suit – maybe even secretly liking the way he feels in it – Trump is backing off his signature claims that the world is taking advantage of the US through costly security alliances and skewed trade deals.

Mounting evidence

Evidence of Trump’s adaptation and conforming to the role the world expects of America has piled up in recent weeks. Hosting NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House Wednesday, the American president who as a candidate dismissed the Alliance as “obsolete” declared that NATO is “no longer obsolete” because it has adapted to take on the challenge of terrorism.

Hardly trashing the NATO alliance, Trump lauded it instead as “a bulwark of international peace and security.”

No longer is Trump alarming Japan and South Korea by suggesting they may have to get their own nuclear weapons instead of relying on the American nuclear umbrella. Now he's telling them America’s defense of the two countries in the face of a belligerent North Korea is rock solid.

And whereas Trump once promised steps to up-end the international trading system for which the US served as general contractor, his actions are much less unilateral. He did not declare China a currency manipulator as one of his first acts, just as talk of a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods has vanished. He did not rip up NAFTA, as promised, but instead is quietly negotiating to update the 1994 trade deal regulating the North American market.

'I now have responsibility'

But it is on Syria that Trump has most abruptly boomeranged from isolationist to interventionist and practitioner of America’s traditional role defending international security and norms.

The man who once bellowed his opposition to US involvement in Syria sounded transformed as he announced his decision to launch air strikes on the Syrian air base that the Pentagon says was used by the Syrian regime to carry out a chemical weapons attack in the rebel-held Idlib region of the country.

“I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria,” Trump said, concluding with, “As long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will prevail.”

A day earlier at a White House press conference where he took up the chemical attack, Trump said, “I now have responsibility” for Syria.

It was the kind of discourse the world is accustomed to hearing from postwar American presidents – although less so from Barack Obama. Indeed, most Western leaders were quick to offer staunch support for Trump’s airstrikes – and, by extension, his donning of America’s mantle of responsibility.

For many world leaders, America’s leadership is indispensable, if not always appreciated – thus the alarm that echoed globally when an isolationist candidate won the White House.

“America is the pillar of the global international order, and that is not a pillar the world can easily do without at a moment of unprecedented challenges,” says Milliband.

Milliband has been critical of the signs from Trump of a turning away from the world. This week he took to Twitter, for example, to note that the president’s proposed cuts in foreign assistance are incompatible with his post-airstrikes call to the world to join the US in addressing Syria’s humanitarian tragedy.

But he says the criticisms of aspects of how America has carried out its global role do not mean the world is ready to carry on without it.

Protecting US interests

What Trump is learning, Georgetown’s Dr. Lieber says, is that while the worldview he espoused in the campaign would be welcomed by some and viewed with dismay by others, it would in either case undermine the US interests Trump wanted to focus on first.

“This is not the post-cold war world where US leadership was unopposed, we have rising powers like China and Russia and Iran that have very different ideas of how the world should be,” Lieber says. “If the US pulls back, it disheartens our allies and emboldens our adversaries.”

Lieber says Trump’s nascent embrace of the world’s need for American leadership is reflective of a “struggle” in the White House between what he sees as the ascendant internationalists on the president’s foreign–policy team and the fading “nationalists.”

Indeed, Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist and the architect of Trump’s America-First worldview, reportedly is on the outs at the White House – pulled from the National Security Council’s team of permanent members and losing battles right and left on Trump’s foreign-policy direction.

At the same time, Lieber says a half-dozen “adults” with more traditional views of the exercise of US power – including Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H. R. McMaster – are expanding their influence with the president.

And as that influence grows, the America-First impulses seem to have ebbed – with more focus on international engagement.

A need for world leadership

From his seat at the helm of an international humanitarian organization, Milliband says he sees unprecedented crises – more refugees than at any time since World War II, extended conflicts sending millions of displaced people into Europe – that demand attention from the world power with the strongest hand in building the international order.

“We are in a situation where there is not just room for leadership but a real need for it,” he says, “and much of the world look to America for that.”

In his statement given after the Syria airstrikes, Trump cited the regional destabilization resulting from Syria’s war and the wave of refugees it has sent into Western Europe as challenges to US national interest that could not be left unattended.

Trump’s shift away from the isolationist lure and his turn to a more traditional exercise of American leadership won’t be applauded by all, including those who see mostly war and human misery in the wake of US interventionism.

And from the opposite perspective, Lieber says that “although robust involvement and leadership by the US cannot be a sufficient condition for security and world order, the evidence suggests it is a necessary one.”

That’s the perspective he believes the would-be bull-in-a-china-shop president is starting to grasp.

“The early signs are that Trump is understanding, if in a rather tumultuous manner,” he says, “that the kind of world we want to see can’t happen with an American retreat.”


What a NASA reboot could mean

NASA’s announcement just hours ago that the Cassini orbiter identified molecular hydrogen on Saturn's moon Enceladus will be parsed for weeks. Could other planets in our solar system be habitable? More study is needed – but all of NASA's planetary work is closely tied to more Earthly research, which the Trump administration wants to scale back. Liz Fuller-Wright reports on whether that might be short-sighted.

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute/AP
An undated photo provided by NASA in 2014 shows Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Scientists announced that year that they had uncovered a vast ocean beneath the moon's icy surface. Researchers made the discovery using Cassini, a NASA-European spacecraft.

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NASA may be rightly associated with rocket launches. But it has always had an earth-oriented role, too. Most planetary science and exoplanet research is rooted in Earth science, and much of that research has been gleaned from NASA’s Earth science mission. The future of that fruitful connection has many scientists and NASA fans concerned as President Trump prepares to shift some of the agency’s Earth focus back toward space. Mr. Trump’s proposed budget does include increased funding for astronaut spacecraft and planetary exploration, but it makes explicit cuts as well, eliminating four climate-related satellite missions, for example. Even some “planetary people” are balking at that blueprint, says Hap McSween, a long-time researcher of meteorites. He attended a major planetary science conference in Texas last month, a place where, as he puts it “planetary people” might be expected to most concerned with space. But many of the questions and comments, he recalls, were about distress over the coming shift.

What a NASA reboot could mean

A 'Blue Marble' image of the Earth taken from the VIIRS instrument aboard NASA's most recently launched Earth-observing satellite – Suomi NPP. This composite image uses a number of swaths of the Earth's surface taken on January 4, 2012.

Since the earliest days of space travel, NASA has looked in two directions: out to space and back toward Earth.

To a public that only knows NASA as the agency that put men on the moon and rovers on Mars, it may come as a surprise to realize how big a role Earth observations have played in NASA programming, and how much that research has informed the exploration of moons and planets in our solar system and beyond.

That connection came into sharp focus on Thursday, when NASA announced the discovery of molecular hydrogen in a plume on Saturn’s moon Enceladus – a discovery that would not have been possible without a robust understanding of environmental systems on Earth.

Nearly all planetary science and exoplanet research has its roots in Earth science, and much of that research has been gleaned from NASA’s Earth science mission, says Marcia McNutt, a geoscientist who has headed the United States Geological Survey, the research journal Science, and the National Academy of Science.

“Had the agency not been studying Earth as a planet,” she adds, “we would not have gained the proper knowledge and perspective for seeking out the signatures potentially conducive to life on other celestial bodies.”

That connection between Earth science and planetary science has many scientists and NASA fans concerned, as President Trump prepares to shift some of the agency’s focus on Earth back toward space.

Planetary science vs. Earth science

Mr. Trump’s proposed budget includes increased funding for astronaut spacecraft and planetary exploration, but makes explicit cuts as well, eliminating four climate-related satellite missions – a proposal that has sparked much criticism from environmental communities. The budget blueprint also includes increased funding for research into the asteroids, moons, and other planets of our solar system, but even planetary scientists are wary of scaling back Earth monitoring.

“Planetary science benefits from this budget – if it stands – but I don't see anybody celebrating,” says Hap McSween, an emeritus professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has studied meteorites for almost 40 years.

He and his colleagues heard about the blueprint at the March Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas.

“It was really strange,” Professor McSween says. “Even though this was the place where planetary people come, and you'd think they'd be most focused on 'What does NASA's funding portend for planetary explanation?’ … so many of the questions and comments were, ‘We are distressed [by] the de-emphasis of Earth-based science in NASA,’ ” he recalls.

NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth, originally dubbed the Earth Observing System, was initially conceived during the Reagan administration as a component of the International Space Station, but it expanded into a network of free-flying Earth-observing satellites under former President George H. W. Bush that received ongoing funding from Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

How did NASA evolve from sending humans into orbit to researching the Earth?

It started with the first astronauts, says Ghassem Asrar, whose 20-year career at NASA included serving as deputy administrator for the Science Directorate. “Every time the astronauts went to orbit, they said, ‘It's amazing when we look back!’ ”

They shared their unique view of our planet through their photographs. The now iconic Earthrise and Blue Marble images, taken in 1968 and 1972, seized popular attention just as the environmental movement was taking root.

“Americans suddenly realized that their actions did impact the health of Earth and that changes are happening on a planetary scale,” says Dr. McNutt.

NASA gathers the data that countless other government and private organizations rely on, she says, calling the space agency “a creator of scientific information.”

No obvious successor is poised to take over that “creator” role if NASA's Earth observations are curtailed, says McNutt. Most military data is classified, private organizations rarely release data for free, and while many other nations have space programs, “not all foreign nations agree that data collected with public funds belongs in the public domain, as we do in the United States,” she explains.

Keeping the lights on

While the administration's proposed budget takes a bite out of several climate change observing satellites, it does leave most of the Earth science program intact. Unlike the proposed budgets for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, which included cuts of 31 percent and 20 percent respectively, NASA's funding was reduced by only 0.8 percent in the budget “blueprint” released on March 17. (The final budget will be drafted and approved by Congress later this year.)

In addition to the mission cuts, the proposed budget eliminates the $115 million Office of Education, which provides resources for K-12 teachers and students and also funds scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students. In addition, every mission includes funds for researchers and their student assistants, so mission cancellations can end grad students' careers abruptly.

The renewed emphasis on Europa is a mixed blessing, says Darby Dyar, an astronomy professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. “Outer solar system missions have very long time frames. I worry that the pipeline of people who work on missions is going to become pretty leaky as the big missions get farther apart and fewer.”

Stability can be in short supply at NASA, as priorities shift and funding follows. Professor Dyar still remembers the upheaval caused by the transition away from lunar research in the early 1980s.

“Many planetary scientists had coasted along from the remnants of the Apollo program funding, and public interest and pride in lunar exploration,” she recalls. “With Reagan's election, the pendulum looked like it was swinging away from the moon and toward Mars and Venus.”

In some ways, Trump's proposed cancellation of Earth-observing missions is simply another swing of that pendulum. When he signed the NASA authorization bill, one week after releasing the budget blueprint, Trump emphasized an ongoing commitment to astronauts and space science research.

His proposed budget leaves in place the vast majority of the Earth-observing satellites, which have borne inestimable rewards for Americans and the rest of humanity, says Asrar, who enjoys quoting the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act that created NASA for “the benefit of all mankind.”

“Going back to the spirit of the Space Act, if we had not included Earth exploration in NASA's mission since inception, would we have today's weather prediction capabilities? Would we have today's space-based telecommunication technologies? Would we have space-based navigation systems today? Probably not,” he says. “But all of those are exactly in the spirit of the Space Act, of serving not only our nation but the entire globe.”

Germany’s new unification

Simply knowing someone's name can short-circuit incivility. Knowing their story can be even more powerful. That's one way Germany is creating connections between its majority and minority populations. Real information crowds out the stereotypes or assumptions that can creep in its absence.


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Turks – by far Germany’s largest minority group – have had a mixed integration story there. Many arrived as guest workers. Some have thrived in their new society. Others have remained largely shut out. In recent years Turks from all quarters have come under strain amid an influx of Muslim refugees. But while nationalist sentiments have flared, cultural bridge-building has also endured – and expanded. For decades, so-called “biography talks” – in which strangers share life stories – have been used to find common ground among distinct groups like one-time East and West Germans, even people living on both sides of the German-Polish border and between South Koreans and North Korean refugees. Today, the model is being applied to new cultural conflicts, including that among German Turks and their Germanic peers.

Germany’s new unification

Markus Schreiber/AP/File
The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin is illuminated as a Turkish national flag in reaction to a suicide attack at Istanbul's airport in June 2016. Today, tensions are running high in Germany's Turkish immigrant community prior to a referendum in their old home country on expanding the Turkish president's powers.

Berkant Bostan was born in Germany to Turkish parents. But when strangers ask Mr. Bostan where he’s from, they expect him to name his ancestral hometown. Many of his fellow German-born Turks define “home” as a place they only visit on summer vacations.

“I grew up in two different worlds,” says the 20-something Bostan. He’s one of at least three million German citizens with roots in Muslim Turkey, most of whom descended from a temporary-worker visa program. By far Germany’s largest minority group, Turks have a mixed integration story. There are German Turks thriving as politicians and artists, but there are also illiterate women living almost entirely cut off from mainstream German culture.

And while relations between ethnic Germans and Germans of Turkish origin have always been a bit tense, in recent years they've come under particular strain. Not only has Germany's influx of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East exacerbated tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims living there, it's also stirred nationalist sentiments that target Germans of Turkish origin.

This weekend also sees Turks voting on a referendum that would give President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian leader, sweeping new powers. And in his efforts to win over expatriate voters in Europe, Mr. Erdoğan has sparked a bitter war of words with European leadership – and a backlash from German society.

Yet in meeting rooms and hotels across Germany, strangers from both groups – ethnic Germans and Germans with Turkish roots – are being brought together and asked to share some of their most intimate life stories with each other, in an effort to bridge the longstanding divides between their communities. Since the end of the cold war, so-called “biography talks” have been used to find common ground – and to demystify some of the stereotypes feeding into tensions like those between Germans and Turks today.

“People need to listen, and to feel understood,” says Bostan. “Dialogue is the best tool we have.”

Turkish community in Germany

Germany's Turkish population first began to arrive in the 1960s, during an economic boom that outpaced its workforce. To address the imbalance, post-war West Germany welcomed thousands of “guest workers,” mostly from Turkey, giving them two-year permits to fill jobs in factories.

But two years wasn’t enough for Germany’s insatiable economy. The government extended visas, and allowed workers to bring their families. By the time the program ended with the 1973 global oil crash, roughly half the Turkish guest workers had settled in Germany. Today, roughly 5 percent of Germans have Turkish roots.

Some, like Bostan, thrive in post-secondary studies and engineering. Others seldom leave the ethnic ghettos seen in large German cities, where schools, restaurants, and religious sites cater solely to Turks, Kurds, and Armenians.

“Women in particular often didn’t go to school, and so they didn’t learn German. Allowing this was our biggest mistake,” says Astrid Wirtz, a journalist with Cologne’s Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper who has covered Germany’s Turkish communities for decades.

The vast majority of Turks in Germany came from poor, Anatolian villages — the same places whose voters have propelled Turkish President Erdoğan to multiple electoral victories. And Ankara's influence in Germany remains strong. Three-quarters of Germany’s 1,200 mosques are funded by an organization with close ties to the Turkish government, and many host Turkish-language social events and teachers that echo its nationalist viewpoint.

Germany has 1.4 million eligible Turkish voters, and while their turnout is low, 59 percent of votes cast in 2015 went to Erdoğan’s party, AKP, compared with 49.5 percent of overall votes. He’s counting on similar support Sunday in a constitutional referendum that would give him more powers over courts, laws, and term limits.

The proposals play into widespread German antipathy toward Erdoğan, whom they criticize for imprisoning journalists, quashing protests, and creating a cult of personality. And last month, Erdoğan accused Germany and the Netherlands of “Nazi practices” for banning his campaign rallies over fears they could incite riots towards other minorities.

It was the latest in months of tension. Following last July’s attempted coup, 40,000 Erdoğan supporters crowded Cologne’s riverside for a rally organized by his party. When Erdoğan blamed the Gülen movement – a one-time Erdoğan-allied Turkish political faction that he now sees as his primary antagonist – for fomenting Turkey’s unrest, pro-Erdoğan mobs in Germany stormed local schools associated with the movement.

“Our relations with Turkish-origin people here in Germany keep getting worse,” said Wirtz. “To reverse that trend, you have to start somewhere.”

Bonding with strangers

While the Turkish-German tensions are rooted in the '60s, a potential balm came several decades later from an unrelated source: Germany's reintegration in the '90s. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, all Germans were left with stereotypes of people from the opposite side. West Germans had watched defectors describe cruel, backwards communists. East Germans had been told that the capitalist west was still committing Nazi atrocities.

To try and undo those views, politician Axel Schmidt-Gödelitz brought small groups from each side to conference centers, hotels, and even castles starting in 1994. He had strangers spend a weekend together to hear about each others’ lives. Without interruption, and in sworn secrecy, each had 30 minutes to detail their life story, before the group asked questions for another 30 minutes.

A foundation has kept such talks going over the years, by providing training and videos to groups wanting to copy the format. Today, eight participants spend meals and breaks together, and can only access their phones at night in their individual dorms. To date, 2,200 people from each side of the wall have taken part in these talks.

In recent years, the "Gödelitzer model" has been applied to new cultural conflicts, including people living on both sides of the German-Polish border and between South Koreans and North Korean refugees.

And in 2011, groups started Gödelitzer talks for Germans and Turks. Now, 19 cities across Germany hold these meetings at least once a year.

Ms. Wirtz, the journalist, co-launched Cologne’s chapter four years ago. “People have more in common than they realize,” she says, clasping the laminated maps she uses when hosting talks. One shows Turkey, while the other spans Germany to the Russian border.

“The Turks have a migration story, but the Germans often also have a story about being displaced in the war, of being relocated to a defeated Germany where no one had enough to eat.”

‘I was so secure’

Gödelitzer meetings are completely closed to any but those sharing their experience. But Bostan offered up his own experience, from a weekend three years ago. He described growing up as the first son of Turkish immigrants: from navigating bureaucracy as a child because his parents couldn’t read German paperwork, to their expectations he would graduate from a top university.

Bostan felt a connection with a man with century-long roots in Germany, who raised his own siblings after both of their parents died in World War II. A Germanic woman recounted her father’s abusive behavior, which she blamed on the wartime trauma he witnessed.

“I never thought the effect of the war is so deep to the core of how some Germans feel,” said Bostan. Their honesty made him comfortable enough to recount painful memories of exclusion, like when his elementary school teacher made a big deal of bringing chicken to an otherwise pork barbecue, presuming he was Muslim.

“The majority don't accept you as a German. They see you with black hair, black eyes, and they think you must be Turkish or Kurdish.”

Saskia Dörr, a natural scientist from Bonn, said she felt nervous before sharing her life story with strangers at a Gödelitzer talk in 2015. But she quickly bonded with the group. “It was such a good, human encounter.”

Born to a construction worker and a housewife, Ms. Dörr recounted becoming the first college-educated person in the family. She also told her grandparents’ wartime memories of forming makeshift candies out of sugar rations for their children.

In exchange, she heard a young Turkish woman talk about the trade-offs of a family-centered culture, where her mother constantly supports her but limits her privacy. Dörr came to realize that while she felt her life seems unremarkable to Germans, most countries don’t have the wealth or social freedom for a construction worker’s daughter to earn a PhD.

“I learned a lot about how political situations really affect personal lives,” she said. “I’d never really reflected on this.”

Months later, the German government opened its borders to asylum seekers. Dörr leaped into action, rallying friends to volunteer, and get companies to sponsor refugee-integration programs.

“We had this societal discussion about why they are here, and should we bring them in. And I was so secure in my arguing, because I had these talks. I was so sure in my position – that it's necessary that we help those people.”

Points of Progress

What's going right

For executions, a global decline

Americans aren’t ready to give up the death penalty yet. But the US has dropped out of the top five countries that impose it, and it contributed to a drop in executions worldwide last year. 


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Fewer people were executed last year around the world – more than one-third less, according to Amnesty International. In the United States, 20 people were executed – the lowest number in 25 years. While the US is no longer among the Top 5 globally in executions, Americans remain ambivalent about doing away with capital punishment entirely. Support for the death penalty in 2016 was the lowest it’s been since the 1970s. But voters in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma all voted to keep the ultimate sanction last fall. What more states are doing, says Robert Owen, a law professor at Northwestern University, is to sentence people to death but then not execute them. The drop in support for the death penalty stems from a combination of factors, he says: innocent people being released from death row, concerns about racial injustice, and shortages of lethal-injection drugs.

For executions, a global decline

Kin Cheung/AP
Copies of Amnesty International's report on the death penalty are displayed during a press conference of Amnesty International in Hong Kong.

Capital punishment fell by more than one-third around the world last year – and the United States dropped out of the top 5 countries for the first time in a decade.

That was the finding of Amnesty International's annual report on the world's death sentences and executions in 2016. Compared with 2015, the human rights group found that capital punishment had decreased by 37 percent. In the US, the number of people executed – 20 – fell to levels not seen since 1991. The drop marks the first time since 2006 that the US has not been in the top five.

Over the past few decades, the international view of capital punishment has shifted considerably, with more than two thirds of all nations no longer supporting the death penalty, either legally or in practice. But some countries, particularly China, Iran, and the US, maintain the practice as a legal mode of punishment.

The debate surrounding the death penalty in the US is a contentious one. Last fall, for instance, voters in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma decided to keep the penalty legal in their respective states, despite overall support for the death penalty reaching lows not seen since it was reinstated in the 1970s. But that ambivalence might not remain for much longer, according to Robert Owen, a law professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

"The continuing decline in executions in the United States results from a combination of factors," he tells the Monitor via email. "For example, innocent people continue to be identified and released from death row, which understandably undermines support for capital punishment. Also, historic concerns about racial injustice in the administration of the death penalty are once again receiving attention with the rise of activist movements such as Black Lives Matter."

Professor Owen says that another, less ideological factor in the decline of the death penalty is an ongoing shortage of lethal injection drugs in the US, which in some cases led to drug cocktails that created botched executions that have "contributed to the growing skepticism" toward the practice.

In order to contend with these shortages, however, many states, especially in the South, have legalized older methods, such as gas chambers, electric chairs, or firing squads. Arkansas plans to execute an unprecedented seven prisoners over 11 days starting next week in order to beat the upcoming expiration date of the state's remaining lethal injection drugs. 

Most states occupy a middle position on the death penalty: Often, they will sentence criminals to death, but not actually carry out the execution.

"Recent polling shows the lowest level of support for the death penalty since the 1970s," says Griffin Hardy, communications coordinator for the Ministry Against the Death Penalty, a Catholic anti-capital punishment group, in a phone interview. "Referenda on the death penalty in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma may indicate continued public support for keeping the death penalty on the books, but it is worth noting that each of these states faces significant obstacles in resuming executions. The death penalty is an empty promise to victims' families in the majority of states that legally retain the option to execute prisoners."

Hardy says that the death penalty in the US is on the way out – not a question of "if," but "when."

But countries like China, the No. 1 executor of criminals, may not let go of practice as quickly.

"China retains the death penalty as a legal punishment for a wide range of crimes, including some nonviolent offenses [and political suppression]," Hardy says. "It is difficult to gauge trends in China's use of the death penalty due to the scarcity of statistics, but it seems that the number of executions is down from the ten-thousands to the thousands."

By comparison, Iran, which holds the No. 2 spot, executed 567 people last year. In third place is Saudi Arabia, with 154 executions, with Iraq trailing in fourth place, with 88.

"A record high number of executions were carried out worldwide in 2015, so the decrease in 2016 must be viewed in that context," Mr. Hardy points out.

While the US is not the only country in the Americas to assign the death penalty to criminals in 2016, it is the only country in the region to have actually carried out the death penalty in the past eight years, according to the Amnesty report. In the US, 2,832 people were living on death row as of the end of 2016.

"Use of the death penalty in the USA is at its lowest since the early 1990s," said Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International, in a statement. "But we have to fight to keep it that way."

SOURCE: Amnesty International
Jacob Turcotte/Staff

A tough, small city that models civility

Sometimes it can seem like just another bumper-sticker: the message to coexist or engage in a random act of kindness. But the smallest nod toward being polite to your fellow human being can shift an outlook or reduce some tension. And it's equally effective whether you're driving on the expressway or living in a community struggling with crime and unemployment. 


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Is civility just a luxury for liberal elites? Not in Gary, Ind. Before Donald Trump’s blunt and sometimes vulgar rhetoric made the term a buzz word, the city launched a “Community Civility Counts” campaign. The two-year-old initiative hasn’t restored the abandoned post office or taken the city off the Top 10 list of small cities with high murder rates. But it has uplifted Gary’s self-image and helped to address racial tensions between the 80 percent African-American majority and the white minority. That progress is enabling Gary to emerge as a model of civility, prompting lawmakers in eight local governments as well as the Indiana House and Senate to pass resolutions urging civil discourse and promising to uphold it. Today, the city hosted World Civility Day, drawing attendees from afar afield as Kenya.

A tough, small city that models civility

John J. Watkins/The Times of Northwest Indiana
Many in Gary, Ind., are striving to establish a new narrative for the city of 80,000 — one of progress earned through taking on the city’s deep segregation, stagnant politics, and repressive self-image.

The “Go Lo” gas station’s letters have been stripped, the sun permanently etching their faded shape on a blue background. Nearby, the “Buy N Save” still has signs for the $1 money orders that folks used to purchase before plywood was nailed over the windows and doors.

Closer to downtown, the abandoned post office and train terminal stand as reminders of what Gary, Ind., used to be.

The unemployment rate here is twice the Indiana average, and Gary has long struggled with one of the highest murder rates among small American cities – even higher than Chicago, just 30 miles away.

But beneath that veneer of blight, this city reveals a gritty spirit. Many in the community are striving to establish a new narrative — one of progress earned through taking on Gary’s deep segregation, stagnant politics, and repressive self-image. Over the past two years, that push has come in part from an unlikely source: a call for civility.

Even before Donald Trump’s blunt and often vulgar rhetoric made civility a buzz word, Gary's Chamber of Commerce partnered with the Times of Northwest Indiana newspaper to take on the increasingly uncivil discourse in the world and help rebrand the city’s negative image. Now, they hope to broaden Gary’s initiative into a grass-roots movement to reclaim civility in society.

Measuring progress is difficult, but the diverse crowd coming to Gary for World Civility Day Thursday – from nine states as well as Canada, Ghana, Haiti, Nigeria, Gambia, and Kenya – shows the appetite many have for reclaiming civility, from City Hall to the playground to the workplace. The two-year “Community Civility Counts” (CCC) initiative has also prompted lawmakers in eight local governments as well as the Indiana House and Senate to pass resolutions promising to uphold civil discourse.

“I think there is definitely a model here,” says Summer Moore, audience engagement editor at the Times, which has encouraged civility on its editorial page, pushed for a civility curriculum in schools, held student essay contests, and is hosting World Civility Day, among other activities. “Everything we’ve done can be replicated … and the great thing is that it’s easily molded to what other cities need to focus on. Take the big ideas and make it your own.”

Deeper impact than expected

One of those big ideas is to ensure that more students graduate from high school, and, when they do, that they’re prepared for a college setting that might intimidate them. African Americans, who make up 80 percent of the population in Gary, often arrive to find they’re in the minority for the first time.

The civility curriculum at two Gary charter schools, Lighthouse Academies and Steel City Academy, has become the ideal forum to address those issues and even the deep angst that comes with a lack of self-esteem.

“I knew it would have an impact,” Lighthouse teacher Erica Young said in an interview about the civility curriculum. “I didn’t know it would be so deep – how far it could go.”

Students have gained poise and confidence, in themselves and where they come from.

“It helped us to understand one another – trying to understand what people go through, where they’re coming from,” says Dorothy Lewis, a Lighthouse student who says she’s a happier person because of the course. “We are like a family, for real.”

How it started

The notion of civility is somewhat fraught in the wake of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, which showed that many of his supporters conflate it with unnecessary political correctness. On the left, some feel that political vulgarity, which a recent Current Affairs piece traced to the French Revolution, can be powerful and even necessary to make a point. The push for “safe spaces” in academic settings and backlash against controversial speakers have led to concerns that university officials are engaging in censorship under the guise of civil discourse.

Talking about civility can also have unintended racial undertones. Ms. Moore, the Times editor, says that when she presented the program at a conference some activists felt that the civility initiative looked like white do-gooders were telling black youth how to behave.

“It was the first time I realized that civility could be seen as an oppressive term,” says Moore, who describes the experience as “humbling.” Now, she makes sure to cite the definition from the Institute for Civility in Government, which reads in part: “Civility is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences.”

Indeed, it shouldn’t be confused with political correctness, says Karen Freeman-Wilson, Gary’s mayor. “It’s that you have a responsibility to exhibit a level of respect even if you disagree with people,” she says.

To a certain extent, that comes naturally to a community that, in the words of local activist Sam Love puts it, combines “Indiana friendliness with that Chicago grittiness.” But even as he and others see beyond the blight, crime, and limited financial resources to a city rich with potential, thorny problems around race and violence often feel entrenched. Mr. Love recounts a jarring run-in with a woman at a county fair, who blamed the city’s problems on its African-American majority. “Look what these [people] did,” she said to him, using a racial slur.

“We’re challenged – that part is no different from any other community. I think where Gary is different is we’ve made a concerted effort,” says Chuck Hughes, president of the Gary Chamber of Commerce, who worked with the chamber’s public policy committee and the Times to implement the civility initiative. “We started thinking broader…. We started thinking, ‘Let’s look at what’s happening around the world … board-room quarrels, bullying. Any situation that needs some kind of resolution or mediation, you have to inject an ounce of civility.”

A 'sacred space' for conversations

In the classroom, educators see benefits of the curriculum far beyond basic tenets of politeness or civics. Principal Katie Kirley of Steel City Academy, where the curriculum has been adopted in its ninth-grade class, was especially grateful to have time allotted for the civility course after Trump’s election. Many of the students, mostly African American from impoverished backgrounds, were fearful. “Am I getting sent back to Africa? … Ms. Kirley, do you hate black people?” she was asked.

Kirley was relieved there was a “sacred space for those conversations to happen,” she said.

One of the civility teachers, Joshua Moore, remembers those fraught conversations about Trump and race, but says the course’s greatest strength is what happens in the margins. For example, it has allowed him to open up about what it means to be a black male in society.

The conversation often turns back to Gary — a place many students view with shame. Now, he said, the course has infused pride in these young teens, enabling them to “see the good in the community they’re in.” 

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What Americans mean by ‘health’

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The concept of health has expanded rapidly beyond physical well-being, found a survey released yesterday. Rapid scientific advances and other trends have expanded the understanding of health to the point that people now say it involves more than a medical perspective. The poll found that more than 3 out of 4 Americans associate health as a mental condition as well as a physical one. Nearly half said being mindful is a form of health. Many industries, such as hotels and hospitals, are responding.

What Americans mean by ‘health’

Maria Chiu/Star-Telegram via AP
Gene McGuire, center, poses with Babe's Chicken Dinner House restaurant employees in Arlington, Texas. McGuire says he has found redemption working as a chaplain for the employees at the restaurants throughout North Texas.

How’s your health? 

The question isn’t so simple anymore, according to a recent survey of more than 1,000 Americans by the giant marketing firm J. Walter Thompson. 

The survey found that rapid scientific advances and other trends have expanded the understanding of health to the point that people now say it involves more than a medical perspective. The poll found more than 3 out of 4 Americans consider health to be as much a mental condition as a physical one. Nearly half said being mindful is a form of health.

One of the survey’s surprises is that relatively few people (17 percent) reach for prescription medicines when they feel ill. And about half prefer a nonmedical approach to an ailment. Younger people are much more inclined to prefer a nonmedical method than older people. 

People also are taking greater command of their well-being as their concepts of health evolve, the survey found. They are more careful of who or what they trust with their health. 

“The more we learn about health, the more it seems that health involves everything,” the researchers conclude.

One result of this shift in thinking is that many industries, from hotels to landscape architects, see themselves in the “wellness” business. They provide “restorative environments” or “mood-aligning” experiences. The definition of health care keeps expanding far beyond traditional medicine. More hospitals, for example, are offering spiritual care to patients beyond simply providing access to a chaplain for end-of-life discussions.

In a recent experiment at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, researchers showed patients who could not speak images that depicted a possible spiritual need, such as prayer or inspirational poetry. The patients could select one and also indicate the extent of their need. Then the spiritual help was given. The result was a sharp rise in patients feeling “more at peace” or “more connected with what is sacred,” according to the study. 

The study was seen as a test of spiritual care “as if it were a new medicine.” That result helps reinforce the findings of the survey. So next time you ask someone “How’s your health?” prepare to hear an unexpected answer.

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.

Famine and prayer-inspired activism

The specter of famine in several African countries demands humanitarian relief now.  There's an equally pressing need for spiritual sustenance.  


Seeking relief

Below: Yemenis present documents in order to receive food rations provided by a local charity, in Sanaa, Yemen, April 13. A Saudi-led coalition launched a campaign in support of Yemen's internationally recognized government in March 2015. The stalemated war has pushed the Arab world's poorest country to the brink of famine.

Hani Mohammed/AP
Yemenis receive food rations in Sanaa.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

That’s a wrap for today. Thank you for taking the time to think more deeply about the day’s news. In our next edition, we'll be looking at what could be a defining referendum in Turkey this weekend. And we're keeping a close eye on protests in South Africa, where President Zuma is facing pressure for change from the most powerful constituency of all: his own party. We'll see you tomorrow!

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