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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
26
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

Yes, the First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees the right of free speech.

But hypocrisy and misunderstanding are rampant on this subject.

On Tuesday, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a speech lamenting the loss of conservative voices in the liberal echo chamber of American universities – supposedly a place where ideas flow freely.  

Then, Mr. Sessions spoke to a small invitation-only group at the Georgetown University Law Center that screened out protesters.

From NASCAR to the NFL, from Berkeley, Calif., to Charlottesville, Va., it seems like someone, somewhere is championing – or denying – free speech. For liberals, a speech by white supremacists is a guise for hate speech. For conservatives, a kneeling protest by NFL players is disrespecting the national anthem and American veterans.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Alejandro Villanueva, a US vet, stood alone, hand over heart during the national anthem. Conservatives applauded. On Monday, Mr. Villanueva said he won’t kneel. But he defended his teammates, saying they “are not saying anything negative about the military, not saying anything negative about the flag. They're just trying to protest the fact that there are some injustices in America.”

He added that US soldiers “signed up and fought so that somebody could take a knee and protest peacefully….”

As we consider these ideals, we all may become better students – and defenders – of the US Constitution.

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Now our five news stories, intended to highlight progress, integrity, and justice at work.

1. After Maria, long-neglected Puerto Rico seeks a reset

Out of the devastation wrought by hurricanes Irma and Maria, Puerto Rico may yet find a path to progress on its chronic financial woes.

David
National Guardsmen arrive at Barrio Obrero in Santurce to distribute water and food among those affected by the passage of hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept. 24. Puerto Rico's nonvoting representative in the US Congress said Sunday that the storm’s destruction has set the island back decades, even as authorities worked to assess the extent of the damage.
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Carlos Giusti/AP

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In the context of the American political picture, Puerto Rico has had an image problem. It’s been nearly invisible. The US Caribbean property has had neither the heft of a state nor the room to maneuver of an independent country. Nor does it enjoy the same support that Americans have shown survivors in hurricane-ravaged Texas and Florida since, according to a recent poll, nearly half of Americans do not know that Puerto Ricans are fellow citizens. The US government has begun to turn its attention to helping the island recover from a direct hit by hurricane Maria. And that, say some experts, could be the storm’s silver lining, that amid such devastation Puerto Rico would be treated as more than an afterthought. Says one: “Things are pretty terrible right now, but already there is a sense that this disaster can be a chance for Puerto Rico and the US mainland to work together to change the island for the better.” But, adds another, “For this to be an opportunity requires two things: When cleaning up the debris of this natural calamity we also need to clear the debris of policies that have been holding back the island for decades.”

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After Maria, long-neglected Puerto Rico seeks a reset

When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo arrived in a Maria-devastated Puerto Rico Friday, he brought with him a half-dozen electrical generators – coveted assistance for an island that officials estimate could be without power for months.

Yet as appreciated as Mr. Cuomo’s material aid was, his visit underscored the Caribbean island’s precarious status as a United States territory – whose 3.4 million residents are American citizens – yet one with very little clout in Washington.

If New York’s governor saw fit to demonstrate solidarity with Puerto Rico, it is because of the sizable and well-established Puerto Rican population in New York – one that continues to grow as young people with US passports abandon the poverty-stricken and financially strapped island.

But Cuomo’s visit was also a reminder of how nearly invisible Puerto Rico has become in the American political picture, with neither the heft of states like Texas and Florida – also ravaged by storms this hurricane season – nor the room to maneuver of an independent country. Nor does it enjoy the same level of grass-roots support that Americans show states, since, according to a recent poll, nearly half of Americans do not know that Puerto Ricans are fellow citizens.

Yet if there is any silver lining at all to the clouds left hovering over Puerto Rico by hurricane Maria, it might be that a Caribbean jewel held in American hands for a century could now in the wake of such devastation be treated as more than an afterthought, some experts in the island say.

“The status question has long been the albatross around Puerto Rico’s neck, as it has had neither the political power of a state nor the advantages of an independent country,” says Dante Disparte, chairman of the American Security Project’s Business Council for American Security in Washington.

“But it’s at times like these that being a commonwealth of the US can make a tremendous difference and present major advantages,” adds Mr. Disparte, who is Puerto Rican. “Imagine if this had been in Haiti. The loss of life would have been far greater and the assistance resulting from our relationship with the US would not have been forthcoming,” he says.

Beyond that, others hold out hope that an island long held back by outdated and crumbling infrastructure – and by bankruptcy proceedings initiated this year and earlier financial restructuring efforts that imposed strict austerity measures and put off most plans for updating – might seize the opportunity of Maria’s blank slate to rebuild a better Puerto Rico.

“Things are pretty terrible right now, but already there is a sense that this disaster can be a chance for Puerto Rico and the US mainland to work together to change the island for the better,” says Ricardo Barrios, an associate of the Latin America and the World program at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

With Puerto Rico’s bankrupt and antiquated public utility knocked out by Maria, “a debate is already popping up about modernizing energy infrastructure and enhancing energy security by turning to renewables like solar energy and away from a system that requires us to import” fossil fuels, says Mr. Barrios.

What Disparte calls Puerto Rico’s state of political and financial “limbo” was on full display after Maria left the island without power, with dwindling supplies of food and water, and with a ruined agricultural sector.

President Trump declared Puerto Rico to be in a state of emergency Sept. 18, paving the way for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, to coordinate disaster relief.

But then Puerto Rico seemed to disappear from the nation’s consciousness.

“Perhaps there was a little too much debating who was taking a knee at sports events rather than who was drowning in a devastating storm’s aftermath on a Caribbean island that is a US territory,” says Disparte, echoing a criticism that grew among Puerto Ricans over the weekend.

By Monday it seemed federal officials had got the message. FEMA Director Brock Long visited the island, assuring Gov. Ricardo Rosselló that federal assistance was ramping up and would not wane. Mr. Rosselló had reminded Congress in a message that as American citizens, Puerto Ricans have the same right to federal disaster assistance as the people of Texas and Florida.

House Speaker Paul Ryan reassured Puerto Rico while in Florida Monday that a package of federal aid would be forthcoming, and on Tuesday used a press conference to underscore mainland solidarity with the island territory.

“This is our country and these are our fellow citizens,” Mr. Ryan said. “They need our help and they’re going to get our help.”

Also Monday, the fundraising effort launched by the five living former US presidents in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma was extended to cover Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

On Tuesday the White House announced that Mr. Trump will visit Puerto Rico next week to survey federal recovery efforts. The announcement followed the president’s tweets Monday in which he emphasized that the island’s dire financial straits and crumbling infrastructure are impeding efforts to move forward.

“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which has already suffered from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” Trump tweeted. A plan approved last year to deal with the island’s $73 billion debt and overseen by a new financial control board required a raft of new austerity measures on top of ones in place for a decade.

Puerto Rico’s bankrupt state and lackluster economy seem certain to figure prominently in efforts to address the disaster left in Maria’s wake. Critics are already cautioning Congress not to let its sympathies prompt a bail-out from the island’s manmade financial disaster – years of deficit spending contributed to its indebtedness – while others see this as a moment to free Puerto Rico from old regulations and practices holding it back.

“For this to be an opportunity requires two things: When cleaning up the debris of this natural calamity we also need to clear the debris of policies that have been holding back the island for decades,” Disparte says. “And we need to see that a much stronger and more diversified economy can emerge.”

One frequent target of Puerto Rico experts is the Jones Act, a 1920s relic that requires that goods imported to the island arrive on US-flagged ships. Another criticism zeroes in on a tax code that experts say contributed to the island’s de-industrialization – the departure of a once-thriving pharmaceutical sector, for example – and impoverishment. A decade ago, Congress did away with the island's tax-haven status for industries like pharmaceuticals.

No one discounts the importance of first addressing Puerto Rico’s human desperation. “What worries me is that an acute humanitarian crisis like this can quickly devolve into an unraveling of social order and security,” Disparte says.

But island advocates also hold out hope that the ravages of Maria will prompt the hard thinking and long-term planning they say will determine whether or not Puerto Rico succeeds at renewal.

“We’re seeing the first signs of soul-searching, but it will take much more than that to turn this disaster into something good,” Barrios says. “Unless we can move from debate to concrete actions,” he adds, “it’s going to be just another natural disaster we failed to learned lessons from.”

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2. Travel ban: the old one, the new one, and the ‘what next?’

With the latest version of its travel ban, has the Trump administration removed concerns that it's really a ban on Muslims? Here’s our briefing on the legal issues.

David

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One of the most contentious and confusing subplots of Donald Trump’s presidency is now going to play a little – or perhaps a lot – longer. With the Trump administration issuing a third version of its travel ban Sunday, the argument that the case before the Supreme Court – which concerns the second order – is now moot just became much stronger. Effective Oct. 18, the new order indefinitely restricts travel for citizens from Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen, as well as North Korea, Chad, and some government officials from Venezuela. The justices have asked the parties involved to file briefs by Oct. 5, while also removing it from their October calendar. The fact that the latest order came after the 90-day period in which the Trump administration said it was going to review the screening and security practices of targeted countries may make it more defensible in court. “If this order is tailored to that review it does make the [religious discrimination] claim harder to make,” says Steven Schwinn, a professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. “Did the government’s national security review kind of break the chain of causation between the earlier [anti-Muslim] animus and the third version of the order?”

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Travel ban: the old one, the new one, and the ‘what next?’

A few days ago, Oct. 10 had been circled on calendars around the country – the day the Trump administration would make its first appearance before the US Supreme Court, to argue for the full enforcement of President Trump’s controversial “travel ban” executive order.

Monday afternoon, in a one-paragraph order, the justices kicked that can down the road. One of the longest, most contentious, and confusing subplots of Donald Trump’s presidency is now going to have to play a little – or perhaps a lot – longer.

With the Trump administration issuing a third version of the order Sunday, the argument that the case before the high court – which concerns the second iteration of the order – is now moot just became much stronger. If the justices decide that the case is moot, they would be able to resolve it without exploring the thorny statutory and constitutional questions it raises. Today’s order from the justices asks the parties involved to file briefs by Oct. 5 explaining whether, and to what extent, the case is now moot, while also removing it from their October calendar.

Whatever happens 10 days from now, this issue is far from resolved. Here are some questions looking at how we got here, and where we could go next:

Q: What is the travel ban?

The ban at issue is the second version of an executive order regarding immigration. The first order, authored with limited input from federal immigration agencies and issued weeks after Trump took office, banned for 90 days entry for citizens from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen, and banned the admission of all refugees for 120 days (or, for refugees from Syria, indefinitely). The Trump administration has cited national security interests as the justification for the order, but critics instead see it as a veiled effort to implement a “Muslim ban” he promised during his presidential campaign.

After mass protests and successful legal challenges around the country, Trump issued a revised executive order in March. The new order removed Iraq from the list of banned countries, included refugees from Syria in the 120 day-ban, and addressed several perceived legal flaws in its predecessor, such as excluding green card holders and specifying the links to terrorist organizations in the other six countries. The 90-day ban was going to expire at midnight Sunday, prompting the Trump administration to issue its new executive action.

Effective Oct. 18, the new proclamation indefinitely restricts travel for citizens from Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen, as well as North Korea, Chad, and some government officials from Venezuela. The new restrictions are "conditions-based, not time-based" an administration official told The Washington Post, and vary by country. If security conditions improve in a country, it seems, restrictions could be relaxed or removed. Sudan has been removed after agreeing to accept large numbers of Sudanese nationals deported from the US, according to news reports.

"As president, I must act to protect the security and interests of the United States and its people," Trump said in a statement.

Q: How did we get here?

Three separate federal judges blocked the implementation of the first travel ban, and a panel of three judges on the 9th Circuit US Court of Appeals upheld that injunction. Refugee advocacy and civil liberties groups sued again after Trump issued his second order. Federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland blocked the implementation of key provisions of that order. On appeal, the 4th Circuit US Court of Appeals upheld parts of the Maryland ruling on the grounds that the order unconstitutionally discriminated against Muslims. In another appeal, the 9th Circuit upheld parts of the Hawaii ruling on the grounds that the order violated the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

The Trump administration appealed both decisions to the Supreme Court, which in June took up the case and allowed most of the order to go into effect. Next week, on Oct. 5, the justices will receive briefs from both sides arguing whether this case is now moot.

Q: What questions are at issue?

The justices were considering three questions regarding the travel ban. Two of them relate directly to the 4th and 9th Circuit decisions – namely, whether the order violates the INA or the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

With the justices now focusing exclusively on whether the case has become moot or “otherwise nonjusticiable” – another question the court asked back in June – those questions on the substance of the travel ban order are now on the back burner. And they may stay there for a while.

The third travel ban order “makes it more likely that the court is simply not going to hear the travel ban case, at least not this term,” says Steven Schwinn, a professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

Even if they find the case moot, another significant question the Supreme Court may have to deal with – and deal with this term – is whether to uphold the lower court rulings in the case, which were all against the White House, or vacate them.

Q: Will there be more litigation?

Almost certainly. Opponents of the ban have already signaled that they could file suit over the most recent order.

“Six of President Trump’s targeted countries are Muslim. The fact that Trump has added North Korea — with few visitors to the U.S. — and a few government officials from Venezuela doesn't obfuscate the real fact that the administration's order is still a Muslim ban,” wrote Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought one of the challenges to the ban now before the court, in a statement.

Whether new plaintiffs will have to come forward, and where these new challenges could come from geographically, remains to be seen. But the arguments against the new proclamation are likely to be similar to the old ones.

“I don’t think it’ll be hard to find people willing to stand up and oppose this in court,” says Professor Schwinn, “but I think they’ll have to start a new case.”

And given how long it would take to litigate any new case through the lower courts, it’s unlikely the justices would hear a challenge to the new proclamation until next term at the earliest.

Q: How could courts view the new order?

The fact that the latest proclamation has come after the 90-day period in which the Trump administration said it was going to review the screening and security practices of the targeted countries may make the order more defensible in court.

“If this order is tailored to that review it does make the [religious discrimination] claim harder to make,” says Schwinn. “Did the government’s national security review kind of break the chain of causation between the earlier [anti-Muslim] animus and the third version of the order?”

Arguments that the order violates the INA – which prohibits the exclusion of individuals from entering the US on the basis of nationality – may be more relevant.

“I think that argument probably is still very much going to be in play with this third version,” says Schwinn. In the new proclamation “you still have the president designating by country who can come and who cannot.”

There have been hints, however, that there were enough votes on the high court to uphold the second travel ban in full.

With one preliminary judgment in July, Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch wrote a separate opinion saying all travelers from the six specified countries should have been banned.

That opinion suggests that “there are certainly three, and I think maybe five votes to uphold the policy,” writes Josh Blackman, an associate professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston, in an email to the Monitor.

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3. Why Turkey, a key US ally, looks now toward Moscow

Is Turkey really turning away from the US and Europe toward Russia and Iran? Perhaps. But our reporting suggests that Turkey’s latest moves are more reactionary than permanent.

David

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Anti-Americanism has festered in strategically important Turkey ever since last July, when some there accused Washington of orchestrating a coup attempt against controversial and mercurial President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. And now Turkey is taking steps that alarm its NATO allies, including a recent announcement of a downpayment to Russia for a sophisticated air-defense system – one that’s incompatible with NATO weaponry and would signal a partnership with the power that NATO was created to contain. Another friction point: the scuttling of a US weapons sale last week for Mr. Erdoğan’s presidential security detail. Still, analysts say Turkey’s deal with Russia – and its cozying up to Iran – may be primarily tactical, and that Ankara is unlikely to go far enough to jeopardize its role in the NATO security structure. “Turkey needs Russia,” says Kristian Brakel, head of the Turkey office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a German political foundation associated with the Green party. “But there are so many diverging interests, when it comes to Syria, when it comes to Crimea, the Black Sea. I think chances are really slim … that Russia could supplant NATO.”

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Why Turkey, a key US ally, looks now toward Moscow

UPDATE: This story was updated on Tuesday, Sept. 26, at 12:10 p.m.

Setting aside years of increasing Turkey-US hostility, President Trump’s introductory remarks for the cameras were glowing as he met Turkey’s controversial President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan one-on-one last week, winding up a flurry of bilateral diplomacy on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s annual opening in New York.

Mr. Erdoğan is “running a very difficult part of the world,” Trump said Thursday, “and frankly, he’s getting very high marks.”

“We have a great friendship as countries. I think we’re, right now, as close we have ever been,” he added, also extolling the leaders’ personal rapport.

But seen from Turkey, the picture is far different. The scuttling of a US weapons sale last week for Erdoğan’s presidential security detail was just the latest point of friction feeding Turkey’s disillusion with the US and its NATO allies – and one more reason for its deepening embrace of two historic rivals, Russia and Iran.

Mutual US-Turkey prodding of each other has become more and more frequent, as Erdoğan dabbles with a strategic realignment away from the US and Europe.

The US withdrew the license to sell $1.2 million in arms and ammunition for the security guards after a grand jury indicted 15 of them for assaulting a handful of anti-Erdoğan protesters in Washington in May.

Clearly peeved, Erdoğan groused that the US was refusing to sell weapons to a fellow NATO ally, while giving even more lethal arms for free – 3,000 truckloads worth, he said – to “terrorists.” He meant US-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria fighting the so-called Islamic State. Turkey says it fears the US-supplied weapons may one day be turned against it.

Anti-Americanism has grown in Turkey, especially since Washington – the CIA in particular – was accused by some here of orchestrating a July 2016 coup attempt against Erdoğan.

But Turkey has also taken steps that have alarmed its NATO allies, including the recent announcement of a downpayment to Russia to buy the sophisticated S-400 air defense system, which is incompatible with NATO weaponry and would signal a deep partnership with the power that NATO was ostensibly created to contain.

Though Erdoğan met with Trump in New York, he is also hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ankara this week, and is due in Tehran on Oct. 4 to discuss joint peace efforts with Iran in Syria. Until recently Turkey has pursued policies directly opposed to those of Russia and Iran. Turkey, Russia, and Iran currently are joint sponsors of a Syria peace process in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Erdoğan’s meetings follow high-ranking military exchanges, including Iran’s chief of staff of the armed forces Mohammad Bagheri making an unusual trip to Ankara in August, followed by Russia’s top general, Valery Gerasimov.

A tactical move?

Nevertheless, despite the signals of change, analysts say Turkey’s deal with Russia may be primarily tactical, that Turkey’s foreign policy has been increasingly erratic and reactionary, and that Ankara is unlikely to jeopardize its role in the NATO security structure.

“Overall, [the S-400] is just one system and a rather symbolic one. But if you look at the prospects of Turkey and Russia really aligning their interests, they are very small, says Kristian Brakel, head of the Turkey office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a German political foundation associated with the Green Party.

“Turkey needs Russia, to have a seat at the table in Syria. Turkey needs Russia as some kind of bogeyman to show the Americans and Europe,” says Mr. Brakel. “But there are so many diverging interests, when it comes to Syria, when it comes to Crimea, the Black Sea. I think chances are really slim … that Russia could supplant NATO.”

“The current strategy – if there is any strategy – seems to be to diversify the options that Turkey has at its disposal,” adds Brakel.

Those options have grown in appeal since the coup attempt last year, after which Erdoğan and his ruling party castigated Washington and European capitals for the supposed lack of their swift support to “defend democracy.” Seen from the West, however, the wave of 50,000 arrests and purges of 150,000 from Turkish security and educational institutions that followed the coup have helped Erdoğan secure his hold on power. Later, hope faded in Ankara that Trump would prove to be far more pro-Erdoğan than President Obama, who took Erdoğan to task for his growing authoritarianism at home.

Expectations in Turkey that the new US administration would abandon its Kurdish allies in northern Syria – an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that Turkey designates as “terrorists” and has battled for decades – also proved short-lived.

Instead, the Pentagon has used Kurdish proxies in Syria as the prime force in its current anti-ISIS offensive in Raqqa, which has in turn prompted Turkey to shift its strategic priority from fighting ISIS to preventing Kurdish empowerment.

Collapse of Europe relations

On top of that, besides the legal cases against Erdoğan’s personal security detail, the US Justice Department last week issued an indictment of Turkey’s former economics minister and Erdoğan ally, Mehmet Zafer Çağlayan, on charges of taking millions of dollars in bribes to help Iran circumvent sanctions.

At the same time, Erdoğan has presided over a collapse of Turkey’s relations with Europe. The European Parliament in July called for the suspension of Turkey’s decades-long bid for EU membership. The president has prodded the Turkish diaspora in Europe in political directions, and called on Turks living in Germany not to vote for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats or two other mainstream parties in this weekend’s elections, calling them “all enemies of Turkey.”

“Every European country is sick and tired of Turkish shenanigans.… It’s entirely unpredictable, the rhetoric is bellicose,” says Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at the Atlantic Council in Washington, noting that Erdoğan this summer called four different European countries “Nazis.”

“The lack of trust [between Turkey and its Western allies] is pronounced, and that lack of trust makes relatively routine events like a state visit to Iran take on greater geopolitical importance than it really has,” says Mr. Stein.

Skepticism about Russian deal

In the midst of these battles with allies came the announcement of the S-400 deal with Russia, which has elicited skepticism among some analysts who think it is far from a done deal and could falter for any number of reasons, including the cost, Turkey’s technology transfer demands, or Erdoğan’s whim.

“Erdoğan could wake up tomorrow and kill the deal, it just depends on his mood,” says Stein.

Such factors are not lost on a region where Turkey’s foreign policy is seen to have become more reactionary and short-term.

“There is a lack of strategic thinking, a lack of thinking beyond just tit for tat, which we see at the moment with the S-400,” says Brakel. “But does Russia really have something to offer to Turkey?”

Energy cooperation may be one obvious point, “but that’s a huge difference from Turkey sitting in the NATO Council, where it speaks with the same voice as the US, as European partners, and with the same voting rights,” he says. “With Russia, Turkey is a junior partner, and will remain a junior partner, and Erdoğan knows that.”

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4. An invented drama in Mexico City rubble reveals a social rift

Governments are often judged by how they respond to a disaster. Mexico's is no exception. And a government that’s intentionally – or ignorantly – dishonest with its citizens fuels distrust and unrest.

David
A family member addresses the media Sept. 25 during a news conference near the site of a building that collapsed in an earthquake in Mexico City. The federal government’s response to the temblor was viewed as inadequate by some citizens.
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Daniel Becerril/Reuters

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Her name was Frida Sofía. For two days after Mexico’s earthquake, the story of the 12-year-old girl supposedly buried under a school captivated the country, as rescue crews worked to free her. “She put a name on all of the missing people out there,” said one student volunteering at a makeshift shelter in the hard-hit Roma neighborhood. Just hours later, however, the Navy confirmed the child wasn’t there – and, it turned out, never had been. Frida Sofía did not exist. Once a symbol of hope, her story now puts a name to the frustration and mistrust many Mexicans have for their government. Mexican officials have been unable to identify and locate nearly 26,000 citizens who have gone missing in the drug war. They were invisible in the wake of a devastating earthquake exactly 32 years before this one. And the little official information they’ve shared this week has heightened distrust. “This was an earthquake, a natural disaster, but it will likely be followed by a political earthquake,” says a sociologist in the northern city of Monterrey.

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An invented drama in Mexico City rubble reveals a social rift

Her little fingers wiggled amid the wreckage, one rescue worker said. She asked for water, and begged to be rescued quickly, a national newspaper reported. Another searcher announced there were more children with her, possibly alive and buried beneath a collapsed wing of a primary school in southern Mexico City. 

For two days after Mexico’s 7.1 earthquake toppled scores of buildings, killing what’s now believed to be nearly 300 people, the country was captivated by the story of Frida Sofía, a 12-year-old on the brink of a miraculous rescue.

The only problem? Frida Sofía didn’t exist.

An official announcement late last week confirmed that all children at the school were accounted for. Some say the girl who mesmerized the country – keeping grandmothers up praying and crying late into the night and volunteers searching during long, grueling shifts – must have been the result of overtired rescuers misinterpreting signs and sounds amid the rubble, and hanging on to what little hope there was at a disaster site with 19 children confirmed dead. Others interpreted it as a nefarious plan by a government-friendly television conglomerate that had sole access to the wreckage to pump up ratings, or an unpopular administration looking to win admiration with a dramatic rescue.

“Frida Sofía gives us hope because she put a name on all of the missing people out there,” said Adai Ruiz, a political science student volunteering at a makeshift shelter and support center in a community garden in the hard-hit Roma neighborhood, just hours before the Navy confirmed the child wasn’t there. “We can say her name, yet be praying for and fighting for all the innocent people trapped beneath the rubble.”

If Frida Sofía briefly served as a symbol of hope for a nation reeling from disaster, the revelation that she never existed is emblematic as well, putting a name to the frustration and mistrust many here have for their government.

These feelings weren’t difficult to kick up: In an earthquake exactly 32 years prior, political leaders were essentially invisible in the aftermath, leaving citizens to pick up the slack. And the past decade here has been defined by authorities unable to identify and locate the nearly 26,000 citizens who have gone missing in the country’s deadly drug war, putting the onus on families to locate their loved ones – a familiar feeling in the quake aftermath. 

“All of these reasons for being suspicious of the government, they are the same issues that have made civilian turnout and efforts eclipse government response,” after the quake, says Ignacio Irazuzta, a sociologist at the Monterrey Technological Institute in the northern city of Monterrey. “This was an earthquake, a natural disaster, but it will likely be followed by a political earthquake.”

Official confusion

It’s a universal phenomenon for cases like Frida Sofía to emerge in the midst of disasters, experts say. Real or imagined, people look for cases that can put a face or name on emotionless statistics, like death tolls: It’s known as the “identifiable victim effect.” In fact, after the 1985 quake, a similar story emerged about a little boy known as Monchito buried inside a pancaked building. He, too, did not exist.

But in Mexico City, Frida Sofía wasn’t just about the very natural human desire to identify a glimmer of hope to hold on to amid chaos. The lack of official information and updates on search and rescue progress, or direct government communication with victims’ families, has resulted in the generation of misinformation – and heightened distrust.

When Navy Assistant Secretary Angel Enrique Sarmiento announced Thursday that Frida Sofía was not on the list of students pulled together by parents and administrators at the school and that the government was “certain that all the children are either dead, unfortunately, are in hospitals, or are safe at their homes,” he also denied the Navy ever corroborated the information that the little girl existed in the first place. 

Several hours later, without explanation, Mr. Sarmiento acknowledged that the Navy had indeed distributed reports of a child – still alive – inside the school, and apologized. He then announced that it was possible that someone was still alive beneath the wreckage, maybe even a kid. The circular, conflicting statements created another layer of confusion here.

Relatives protest next to police officers, in front of a collapsed building, after the earthquake in Mexico City, Mexico, September 25, 2017.
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Nacho Doce/Reuters

Rumor mill

Rumors have been flying since the moment the earth stopped shaking in Mexico City: of soldiers threatening to bulldoze buildings where victims were still buried, to structures purportedly crumbling to the ground days after the temblor. 

On Sunday afternoon, Mariana Zaragoza González stood in front of a formerly six-story office building, one of the few sites where rescue efforts are still in full swing in the city. Crowds of journalists and concerned citizens crane their necks up to watch as workers move buckets filled with concrete chunks across the top of the building and down a tube that leads to the street, making a swooshing crash each time.

Ms. Zaragoza, a human rights advocate and coordinator of the migration studies program at Mexico City’s Universidad Iberoamericana, was one of more than 45 human rights activists who came together late last week to try and halt the rumor mill surrounding the rescue efforts.

Their grassroots initiative has called for a government official to be appointed to consistently come out and inform victims’ families about what is going on, but so far it’s been hit or miss.

“Until this afternoon, two days had gone by where the families here had no official communication,” Zaragoza says, including about topics from whether the search would continue to how many more bodies officials believe are buried under the rubble. The lack of information fuels people’s imaginations, she says, and can sow suspicion toward those in charge. “I don’t understand the opacity of the authorities.”

Zaragoza says she’s not surprised a “girl” like Frida Sofía could emerge from a situation like this one.

Moments of emergency and disaster situations are fertile ground for misinformation. But nearly a week after the devastating quake, citizens are still relying largely on social media and word of mouth to stay informed.

“All I’ve heard from the government is the growing death toll. What I’d like to know is when I can go back home,” says Silvia Barroso, sitting by a tent where she’s temporarily sleeping until her towering apartment building in the Roma is given the all-clear. “I’ve heard they are going to try and tell us we can’t go back so that they can tear it down and build something nicer, that will make the government or some developers more money,” Ms. Barroso says while stroking one of her three dogs, who evacuated with her. 

People power

“The Mexican people are experts in disasters,” says Hector Castillo Berthier, a sociologist with the National Autonomous University in Mexico. “This isn’t a question of frequency of occurrence, but an understanding of the importance of coming together” when authorities can’t, or won’t.

“When people here ran into the street to help others [Tuesday], the first thing the president did was appear in a helicopter to watch from above,” says Mr. Berthier.

It hammered home the idea that politicians here “aren’t part of the community,” Berthier says.

With 2018 presidential elections around the corner, this sense of people power could have a concrete effect. Already citizens are clamoring for government money set aside for campaign funds to be diverted to helping displaced families get back on their feet. The sense that citizens have to take control in order to get things done reverberates among the many crises this administration has faced over the past five years, from the unresolved disappearance of 43 teacher’s college students to suspected extrajudicial killings by the military, painted as a shootout with a cartel.

“This has precedence in 1985, when the doors to a political crisis were opened,” Mr. Irazuzta says. That crisis laid the groundwork to transition out of 71-years under single-party leadership in 2000.

Although many here were frustrated and upset by the revelation that Frida Sofía was never under the rubble and thus, couldn't be rescued, Mexico has picked up and carried on with widespread volunteerism and support.

“Today we have to help,” writes Toño Sempere, a Mexican podcaster, in a blog post on Medium, noting that “victory” will come as a result of all this citizen-centered hard work. “That’s why we’re going to stay in the streets. They are ours, we had forgotten. And when we finish helping our people in [Mexico City], Morelos, Puebla, [Mexico State], Chiapas, Oaxaca and all the places where the earth moved, we will strengthen our roots more than ever in those streets....

“And then we will see how Frida Sofía comes out of the rubble.”

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5. ‘Anywhere but here’: heartfelt tales from the photo booths of Juba

In this story, we visit a photo studio in South Sudan that offers a unique window into how people in northeastern Africa see themselves, and their hopes and dreams.

David

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Across Juba, South Sudan, photo studios appear on the horizon with a frequency akin to Starbucks in Manhattan. And almost all of them do a brisk business in fantasy: For 100 South Sudanese pounds (about 60 cents), proprietors can transport their customers from war-scarred Juba to the Kremlin or a quaint English country house. But of the hundreds of locations that customers can choose to pose in front of, all share one common quality: They are not South Sudan. It isn’t that there is nothing beautiful to pose with: Within the borders of the world’s newest country are lush tropical forests, dramatic stone mountains, and a vast, sweeping wetland that is home to an annual migration of some 1.2 million gazelle and antelope. But if the country isn’t ugly, what’s happened here since its independence in 2011 certainly is. Since the end of 2013, South Sudan has been at war with itself, a bloody conflict that has displaced nearly 4 million people. “Isn’t it obvious why?” says Marko John, owner of Dream. “Maybe if you look outside your window, you see bad memories. You remember ugly things. People want photos in a place where they don’t have those memories.”

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‘Anywhere but here’: heartfelt tales from the photo booths of Juba

A general in camo posing sternly in front of a pink and blue beach sunset. A small boy holding a mariachi guitar in the yard of an angular McMansion. Two teenage girls giggling as they stand back-to-back in front of a Chinese pagoda.

In a bright and boxy photo studio in South Sudan’s capital, an industrial printer is spitting out a glossy stack of exotic vacation snapshots.

Well, sort of.

“Couches, grand pianos, far away houses – these are the things people most like to have the backgrounds in their pictures,” says Tsedeke Abebaw, the owner of On Time Photo Studios in downtown Juba, barely glancing up from the computer screen in front of him.

A family of four stares back from his open Photoshop window, their faces pursed and serious. Mr. Abebaw double-clicks and suddenly the green wall behind them turns to an image of the Eiffel Tower. He clicks again and it becomes the Copenhagen harbor.

“Perfect,” he murmurs, and hits print.

Across Juba, photo studios like this one appear on the horizon with a frequency akin to Starbucks in Manhattan, wedged among the grocery stores, shisha bars, and tiny cell phone repair shops in nearly every neighborhood here.  

And almost all of them do a brisk business in the same kind of fantasy that Abebaw is creating in his shop. For 100 South Sudanese pounds (about 60 cents), studio proprietors can transport their customers from war-scarred Juba to the Kremlin or a quaint English country house, to the Burj Khalifa or striped red and white lighthouses on a rocky peninsula.

But of the hundreds of locations that customers can choose to pose in front of, all share one common quality: They are not South Sudan.

“Isn’t it obvious why?” says Marko John, owner of Dream, another photo studio in Juba. “Maybe if you look outside your window, you see bad memories. You remember ugly things. People want photos in a place where they don’t have those memories.”

Devastated landscapes

It isn’t that there is nothing beautiful to pose with in South Sudan. Within the vast borders of the world’s newest country are lush tropical forests, dramatic stone mountains, and a vast, sweeping wetland that is home to an annual migration of some 1.2 million gazelle and antelope. Even the capital, Juba, a squat expanse of low-slung concrete buildings, is flanked by the dramatically green savannah that backs up to the edges of the Sahara.  

But if the country isn’t ugly, what’s happened here since its independence in 2011 certainly is. Since the end of 2013, South Sudan has been at war with itself, a bloody conflict that has displaced nearly 4 million people and killed tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands (humanitarian agencies have mostly given up on guessing).

In that time, countless towns and villages have been abandoned and entire pockets of the country have emptied out, their postcard landscapes scarred by burnt-out huts and grenade craters. Even in Juba, the walls outside many government buildings are chipped by gunfire. An abandoned luxury hotel on the capital’s outskirts where a group of guests, including foreign aid workers and journalists, were brutally assaulted last year by government soldiers is now disappearing beneath thick green weeds.

“In South Sudan there are no good places anymore to have photos,” says Cyier Mayar, who has arrived at On Time on a recent Saturday to collect pictures he had taken for his college graduation. “So when you come into the studio you ask for something beautiful.”

'See the world without leaving Juba'

In the shots, Mr. Mayar, who is tall and lanky, with a wide toothy smile, stands in black cap and gown in front of a mass of snow-capped mountain peaks. He flips through his smartphone to show another photo he had taken a few years ago, with Big Ben’s signature clock tower in the background.

“These places are known, they are important places,” he says. “It’s nice to be seen in an important place.”

Like many South Sudanese, Mayar’s family and friends are spread across the world. It’s a kind of cosmopolitanism of necessity that is a legacy of not just the current civil war, but also the five decades of conflict with Sudan that preceded it.

And for many of those years, people here had few ways to imagine what life actually looked like to a migrant living in Detroit, Copenhagen, or Nairobi. But today, that information is available to anyone with a smartphone and a Facebook log-in.

But if technology has brought the world in close, it hasn’t necessarily made it any more accessible. Though many South Sudanese long to move to Europe, Australia, or North America, most who leave the country never make it further than a refugee camp in a neighboring country. And millions more don’t even get that far.

“Photos are a way you can see the world without leaving Juba,” says Seare Abraham, the Eritrean proprietor of Siem Digital Photo Studio. Before he came to South Sudan, he says, he worked in photo studios in Asmara, Eritrea, and Khartoum, Sudan, where most people posed in front of plain backgrounds or simple images of local nature.

“It’s unusual, what people here ask for,” he says.

Memories of family photos

But if the kinds of photos South Sudanese customers want are out of the ordinary, their interest in photo studios is anything but. Indeed, portrait photography has a long and illustrious history in Africa. From Alex Agbaglo Acolatse’s regal shots of the penguin-tailed Togolese elite, in their turn of the 20th-century suits, to Seydou Keita’s famous odes to African patterns on the streets of Bamako, Mali, five decades later, the continent’s portrait photographers have spent more than a century amassing a vast archive of African life that, crucially, isn’t filtered through the gaze of white people.

Still, South Sudan’s civil war has warped the boundaries of that tradition. Mr. John, who owns Dream photo studio, remembers visiting photo studios with his family when he was a child in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, in the 1990s. In those days, he says, “you just took photos of whatever you were standing in front of.”

He lost most of those family photos in a house fire four years ago, he says, but there is one shot that’s lodged tightly in his memory. He is eight or nine years old, clutching the arm of his grandmother in one hand and a glass bottle of Pepsi in the other, his face a blur of laughter. “There was Pepsi coming out my nose,” he remembers.

Now – at least when the power is on or there’s enough gas available to run his generator, which is less and less often these days – he mostly prints photos of people pretending they are in far-off places. But John himself still prefers realistic shots.

“For me, I need to live with the moment,” he says, watching rain hammer down on the tin roofs outside. “Even if they are bad, I need photos that represent my real memories.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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The Monitor's View

An artistic lift after disasters

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Performers and other artists rose to the occasion after hurricanes and other recent tragedies, showing again and again how arts can play a crucial role in healing a community of fear and trauma. Celebrity telethons are the most common way for a performer to contribute. Willie Nelson, for example, organized a benefit concert called “Harvey Can’t Mess With Texas.” Other art forms may have deeper ways to reach a community in crisis. By the nature of their craft, for example, playwrights can offer a vision of an alternative future that may help people rise above a grim situation with a transcendent message. As Thornton Wilder’s narrator in “Our Town” says: “We all know that something is eternal.” And the power of culture to restore a broken social fabric and bring insights for personal healing can be a very real part of that “something.”

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An artistic lift after disasters

After a hurricane, earthquake, or a terrorist attack, artists and performers are usually not first responders. Yet soon enough, they can be second to none in soothing a community’s wounds or raising money. A good example was Telemundo’s four-hour telethon on Sept. 24 that brought out stars such as Jennifer Lopez on behalf of the victims of hurricanes Maria, Harvey, Irma, as well as the Mexican earthquakes. With the right songs by celebrities and a pitch for donations, disaster-hit places like Puerto Rico can receive a quick lift, both in spirit and cash.

“The healing power of the arts is a real thing,” says Jake Speck, executive director of Houston’s A.D. Players. His theater company is now putting on the lighthearted comedy “Harvey” – the Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a giant “invisible” rabbit named Harvey that eventually brings joy to everyone. (The play was selected a year ago.)

Celebrity telethons are the most common way for a performer to contribute after a disaster. Willie Nelson, for example, organized a benefit concert called “Harvey Can’t Mess With Texas.” Held in Austin on Sept. 22, it not only raised millions but showed the power of music to convey hope. Another telethon called Hand in Hand also raised money for hurricane victims with performances by such singers as Stevie Wonder and Blake Shelton.

Other art forms may have deeper ways to reach a community in crisis. By the nature of their craft, for example, playwrights can offer a vision of an alternative future that may help people rise above a grim situation with a transcendent message. In Manchester, England, the Royal Exchange Theatre is now putting on the 1938 American drama “Our Town,” six months after a terrorist attack killed 23 people in the city.

The play, about a mythical New Hampshire town, was chosen to remind residents to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Or, as Thornton Wilder wrote about his play, “It is an attempt to find a value, above all price, for the smallest events in our daily life.”

The arts are necessary for post-disaster communities. As Wilder’s narrator in “Our Town” says: “We all know that something is eternal.” And the power of culture to restore a broken social fabric and bring insights for personal healing can be a very real part of that “something.”

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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.

The power of understanding God’s goodness

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In recent months, the world has seen what appears to be raw power on display: threats of nuclear war between nations, physical violence fueled by racial and religious hatred, ethnic cleansing, and other elements of cruelty, terror, and revenge. But despite how it too often appears, injustice, hate, and vengefulness aren’t as lasting or powerful as they may seem. The world is powerfully shaped by ideas, including enduring ideas that have helped us understand how God, infinite good, cares for us all. We are created to express that divine goodness, and as we gain a measure of understanding of God’s power and authority, we can each become a stronger force for good right where we are.

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The power of understanding God’s goodness

In recent months, the world has seen what appears to be raw power on display: threats of nuclear war between nations, physical violence fueled by racial and religious hatred, ethnic cleansing, and other elements of cruelty, terror, and revenge.

But are these really the most significant indications of power in operation?

Not long ago, I read a blog about the power of ideas. The writer pointed out that an idea has unlimited power in part because it can “change someone’s behavior both immediately and years into the future,” and that it gains power as it “grows in expression.”

In thinking about this, it occurred to me that our lives are indeed shaped powerfully by ideas. Take, for example, some of my favorites: the foundational ideas within the Ten Commandments and the healing ideas put forth through Christ Jesus’ teaching and ministry. I’ve found that even thousands of years later, they continue to guide us forward. They help us see that God cares for us all, and that we are God’s spiritual, inherently good creation.

The Monitor’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy, spent her life exploring these ideas, which led her to the discovery of Christian Science. She came to see that goodness is the law of God, divine Truth. Even though it does not always appear this way, the spiritual fact remains that all power actually belongs to God alone, the infinitely good creator. Mrs. Eddy wrote, “There is divine authority for believing in the superiority of spiritual power over material resistance” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 134). This can encourage us that evils such as injustice, hate, or vengefulness aren’t as lasting or powerful as they seem, and this understanding can bring healing.

I witnessed this a number of years ago, when I was in the advertising business. I had just left a small ad agency, where I’d been a managing partner, and the owner was quite unhappy that I’d left. There were even threats of legal action against me, to try to force me to pay half of the large debt the agency had incurred over the past year.

One morning the owner called me at home and told me that a key client had requested a wrap-up meeting and analysis of the marketing work we’d recently completed for them. They wanted to meet with me alone, since I had worked directly on the account.

I agreed to meet with the client, but there was serious potential for ugliness here. The owner would not release to me the records or notes of the marketing plan we’d developed for this client, citing confidentiality. It felt to me like I was being set up to fail.

At that point, my preparation for the meeting shifted away from trying to recall all the facts, figures, strategies, etc. Instead, I began praying, something I’ve often found helpful. As I affirmed the superiority of God, good, over any other seeming power, feelings of resentment and unpreparedness fell away.

The meeting went forward with goodwill, appreciation, and clarity. I was able to represent our work accurately, and to represent both the agency and the client in a fair and favorable light.

When I met with the agency owner afterward, I shared with her the client’s thanks for the agency’s work, and the great news that they wanted to continue working with the agency even though I was no longer going to be there. An additional outcome was that the threat of legal action against me was dropped. And some time later, I was able to voluntarily pay a substantial amount toward settling the agency’s debt.

Our true identity, created in the likeness of God, divine Spirit, is wholly good and spiritual. All the strength of the one infinite, divinely loving Father-Mother is ours to express. And as we gain a measure of understanding of the power and authority of God, and of God’s never-ending love and care, we’ll each become a stronger force for good right where we are.

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Viewfinder

Simmering giant

A Balinese man looks toward Mt. Agung from a temple in Karangasem, Bali, Indonesia, Sept. 26. An increasing frequency of tremors from the volcano indicates that magma is continuing to move toward the surface and that an eruption is possible, officials say. Tourists are cutting short their stays to the island because an eruption could force the airport to close.
Caption
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Firdia Lisnawati/AP
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( September 27th, 2017 )

David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story about why Republican-led tax reform may be more successful than health-care reform.

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September 26, 2017
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