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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
September
12
Tuesday
Marjorie Kehe
Deputy Weekly Editor

In 1950, 44 American Quakers opposed to America’s involvement in the Korean War bought a large tract of land in Costa Rica. The land lay in a mountaintop town called Monteverde, located in Costa Rica’s cloud forest, where they’d be able to continue the dairy farming that some had practiced in the United States.

But first they set aside one-third of the land to protect a local watershed. Over the years, recognizing the vast biological diversity and unique beauty of the forest, they created conservation foundations and private reserves as well.

Today, although some of those dairy farms remain, Monteverde is better known for its contributions to conservation studies. There, researchers developed “biological corridors” that help animals and plants move from one protected area to another. They have pioneered a “lattice framework” that ensures space for species requiring specific elevations to live and support themselves.

The group’s efforts started small – but today loom large. It’s not unlike what we’re seeing this week as volunteers in the US and Caribbean distribute food, rescue stray dogs, and clean up debris in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Never underestimate the power of an unselfish act.

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Now, to our five stories for today.

  

1. As Myanmar crisis deepens, a battle rises over media control

As the world watches Myanmar, more voices are rising. Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu has called on Aung San Suu Kyi, a fellow Nobel laureate and a friend, to speak out on behalf of Rohingya refugees: “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”

A Muslim man displays a defaced poster of Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, during a rally against the persecution of Rohingya Muslims outside the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, Sept. 8. The poster reads: “Perpetrator of crimes against humanity.”
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Tatan Syuflana/AP
 

The 30 Sec. ReadAs the long-simmering crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state escalates, almost 400,000 Rohingya refugees have fled into neighboring Bangladesh in just two weeks. The situation is “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” the United Nations human rights chief said Monday, further intensifying international pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to condemn the military’s alleged excesses. The government says it’s fighting a counterinsurgency against “terrorists,” as it calls Rohingya militants – and insists that journalists do, too. The administration of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a former dissident, has accused international aid groups and media of supporting the militants’ cause, and has endorsed state mouthpieces – part of a larger clampdown on independent media. Some observers believe that the civilian government has no choice but to toe the military line. Despite her elected administration’s overwhelming democratic mandate, it’s constitutionally obliged to share power with the autonomous military. The government “is trying to avoid further conflict by regrouping with the military,” says one researcher, warning that “Myanmar is in a critical juncture.”

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1. As Myanmar crisis deepens, a battle rises over media control

In just two weeks, clashes between insurgents and Myanmar’s military have driven almost 400,000 Rohingya refugees into neighboring Bangladesh – as many refugees as crossed the Mediterranean in all of 2016.

The government says it is waging a legitimate campaign against Rohingya “terrorists;” the Rohingya say they are being forcibly expelled – a view the United Nations’ human rights chief endorsed on Monday, saying the situation “seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The Rohingya, a Muslim minority of about 1 million, have lived in northern Rakhine state for generations, yet are largely deprived of citizenship, making them the world’s largest stateless population

The escalation of the long-simmering crisis has brought enormous international pressure upon Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to condemn alleged military excesses – especially as the UN Security Council convenes Wednesday to discuss the situation. 

Instead, the former dissident has turned to state media to marshal support for the military, while her government has accused international aid groups of supporting the militants, and suggested that reporters are producing “supportive writings.” During her combined 15 years of house arrest under the military governments, which ruled for half a century, Ms. Suu Kyi’s fight for democracy was sustained by coverage in exiled Myanmar media. But now in power, her administration is accused of stifling the free press while endorsing the state mouthpieces inherited from her erstwhile military captors.

Rohingya refugees walk through a paddy field after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on Sept. 8.
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Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Her defenders argue she is hamstrung. Despite her elected administration’s overwhelming democratic mandate, it’s constitutionally obliged to share power with the autonomous military. 

But the administration’s use of propaganda goes beyond a reluctance to criticize their co-rulers, says Mark Farmaner, director of the human rights group Burma Campaign UK.

“By standing shoulder to shoulder with the military, [Suu Kyi] has bought into the narrative they use to justify their behavior, that the nation is under serious threat from foreign terrorists. Now her government is propagating that narrative, which is increasing tensions and the likelihood of further violence,” he says.

'Misinformation' claims

Last week, in her first statement since the crisis flared last month, Suu Kyi slammed a “huge iceberg of misinformation” for promoting sympathy for “terrorists.” The accuracy of some images circulating on both sides of the issue has been called into question, with some photos stemming from other conflicts.

Her statement made no mention of Rohingya refugees, however. Suu Kyi has explicitly endorsed state media, where official coverage of the conflict is dominated by graphic photos of the alleged crimes of “extremist terrorists,” as the government refers to the insurgents – and insists that independent media do as well.

“The people have a lot of trust for this government, so that [trust] will, of course, extend to the press of the government as well,” says Htaike Htaike Aung, executive director of Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO), a digital rights advocacy group.

Two days after renewed clashes in Rakhine, posts on Suu Kyi’s office’s Facebook page accused international nongovernmental groups of helping “terrorists,” while other posts implied some media had published writing deemed “supportive” of the “terrorists.”

The messaging appears to have made an impact. BBC’s Burmese language service, which Suu Kyi listened to on her radio during her years of house arrest, cut ties with a state broadcaster after a dispute over its coverage of the Rohingya crisis and resistance to using the state-sanctioned terminology.

Several journalists have also reported experiencing unprecedented hostility and threats to their safety while on assignment in Rakhine, including one who described narrowly escaping a vigilante crowd threatening to kill him. Government and military officials have also called attention to and criticized individual reporters.

Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), “unfortunately sees the media as a subservient arm of the state, not as the fourth estate and independent voices it should be,” says David Mathieson, an independent, Myanmar-based analyst, warning that the media restrictions “will seriously trip up the democratic transition.”

“Rakhine State is the most bitter battlefield” between the government and the media, he adds.

Abuses against Rohingya

The renewed crisis has emerged as a key crucible by which Myanmar’s fledgling democracy is internationally judged, even as the crackdown commands widespread domestic support. Leaders from fellow Peace Prize laureates Malala Yousafzai and Desmond Tutu to US senators have pressured Suu Kyi to speak out about the plight of the Rohingya. Suu Kyi is “the one person in the country with the popularity and moral authority” to calm the situation, Mr. Farmaner says, although he says she is instead “whipping it up.”

But concerns about the situation in Rakhine predate the latest escalation – as do the government’s attempts to manage reporting about it.

Newly-arrived Rohingya stretch out their hands to receive puffed rice food rations donated by local volunteers in Kutupalong, Bangladesh, on Sept. 9. With Rohingya refugees still flooding across the border from Myanmar, those packed into camps and makeshift settlements in Bangladesh are becoming desperate for scant basic resources.
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Bernat Armangue/AP

A UN report said security forces had “very likely” committed crimes against humanity during the October to February crackdown, including gang rapes, village burnings, and the killing of children, women, and the elderly – allegations that Suu Kyi’s office has dismissed as “fabricated news” and “fake rapes.” One official, asked by a BBC interviewer last year about the allegations, laughed that the women were “too dirty” to rape.

The administration has also denied visas to a UN team tasked with investigating alleged military atrocities, claiming the probe would create “greater hostility.” It has largely barred independent media and international observers from the area, imposing an information void across the low-lying hills and swampland of northern Rakhine.

Critics allege the government has sought to fill that vacuum with its own accounts. Outlets controlled by the civilian-led government have cast the military as protectors against insurgent atrocities, such as using “children as human shield[s],” while omitting claims of military abuses against Rohingya. Suu Kyi’s spokesperson shared photos supposedly capturing Rohingya setting their own homes alight – but the authenticity of those photos have been questioned, while last Thursday, journalists reported Buddhist youths admitted to starting fires.

Power-sharing arrangement

Some observers caution that much of the state’s response has emerged from the civilian government’s information office, rather than statements from Suu Kyi herself, although she has not denounced it.

“What is not certain is how much control Aung San Suu Kyi has over this messaging,” Mr. Mathieson says. “But she has to take ultimate responsibility for the unproductive tone.”

But the NLD has demonstrated a longstanding allergy toward negative press, media groups say. “Most journalists feel they have less freedom under the NLD,” says Thiha Saw of the Myanmar Press Council. Eighteen journalists have been arrested under an online defamation law, according to the Research Team for Telecommunications Law, a local advocacy group. NLD politicians have said the law is necessary to curb hate speech, but none of the nearly 200 cases brought under the provision since the administration came to power have involved hate speech, according to MIDO. 

“There were high expectations for the new civilian-led government,” says Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of the PEN American Center’s Free Expression At Risk Program. “As the gaps between expectation and reality become more apparent, I believe that the government has increasingly tried to clamp down on criticism and debate over policy, trying to stifle embarrassing or inconvenient reporting.”

Some observers believe that the civilian government has no choice but to toe the military line. The constitution invests the military with significant powers, including control over three key ministries, law enforcement, and local administration, as well as the ability to appoint 25 percent of seats in Parliament and to veto constitutional changes. Some argue that the NLD fears a derailing of democratization if it openly confronts the military.

“[The NLD-led government] is trying to avoid further conflict by regrouping with the military,” says Jean Jonathan Borgais, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Sydney who studies conflict in Southeast Asia, warning that “Myanmar is in a critical juncture.”

Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative to the Committee to Protect Journalists, says there is clearly a view within the government that an “unfettered” press would put the administration’s tenuous position at risk.

“Suu Kyi's fear from the start has been that a muckraking media would expose the military's various past and present crimes and that such exposes would cause the military to rethink its decision to yield partial power to an elected government,” he says.

“But if she doesn't push back soon then Myanmar will remain mired in a military-controlled state masquerading as a democracy for international consumption.”

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2. More destructive, if less deadly, hurricanes still demand better prep

As a country, the United States may never have been as well prepared for a storm as it was for hurricanes Harvey and Irma. And that preparation was surely the reason for the relatively low loss of life. But what about escalating levels of property damage?

 

The 30 Sec. ReadFirst the good news: The relatively low loss of life in both Texas and Florida when compared with those of past hurricanes underscores citizen preparedness, advances in prediction technology, and even the power of social media to create lifesaving communities. More fundamentally, it was a testament to how seriously Americans took the gravity of Irma’s force. But against the backdrop of that massive lifesaving response, experts say, America is facing a reckoning with not just why it places so many people and so much wealth in vulnerable areas, but how to seek ways to do it that can better absorb nature’s shocks. One lingering question: Can the human response inform the political one? “This juxtaposition of the tremendous success we’ve had in reducing loss of life and injuries, while at the same time seeing dramatically increasing property damage, is a function of political will and commitment,” says Ward Lyles, an assistant professor of urban planning. Or as Bubba Smith, a Jennings, Fla., handyman, says: “They need to learn what we’ve always taught our kids here on the Suwanee River, that love for the stranger, the other, is the ultimate survival tool.” Mr. Smith, a descendant of slaves brought up the Suwanee, adds, “Always show love because you never know when you are going to need that love.”

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2. More destructive, if less deadly, hurricanes still demand better prep

In Jennings, Fla., handyman and “man of God” Bubba Smith held onto his wife during hurricane Irma, who sang “whoo-ee” when the wind roared, their prayers joining as chorus.

“It reached out and touched us,” he says, as the 878 people in his little town, “where everybody knows each other, whether black or white,” looked out for one another.

Here in Perry, Fla., Billy Williamson, a former Lake County sheriff’s deputy, holed up in a 1920 bungalow with boards nailed helter-skelter across its windows, alongside 24 family members and some lanky hunting dogs.

“We’ve never been this prepared before as a state,” says Mr. Williamson. “You have to remember that it’s not one storm, but lots of storms that come out of it: tornadoes, hail, rain. The potential for destruction was high. So, we did good.”

At about 400 hundred miles wide, Irma became the second Category 4 hurricane to make landfall this year, coming in just two weeks behind hurricane Harvey, which swamped Houston. It began its havoc in Barbuda, killing several dozen people throughout the Caribbean, and finally roared onto the Florida peninsula on Sunday, inundating coastal communities from Marco Island in Florida to Tybee Island in Georgia and causing flooding as far north as Charleston, S.C.

Nearly 7 million people fled from the storm, even as millions of others sheltered in place behind boarded-up windows. On Tuesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated that about three-quarters of Florida was without power.

Handyman and “man of God” Bubba Smith held onto his wife during hurricane Irma, who sang “whoo-ee” when the wind roared, their prayers joining as chorus in Jennings, Fla.
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Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor

On one hand, the relatively low loss of life in both Texas and Florida when compared with past storms underscored advances in prediction technology, citizen preparedness, and even the power of social media to create potentially life-saving communities. More fundamentally, experts say, it was a testament to how seriously Americans along a projected storm track took the gravity of Irma’s force.

But against the backdrop of that massive life-saving response, the back-to-back monster landfalls present new challenges for an era of potentially stronger storms. Specifically, America is facing a reckoning with not just why it places so many people and so much wealth in vulnerable areas, but also how to seek ways to do it that can better absorb nature’s bruising shocks. One lingering question: Can the human response inform the political one?

“If you plot it on a graph, you’d see a downward slope in terms of life and injuries in the US,” says Ward Lyles, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. But “when it comes to property damage and economic disruption, it has escalated, and the graph continues to rise on an upward slope, especially in the face of climate change.”

He adds: “I think that this juxtaposition of the tremendous success we’ve had in reducing loss of life and injuries, while at the same time seeing dramatically increasing property damage, is a function of political will and commitment.”

Partly because Irma made landfall near Cudjoe Key, population 1,600, and spared major cities like Miami, Tampa, and Orlando from a head-on collision, damage estimates are lower than expected, but still stunning: FEMA estimates that 25 percent of the houses in the Florida Keys have been destroyed and two-thirds are damaged. Parts of Fort Myers are soaked to the studs, sailboats lay half-sunk along Miami Beach, and Jacksonville saw downtown flooded up to interstate exits. Initial damage estimates range from $20 billion to $50 billion.

While emergency responders are still searching the Keys and warn that the toll could go higher, as of Tuesday 12 people had been reported dead. Florida has has 20.6 million residents, many elderly.

By contrast, in 1928, an estimated 2,500 people were killed during Florida’s “forgotten hurricane” – immortalized by Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” In 1900, a Category 4 hurricane took the island of Galveston by surprise. Estimates say that between 6,000 and 10,000 Texans died. During hurricane Katrina, more than 1,800 people died in Mississippi and Louisiana during the Category 3 storm. 

But those advances – as well as an emphasis placed on saving life above all, epitomized by Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s repeated call for Floridians to put life and limb above property – need to translate into a greater “re-do and re-write” of national priorities, with a focus on the poor and vulnerable, says Mr. Smith, the Jennings handyman.

“They need to learn what we’ve always taught our kids here on the Suwanee River, that love for the stranger, the other, is the ultimate survival tool,” says Smith, a descendant of slaves brought up the Suwanee. “Always show love because you never know when you are going to need that love.”

Disaster readiness experts say one indubitable take-away is that America is only becoming more disaster-prone: Miami and Houston are both examples of coastal red-state megalopolises with nearly unfettered growth and little political will for mitigation planning and bolstering infrastructure. Yet the impacts of local and national decisions on how to develop areas along the hurricane-ferrying “Cape Verde pike” go far beyond Florida or Texas.

“What is different about these disasters is not that they are bigger and more destructive – we’ve had big disruptive disasters over human history – but the fact that what makes a disaster catastrophic is the contact with the built environment,” says Stephen Flynn, the founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University in Boston. “That built environment is now more sprawling and more interconnected than ever, because that is how we get efficiencies out of it. But … increasingly, we’re all experiencing some of the cost and disruption that goes with these events.”

To be sure, Florida bolstered its building codes after hurricane Andrew in 1992, likely contributing to the lower-than-expected loss of life from Irma. Mississippi did the same after hurricane Katrina, creating a new phenomenon of beachside stilt villages. Experts have urged Texas to take a hard look at the paths of future Houston development.

Amid gridlock over issues like sand dune mitigation and lax zoning restrictions, Congress is facing a deeper debate about how to fund a national flood policy program deeply in the red. Resentments linger after Texas and Florida congressional delegates voted against a Superstorm Sandy aid package, drawing the debate into America’s political polarization.

Given those dynamics, Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman says he is skeptical about leadership and problem-solving from Washington.

On one hand, “Yeah, I do believe that [citizens are directly responsible for] saving lives” in the last two storms, says Mr. Buelterman, by phone. “I think hurricane Katrina [in 2005] was the wake-up call for me and the whole cable news generation, that you can die from this.”

But Buelterman has nearly given up on Congress. After testifying on behalf of boosting dune mitigation funding to a subcommittee last year, he came away disheartened. Of the four committee members present, two were on their cellphones for the duration of his testimony, and only one question was asked.

That’s why, he says, “we’re going it on our own” – raising its own money for dune repairs, working with state agencies to armor local infrastructure, and creating tougher building ordinances to keep storm damage to a minimum.

Sissy Wood stands outside her family's 1901 house in Perry, Ga., post hurricane Irma. Ms. Wood is prepping her 11-year-old daughter for a new era of big storms, teaching her how to identify safe places to shelter. She remembers her dad’s tornado drill: Get out of the trailer and in the truck and park it on the lee side of a concrete garage. “I think we are becoming more resilient,” says Ms. Wood.
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Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor

Sissy Wood has a similar inspiration. Clearing her cottage in Perry of debris, the worm farmer describes herself as “a survivor … I can catch fish better than any man.”

The daughter of Aucilla River mullet fisher folk, Ms. Wood is prepping her 11-year-old daughter for a new era of big storms, teaching her how to identify safe places to shelter. She remembers her dad’s tornado drill: Get out of the trailer and in the truck and park it on the lee side of a concrete garage. “I think we are becoming more resilient,” says Ms. Wood.

In Jennings, Smith, the handyman, ties Florida’s vulnerabilities to its social and economic divides – the glitz of Miami Beach to ramshackle Jennings, by the Florida-Georgia line.

In contrast, the Irma response showed “our human design ... to look out for each other in distress," says Flynn. And now we know that “we’re not going to behave like Godzilla movie extras in distress.”

In turn, he says, the engineering community is increasingly using social scientists to understand the dynamics of “graceful failure” that allow systems to rebound more quickly after disasters.

That becomes even more paramount, he and others say, as the effects of climate change increase the power of hurricanes and population growth increases the number of people in their path.

“Don’t just expect everything to be like the past,” says Andrew Holland, senior fellow for Energy and Climate at the American Security Project, a nonpartisan security think tank in Washington.

“History is actually no longer good at predicting the future.”

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3. Trump woos Democrats: Is an old tack a new normal?

“The president has been clear that his preference is to get tax reform done on a bipartisan basis,” Marc Short, the president’s liaison to Capitol Hill, told reporters at a breakfast Tuesday hosted by the Monitor. Reaching across the aisle to move legislation is nothing new – and yet these days it comes as a surprise. 

 

The 30 Sec. ReadDespite having Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, President Trump has failed to pass major legislation. The clock is ticking. If he can’t pass tax reform – a heavy lift under the best of circumstances – by year’s end, some observers predict electoral trouble for the Republicans in the 2018 midterms. What to do? Woo. Tonight the president and vice president will host a dinner with both Republican and Democratic senators. That’s after Mr. Trump's surprise deal with Democratic leaders last week to raise the debt ceiling, fund the government, and provide hurricane relief. Also, Trump's first two trips to promote tax reform were to Missouri and North Dakota, red states with electorally vulnerable Democratic senators who might be “gettable” on tax reform. Amid hyper-polarization, all of this is news. But it’s actually the way things used to get done. Although under different circumstances, “triangulation” – working with the opposition party to enact legislation – became a signature feature of the Clinton White House after the Democrats lost control of Congress. And it led to some of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislative accomplishments.

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3. Trump woos Democrats: Is an old tack a new normal?

President Trump’s top priority is now tax reform, and he is intent on making sure that this effort does not go the way of health-care reform: a failure to secure enough votes from members of his own party.

So he’s wooing Democrats. On Tuesday evening, the president and vice president are hosting a dinner with both Republican and Democratic senators. In a Washington long beset by hyper-polarization, this is news. But it’s the way things used to get done here. And the president’s liaison to Capitol Hill, Marc Short, makes clear that this old normal should become the new normal, following Mr. Trump’s surprise deal with Democratic leaders last week to raise the debt ceiling, fund the government, and provide hurricane relief.

“The president has been clear that his preference is to get tax reform done on a bipartisan basis,” Mr. Short told reporters at a breakfast Tuesday hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “It’s why his first two trips to give national speeches [on tax reform] were to Missouri and to North Dakota.”

Both states voted heavily for Trump last November, and have Democratic senators who face tough reelection bids next year. But to Trump, at the moment, they represent Democratic votes that might be “gettable” on tax reform. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) of North Dakota went so far as to hitch a ride on Air Force One to her home state last week. At the event, Trump called her a “good woman,” and invited her up on stage.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) of North Dakota (l.) walks off of the Senate subway as she heads to a luncheon with Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 12, 2017.
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Susan Walsh/AP

Experienced Capitol Hill hands from both parties say they get what Trump and his legislative affairs director are doing.

“If I was in [Short’s] shoes, I could easily be telling the president that the Republican leadership has nothing to offer you but apologies, because they can’t implement anything that you want,” says Patrick Griffin, who served as President Bill Clinton’s liaison to Capitol Hill.

“Protecting yourself by attacking the Congress is not irrational to me,” Mr. Griffin says. And for the Trump White House, finding an opportunity to “triangulate” with the Democrats, he adds, is a viable tactic.

“Triangulation” – working with the opposition party to enact legislation – became a signature feature of the Clinton White House after the Democrats lost control of Congress. And it led to some of Mr. Clinton’s signature legislative accomplishments, including welfare reform.

Today, the difference is that Trump has Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, but has still failed to pass major legislation. And the clock is ticking. If he can’t pass tax reform – a heavy lift under the best of circumstances – by the end of the year, some observers predict electoral trouble for the Republicans in the November 2018 midterms.

“I think the Republican Party survives if it can prove that it can govern,” says John Feehery, who was the spokesman for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) of Indiana (r.) – accompanied by (from l.) Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) of Michigan, and Sen. Bob Casey (D) of Pennsylvania, – speaks about trade and jobs on Capitol Hill in Washington on Aug. 2, 2017.
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Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

But it’s been hard for them to govern just on Republican votes – particularly in the Senate, where the GOP has just a 52-to-48 majority and the rules require 60 votes to pass most bills.

“So for them to prove they can govern, they need Democrats,” Mr. Feehery says.

At the Monitor breakfast Tuesday, Trump’s legislative affairs director made clear that the president doesn’t see himself as a Republican first. When asked about recent characterizations of Trump as the nation’s first “independent president” since the advent of the current two-party system 150 years ago, Short did not push back.

“I think that the president first and foremost – rather than party affiliation – looks at what he can do best for the American people and to fulfill the promises he made on the campaign trail,” Short said.

Short also said he doesn’t see Trump asking himself, “What do I need to do to stay in the good graces of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan,” the top Republicans in the Senate and House. Instead, he repeated, Trump would be asking himself, “What’s in the best interest of the American people?”

“He’ll probably have the same filter for making decisions on elections," Short added.

It is an ominous statement, as the electoral terrain firms up for the 2018 midterms. Already, Trump has gone on the attack against the most vulnerable Republican members of the Senate, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada.

Both senators have not been Trump loyalists, and have felt his wrath.

In addition, Trump has shown little love for Luther Strange, the Alabama Republican appointed to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat. Senator Strange faces a tough runoff in the Republican primary on Sept. 26, and could well be defeated by conservative firebrand Roy Moore, the former chief justice of Alabama. Trump endorsed Strange, the GOP establishment favorite, but has yet to campaign for him in Alabama.

Whoever wins that GOP primary is virtually assured victory in the general election. And if it’s Judge Moore, he may well give Senator McConnell a hard time as the majority leader seeks to rally votes.

But as Short says, Trump doesn’t see pleasing McConnell as his primary task. He’s focused on “what he can do for the American people.”

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4. Census: US incomes up, poverty down – but inequality persists

Americans’ income reached a new high last year and the US poverty rate fell to its lowest level since 2007, the Census Bureau reported today. One reason for the gain: health-care insurance. High medical expenses typically drag a huge number of low-income Americans below the poverty line. But that number is falling because some 91.2 percent now have year-round health-care coverage.

 

The 30 Sec. ReadAmerican households have finally recovered from the Great Recession. For the second year in a row, they saw a healthy boost in income, reaching a new high in 2016, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday. And poverty fell to a low not seen since 2007, right before the recession took hold. An important caveat: Although income for the median household (in the exact middle of the income ladder) jumped 3.2 percent in 2016 to reach about $59,000, experts aren't calling that an all-time high. Americans probably were earning about $1,500 more than that in 1999, once adjusted for inflation. That’s because the bureau has changed the way it measures income and now takes into account the money retirees earn from their 401(k) accounts.

SOURCE: US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey
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Jacob Turcotte and Laurent Belsie/Staff
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5. Bringing El Salvador’s gangs into the fold

In 2015, El Salvador claimed the highest homicide rate in the world. Last year, the murder rate dropped substantially, but is still more than 5,000, in a country with only 6.4 million people. Might the answer to the country's epidemic of violence be found – in church?

A former gang member attended a weekly gathering for prayer and to discuss life plans at Eben Ezer church in San Salvador, El Salvador.
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Milli Legrain
 

The 30 Sec. Read“I was a kid who just wanted to fit in,” says Wilfredo, a former gang member. “It was popular in those days to be part of a gang. I needed to belong to a gang to be accepted.” It’s a common story in El Salvador, where deeply entrenched gang violence has made the homicide rate one of the world’s highest. But at this church in the capital, San Salvador, there is another common story: successfully leaving gang life. More than 400 ex-members say that evangelical groups have helped them escape. That’s a drop in the bucket. But in a country where official attempts to curb the violence have often failed, these churches’ experiences suggest that addressing the needs that many young people hope membership in a gang will provide – acceptance, belonging, stability – can also be key to getting them out. Still, rehabilitation work brings risks, as well. “I end up feeling like what I’m doing is subversive,” says one pastor, wearily recalling three police raids at the church last year. “We don’t want this to be seen as something hidden or clandestine.”

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5. Bringing El Salvador’s gangs into the fold

Wilfredo sits on a plastic chair inside Eben Ezer church, nestled in a gang-controlled neighborhood of El Salvador’s capital. It’s not hard to see why he’s a leader at the church: charismatic, completely bilingual, and polished in his button-down shirt – despite the sweltering heat.

But directly beneath his Adam’s apple, two numbers are visible: 1 and 8, for Barrio 18 – one of El Salvador’s two main gangs, who have helped make the country one of the world’s most violent. The shirt hides many more tattoos, signs of the different kind of leader Wilfredo once was: running Barrio 18’s international communications from Honduras to El Salvador, across Mexico and the United States.

“I got to know Christ in jail,” says Wilfredo, whose last name has been omitted for privacy. Here at Eben Ezer, it’s a common story. Every Tuesday, he brings together former gang members who, like him, say they have left gang life for good after becoming Evangelical Christians in prison.

More than 400 ex-members say that evangelical groups have helped them leave the gangs – a drop in the bucket here, where as many as 60,000 gang members control large parts of the country. But in a society where gangs are so deeply entrenched and government attempts to curb the violence have often failed, some churches’ experiences suggest that addressing the basic needs that many young people hope to find in gang life – acceptance, belonging, stability – can also be key to getting them out.

Wilfredo’s family brought him to the United States at age 10, and eventually, like many Salvadoran immigrants, he joined the Barrio 18 gang in its birthplace – Los Angeles.

“I was a kid who just wanted to fit it,” Wilfredo says, remembering his teenage years in the late 1990s. “It was popular in those days to be part of a gang. I needed to belong to a gang to be accepted.”

But if efforts like Wilfredo’s show that rehabilitation can work, experts say, they also illustrate the challenges ahead. A lack of institutional support for, and even suspicion of, groups trying to engage with gang members and help set them up on a different path looms particularly large. Rehabilitation groups are often accused of being “gang sympathizers,” says Jeanne Rikkers, a human rights activist who has worked with gangs in prisons through a number of nongovernmental organizations. You’re treated “as if you yourself are a gang member,” she says.

Mano Dura

After 20 years in the US, Wilfredo was deported alone back to El Salvador, where he was arrested for armed robbery after connecting with the gang on the other side. He completed his 10-year sentence in January and is now a free man.

But the overall violence has hit epidemic proportions. In 2015, El Salvador claimed the highest homicide rate in the world. Last year, the murder rate dropped substantially – but is still more than 5,000, in a country with only 6.4 million people.

A controversial 2012 truce between rival gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18 was criticized for lack of transparency. Violence spiked when it crumbled in 2014. Today, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has opted for the hardline approach known as “mano dura,” or “iron fist.” The armed forces have been called in to deal with gang violence, while death squads have been accused of extrajudicial killings by human rights groups and investigative news outlets.

“People think that problems and social conflicts are going to be resolved with laws: the stricter the law, the more likely it is to be successful,” says Nelson Flores, a former security expert at FESPAD, one of the country’s leading human rights groups. “But actually it’s the opposite,” he adds, reeling off a list of laws that failed to stop the violence.

A government plan called Safe El Salvador coupled law enforcement with institutional strengthening and social policies including job creation for young people and rehabilitation for prisoners. Human rights organizations, however, say the government has failed to implement the plan. A separate government prison management program, called Yo Cambio (I Change), offers skill training intended to ease inmates’ readjustment to post-prison life. Local NGOs, however, have criticized it for not focusing on gangs.

But for several hundred former gang members, help has come from perhaps an unlikely place: churches.

“The Evangelicals are perhaps the only way in which gang members can retire or walk away from gangs without leaving the country,” says José Miguel Cruz, a researcher at Florida International University who has been studying gangs in El Salvador for 20 years. “There is no other consistent rehabilitation effort in El Salvador right now.”

Professor Cruz’s latest State Department-funded study found that over 58 percent of former and active gang members believe that the church would be the best institution to lead rehabilitation programs.

The need to belong

Here at Eben Ezer, many Barrio 18 members speak about unsuccessful attempts at leaving the gangs, often for a loved one. But they point to the church as the institution that helped them commit.

Key to some church groups’ success, they suggest, is their understanding that gangs can fill emotional and social needs – factors that help make gang life appealing to teenagers in the first place.

“These young men need an identity. They can find that within the gang or the church,” says Pastor Luis Gonzalez, who has worked with gang members in the notorious San Francisco Gotera prison for several years.

In interviews, former Barrio 18 members talk as though being a gang member and a Christian were binary opposites. “I used to be a gang member, but now I’m a Christian,” they often say.  

“The Evangelical church provides alternatives of survival, access to employment in some cases, emotional support and a new identity, which is fundamental,” says Dr. Cruz. “The church identity replaces the gang identity completely.”

Many youths entered the gang as teens, growing up in poverty-stricken neighborhoods of the capital after the civil war. For some, the gang even represented the semblance of a family.

“My parents used to fight a lot.... Maybe that’s why I decided to join the gang and get away from them. Perhaps I got more support from them than from my own family,” says Jorge, whose last name has been omitted for privacy. He entered the gang 20 years ago, when he was 16. “But then you realize that it was all a lie. I spent 10 years in jail and I didn’t get any support. Only my wife helped me then.”

A personal approach also helps gain gang members’ trust, Cruz says, letting them succeed in some cases where more institutional approaches fail.

“They tell them, ‘God loves you. He will save you. You can change,’ ” he says. “That is very appealing to gang members with strong feelings of guilt for everything they have done.”

Feeling suspect

But the churches cannot erase the more material needs that drive young Salvadorans toward gang activity. Employment prospects for youth, particularly ex-gangsters, are meager. At least one local factory does offer job placements to select former gang members, but many of them have first come through the church.

At League Collegiate Outfitters in Ciudad Arce, some 15 miles from the capital, former MS 13 and Barrio 18 members work side by side making college T-shirts. But this model is not widespread. Many Salvadorans resent those who give opportunities to former criminals. Others are simply relieved to know the gangs are off the streets.

Back at Eben Ezer Church, Wilfredo says he got turned down for a job at a call center because of his criminal record. He seems disillusioned by society’s response to his conversion inside the prison system. “They don’t believe we can change,” he says.

He knows becoming a Christian won’t necessarily find him a job, and that in this sense, the group’s support is more moral than practical.

A pile of dirty mattresses are stacked in a small room at the back of the church with a makeshift cooker and an outdoor toilet for the handful of former gang members who live here at any given time.

But for many, Eben Ezer is still regarded as an oasis. “We found this church, Eben Ezer, and men like Pastor Nelson Moz who opened these doors to shelter and protect us,” adds Wilfredo with a smile.

But the activities of Pastor Moz, who runs Eben Ezer church, have cost him. In 2015, the Supreme Court of El Salvador labeled gangs as terrorist organizations. Now, many people working with gang members say they fear being arrested.

The police “have warned me, ‘You cannot be protecting people in this way. You’re committing an offense,’ ” Moz says.

“I end up feeling like what I’m doing is subversive,” he adds, wearily recalling three police raids at the church during worship services this year, when officers put the men on their knees and checked their IDs. “We make sure we don’t have anyone here being sought by the authorities. If they have served their time, they bring a notice that says so.”

In 2012 Obama designated the MS-13 a Transnational Criminal Organization. Since then, American non-governmental organizations wishing to work on rehabilitating gang members in El Salvador must obtain a waiver from the US government.

Under current “extraordinary measures” put in place in prisons last year, phone calls and visits are forbidden. One former gang member recently found out that both his parents had died while he was locked up.

Moz would like to meet with authorities, and has talked with government representatives at public events, but says he hasn’t heard back.

“We want them to acknowledge what we are doing,” he says. “We don’t want this to be seen as something hidden or clandestine. It is part of our ministry to help those in need.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.

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The Monitor's View

Getting up close with the criminal justice system

 

The 30 Sec. ReadA bipartisan group of state officials has started to visit prisons, meet crime victims, and engage more deeply with the criminal justice system. The goal: to bring reform to a broken system by better understanding it. The vehicle: “Face to Face,” a new initiative by the National Reentry Resource Center and the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Why it matters: Of the nearly 10 million individuals who leave a prison or jail each year, about two-thirds end up re-incarcerated within three years. Such statistics may not hit home to lawmakers unless they hear directly from those involved in the system. The best way to study crime may be to show more up-close empathy with all of those involved.

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Getting up close with the criminal justice system

This year marks the 50th anniversary of a landmark report on criminal justice titled “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society.” Written by a special commission appointed by President Lyndon Johnson, it called for “a revolution in the way America thinks about crime.” While some of the proposed reforms took hold, the “revolution” never really happened. The United States still has one of the world’s highest incarceration rates. Now a bipartisan group in Congress is calling for a new commission on crime.

Yet the question must be asked before yet another federal study: Why are there so many failures at criminal justice reform?

One reason may be that those who set the policy rarely set foot in a prison, met with inmates or their victims, or heard the complaints of correctional and probation officers. Elected leaders rarely gather firsthand evidence about the impact of their choices in criminal justice system or go beyond the statistics.

That may be about to change. Two years ago, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a prison. And then last month, a bipartisan group of governors and other officials agreed to engage closely with people involved with criminal justice, from victims to wardens to ex-cons. 

Colorado Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, for example, visited a women’s correctional facility. Missouri Republican Gov. Eric Greitens worked with corrections officers at a prison. North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper spent time at a transitional house for ex-offenders.

“We’ve got to turn [prisons] from these very dark places that we try to push out of our thought process and have them foremost in our thought process,” said Connecticut Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy. “Everybody should know how we treat our neighbor’s children when they make mistakes and what the compounding mistakes of incarceration are.”

The governors are taking part in “Face to Face,” a new initiative by the National Reentry Resource Center and the Council of State Governments Justice Center. The aim is to bring elected officials in close proximity with people in the criminal justice system, or, as Governor Malloy says about visiting a prison, to “understand the dynamic that plays itself out within those four walls.”

Many prisons still do offer inmates enough assistance to reform themselves while many ex-convicts are not given enough support to reenter their communities and live by the rules of society. Of the nearly 10 million individuals who leave a prison or jail each year, about two-thirds end up re-incarcerated within three years.

Such statistics may not hit home to lawmakers – unless they hear directly from those involved in the system. Simply learning from studies, hearings, or even TV shows may not have the impact needed to ensure government can both protect people from crime and offer successful rehabilitation and treatment to criminals. The best way to study crime may be to show more up-close empathy with all those involved.

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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.

In the midst of fire, God’s care

 

One hot, windy summer night, a fire started in a building adjacent to where contributor Cheryl Ranson and her husband lived. Firefighters were working hard, but things looked bad for the three attached buildings. The Ransons began praying based on a conviction they’ve gained from the first chapter of Genesis in the Bible – that God’s creation is all good. While it certainly didn’t appear this way watching the flames, intensified by the high winds, they held to the spiritual reality that God’s care is constant. To the surprise of the firefighters, the wind suddenly stopped, enabling them to successfully extinguish the fire. The simple, watchful acceptance of the presence and power of God, good – no matter what is going on around us – has healing consequences.

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In the midst of fire, God’s care

One hot summer night, a fire started in a building adjacent to where my husband and I lived. The wind was whipping flames past our window, and everyone had been evacuated. Outside, a huge crowd had gathered. Firefighters were working hard, but things looked bad for the three attached buildings.

It was tough to resist the feeling that this was a lost cause. Everyone around us seemed to think it was! But my husband and I began praying based on a conviction we’ve gained from the first chapter of the book of Genesis in the Bible – that God’s creation is all good. While it certainly didn’t appear this way watching the flames, intensified by the high winds, we held to the spiritual reality that God’s care is constant, and that all of us were embraced only in good.

This wasn’t a mental exercise in denial, but an active prayer – a shift in thought that had behind it the authority and encouragement of God’s goodness and care.

Soon the fire was successfully extinguished. When the firefighters left, one of them remarked how amazing it was that the wind had stopped so suddenly, allowing the fire to be put out. Our building was safe, and only an unoccupied corner building was damaged.

The beginning of the Bible includes two accounts of creation. The first account I referenced details how everything was made spiritually by God, who sees it as wholly good, blesses it all, and gives man, male and female, spiritual authority (see Genesis 1). The second account depicts men and women as sinners, and God as punishing them (see Genesis 2, 3).

While this second account has moral lessons to teach about the importance of obedience, I’ve found that the account I identify as reality, for myself and others, makes a big difference in my life.

The simple, watchful acceptance of God’s presence and power, and the goodness of creation in God’s image – no matter what is going on around us – has healing consequences. The pioneer of Christian healing in this age, Mary Baker Eddy – following Christ Jesus’ example – put it this way: “Stand porter at the door of thought. Admitting only such conclusions as you wish realized in bodily results, you will control yourself harmoniously” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 392).

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A new place to play

Syrian children play soccer after Jordanian Prince Ali and Aleksander Ceferin, head of the Union of European Football Associations, inaugurated a new pitch Sept. 12 at the Al-Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan, near the border with Syria.
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Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( September 13th, 2017 )

Marjorie Kehe
Deputy Weekly Editor

Thank you for reading today. One story we’re planning for tomorrow: As California prepares to become a “sanctuary state,” what do we actually know about how related ordinances might affect immigrant communities and their relationships with law enforcement?

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