2017
December
27
Wednesday
David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

It’s rare that a single word serves as a precise societal mirror. But this year’s most looked-up word in the United States, according to Merriam-Webster, does a pretty good job. It’s feminism.

What does that word say about America in 2017?

The spike in searches started in January with the Women’s March on Washington and the debate over whether it was a liberal “feminist” march – or for women of all political stripes.

You may recall that women constitute slightly more than half of the population but hold only 20 percent of the seats in the US Congress. But this year, we saw a stirring of determination as women decided they could be political problem-solvers. That’s fueled a record number of women (417, mostly Democrats) who are now officially running for Congress.

Since October, we’ve also seen a wave of women challenging concepts of manhood by publicly exposing sexual harassment and abuse, forcing dozens of high-profile men to step down.

Merriam-Webster defines feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” In 2017, you and I witnessed gender equity go well beyond theory. And we saw feminism manifested as leadership, courage, and integrity. It makes you wonder what 2018 will bring.

Now to the five stories we’ve selected today that show justice, progress, and empathy at work.

1. Why North Korea is expanding into nuclear subs

We’ve seen a lot of attention this year on North Korea’s quest for greater security via long-range missiles and nuclear bombs. But this story notes that the “hermit kingdom” is also quietly taking that effort under the sea.

David
KCNA/Reuters
Party and nation citations are presented to scientists, technicians, and workers who contributed to the successful launch of intercontinental ballistic rockets in this photo released by North Korea's Central News Agency in Pyongyang Dec.13.

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North Korea’s advancing nuclear capabilities in 2017 have been matched by a turning point in rhetoric. Leader Kim Jong-un declared last week that his nation has “rapidly emerged as a strategic state capable of posing a substantial nuclear threat to the US.” The latest signs of his ambitions include a ramped-up effort to build nuclear-capable submarines, in addition to testing larger bombs and launching a long-range missile that could potentially put major US cities at risk. Some US analysts say it all adds up to a determined effort by the regime to secure itself by simultaneously deterring both conventional and nuclear attacks. With short- and medium-range missile tests, North Korea has shown it has the capability to hit US military bases in South Korea, Japan, and Guam. That could give Pyongyang a response in the event of an invasion by those allied nations, even as its long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles might deter a retaliatory nuclear strike by the United States. Up next? Nuclear expert Melissa Hanham says 2018 could see North Korean tests related to submarine-launched missiles.

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Why North Korea is expanding into nuclear subs

This year North Korea says it has tested its first hydrogen bomb and an intercontinental ballistic missile with the range to reach the entire continental United States. What’s next for Pyongyang’s nuclear program? Perhaps construction of its first operational ballistic missile submarine.

Movement of parts and equipment at a key North Korean shipyard indicate workers are assembling a new missile sub on an “accelerated schedule,” according to 38 North, an analysis site run by the US-Korea Institute of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Clues revealed by surveillance photos include large hull sections near construction halls and a test stand likely used for missile-ejection tests.

Even if it becomes successfully armed with nuclear weapons, one missile sub by itself might not be worrisome, from the US point of view. It would add a complication for defense planning more than an entirely new strategic threat. The sub itself almost certainly will be too noisy to get from the Korean coastline undetected.

It’s the direction of the sub program, and what it represents, that’s perhaps the problem. The diversity of North Korea’s nuclear-capable weapons is expanding at a rate that’s surprised US experts. Pyongyang may be moving quickly toward full-spectrum nuclear deterrence, a multi-prong plan intended to protect the existing regime against conventional as well as nuclear attack.

It’s part of a doctrine called “asymmetric escalation,” says one expert, who judges that North Korea has already constructed a strategic force capable of plausibly carrying it out.

“I think we have to assume from a policy perspective that they plausibly do – certainly enough that I wouldn’t risk New York or DC to find out,” says Vipin Narang, a proliferation expert and associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in an email response to a reporter’s inquiry.

A pivotal year

Yes, doubts remain about how big the gaps are in the regime's present capabilities, such as whether its warheads can withstand the forces of reentering Earth’s atmosphere in a long-range attack. But 2017 was the year North Korea’s nuclear capabilities emerged as a real strategic problem for the United States and its allies.

Before January it seemed more a notional or emerging program. Missile tests sometimes went awry, perhaps due to secret US cyber-interference with North Korean systems. North Korean nuclear tests were scary, but in the scale of things atomic, relatively small.

That changed on Sept. 3, when Pyongyang tested a nuclear device whose estimated yield was at least 140 kilotons. Previous North Korean tests had not surpassed about 20 kilotons. Many US experts believe an explosion that size shows North Korea has indeed acquired the expertise to build a true hydrogen bomb.

Then on Nov. 28, North Korea test launched a big new missile, the Hwasong-15. Launched relatively vertically, this ICBM went about 600 miles high. If fired on a lower trajectory, its range would be about 8,100 miles, according to US calculations. That means it could reach the big cities of the continental US, including those on the East Coast.

KCNA/AP
This Nov. 29, 2017 image provided by the North Korean government shows the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea.

 

Overall North Korea had about 20 test ballistic-missile launches in 2017, a tick fewer than the 24 of 2016. The impressive – or concerning – aspect of this program was that it demonstrated a number of new short- and medium-range missile types, alongside the long-range Hwasong-15. Pyongyang appears to be moving up a step on the ladder of technology, away from missiles based on old Soviet-era Scud technology to more advanced and reliable designs.

New shipyard activity

Enter the submarine-launched ballistic missile, or SLBM. North Korea already has an experimental Sinpo-class diesel electric sub that “may” be able to launch ballistic missiles, according to a Congressional Research Service report on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. CRS says this sub might have been used in testing of a nascent North Korean SLBM, a two-stage, solid-fuel rocket dubbed the KN-11.

Now North Korean engineers are apparently working on a more operational version of this system. In late November 38 North reported that commercial satellite imagery had revealed new activity at the Sinpo South Shipyard, which specializes in submarine construction. Gantry cranes and towers had begun moving around. Photos showed several apparent sub pressure hull sections of about 7 meters in diameter lying on a ramp near an assembly building. A service tower in place suggested imminent missile-ejection tests.

In 2018 we’re likely to see North Korean tests related to SLBM development, says Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate in the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

Missile engine tests done horizontally with solid fuel leave a characteristic burn mark, says Ms. Hanham. Ejection tests at Sinpo involve pitching the missiles into piles of soft dirt, also leaving characteristic and detectable impressions.

North Korea is also putting into service a second  submersible ballistic-missile test stand barge at another shipyard, Hanham notes.

Why push forward to perfect SLBMs? Prestige might be one answer. But sub-launched missiles would also give North Korea more options. In a confrontation they would be one more thing for South Korea, Japan, and the US to track, though it is likely the sub would not travel too far from the Korean coastline.

However, it might be dangerous if at some point a North Korean ballistic missile sub could slip away and get behind the THAAD anti-missile systems of South Korea and Japan.  THAAD radar has only a 120-degree field of view and thus theoretically an ocean-going submarine could hit them from behind.

They are also a means for North Korea to improve its solid fuel technology. North Korea has already developed a land-based version of the solid-fuel KN-11, mounted on caterpillar tracks like a tank. Solid-fuel rockets don’t require a lengthy fueling cycle prior to launch. They don’t need as many support vehicles. That makes them much harder to find and if necessary attack prior to launching.

“That’s the more worrisome thing,” says Hanham.

A two-pronged deterrence strategy

What this illustrates is that North Korea is not just developing individual nuclear weapons to wave at the US, as if fear alone is their goal. They’re developing a nuclear arsenal intended to implement a strategy that could well seem rational to North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.

The basis is this: North Korea’s nukes are intended to preserve the country’s current regime. That means they are meant to deter both a conventional invasion and any strategic nuclear exchange.

The basic idea is to use one set of nuclear weapons to prevent conventional war, while reserving longer-range and more powerful weapons to hold off nuclear annihilation by US forces, according to Dr. Narang of MIT. This is a doctrine of “asymmetric escalation,” adopted by countries with relatively weak conventional forces facing stronger foes.

With its short- and medium-range missile tests, North Korea has shown it has the capability to hit US military bases in South Korea, Japan, and Guam. In the event of an invasion of North Korean territory by these allies, Pyongyang might launch nuclear weapons at the US installations in the region to try and get that invasion to stop. 

The Pyongyang leadership would then count on Washington fearing its long-range ICBMs and H-bomb enough to refrain from launching nuclear weapons in response to the regional attacks. The war might grind to a halt with the territorial status quo intact.

“And with [North Korea’s] ICBM and purported thermonuclear weapons test, I think we have to assume that they can deter American nuclear retaliation after that first use by plausibly holding major American cities at risk now,” emails Narang.

Of course, the human cost of any such conflict would be immense. US military bases in East Asia are located in populated areas; hundreds of thousands of civilians would likely be killed if North Korea launched nukes. But North Korea would count on Washington deciding in the end that it would not risk the destruction of a US city to launch nuclear retaliation.

We don’t know if this how the North Korean regime really thinks about nuclear strategy. But we do know that in its rhetoric, at least, North Korea has reached a turning point in how it refers to its own position.

On Dec. 22 North Korean state media said that Kim Jong Un in a speech to party leaders had declared his nation a nuclear power.

“Nobody can deny the entity of [North Korea] which rapidly emerged as a strategic state capable of posing a substantial nuclear threat to the US,” Kim said, according to the Korean Central News Agency.

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2. In 2017, no executions in 'the capital of capital punishment'

In recent years, fewer states have carried out the ultimate punishment for illegal behavior: the death penalty. If you want to understand what’s driving that judicial trend and shifting moral attitudes, what better place than Harris County in Texas?

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Texas' Harris County may have finally shed its nickname as the capital of capital punishment. In 2017, for the first time in more than 40 years, no one from the county was executed. No one was sentenced to death this year either – in fact, no one has been sentenced to death since 2014. There is no single reason why executions and death sentences have become so rare, experts say, but there are several significant ones. Perhaps none is more so than the change in the Harris County district attorney. From 1979 to 2000 the county had one D.A., a man named Johnny Holmes, whose office sentenced more than 200 people to death – a record he believed meant he was doing his job. His recent successors have been more selective, saying the sanction should be reserved “for the worst of the worst.” Another factor was introduced in 2005, when Harris County first offered the sentence of life without parole. The current D.A. tried for the death penalty four times in 2017, and in all four instances, juries opted for life without parole. Overall, experts see the landmark as a symbol of shifting attitudes toward the death penalty both in Harris County and around the country. “We’ve been experiencing a generation-long decline in the use of the death penalty [nationwide], and the numbers in Harris County reflect that,” says Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that analyzes capital punishment statistics.

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In 2017, no executions in 'the capital of capital punishment'

From the tragedy of hurricane Harvey to the elation of the Astros’ victory in the World Series, the Houston area had an eventful 2017. But some are remembering this year as much for what didn’t happen as for what did. They are remembering it as the year Harris County, which includes much of Houston, may have finally shed its nickname as the capital of capital punishment.

In recent decades, no county has been as prolific in its application of the death penalty as Harris County. If the county were a state, only one state would have executed more people since 1976, the year capital punishment was reinstated in the US: Texas itself.

But in 2017, for the first time in more than 40 years, no one from the county was executed. No one was sentenced to death this year either – in fact, no one has been sentenced to death since 2014. There is some disagreement over precisely why both numbers hit zero this year – and it could be years before it happens again – but experts see the landmark as a symbol of shifting attitudes toward the death penalty both in Harris County and around the country.

“We’ve been experiencing a generation-long decline in the use of the death penalty [nationwide], and the numbers in Harris County reflect that,” says Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a national nonprofit organization that analyzes capital punishment statistics and issues.

There were 23 executions in the US this year, the second lowest total since 1991, according to the DPIC’s year-end report. (Only 2016 had fewer, with 20 executions.) The group projected a total of 39 new death sentences nationwide this year, the second-lowest in more than 40 years and the seventh consecutive year with fewer than 100 new death sentences nationwide.

Gary Cameron/Reuters
Lead counsel Christina Swarns (c.) for Texas death row inmate Duane Buck (not pictured) walks down the front steps of the Supreme Court in Washington on Oct. 5, 2016.

Harris County averaged 12 new death sentences a year between 1992 and 1998, but has sent only 40 people to death row since 2000, an average of about two new death sentences a year.

There is no single reason why executions and death sentences have become so rare in the county, experts say, but there are several significant ones. Perhaps none is more significant than the change in Harris County district attorney.

From 1979 to 2000 the county had one D.A., a man named Johnny Holmes. His office sentenced more than 200 people to death – a record he believed meant he was doing his job. “This is what [prosecutors] are supposed to be – zealous in seeking justice,” he told the Houston Chronicle in 2007.

His recent successors have been more selective with when they pursue capital punishment against defendants, however.

Devon Anderson, the district attorney from 2013 to 2016, said the death penalty is only appropriate “for the worst of the worst.” Last year both she and her opponent, Kim Ogg, campaigned on platforms that included a more judicious pursuit of death sentences.

Ms. Ogg, one of several reform-minded prosecutors elected as local DAs in recent years, sought the death penalty in four cases this year. All four times, the jury instead sentenced the defendant to life without parole.

“The county is not the same place that it was when I was a prosecutor in the early ’90s,” she told Houston Public Media.

Indeed, another reason there have been fewer death sentences and executions in Harris County is because the general public has become less willing to deliver death sentences.

Twenty years ago, if prosecutors had the option to pursue the death penalty but opted not to, “you’d run the risk of paying for it in the next election because people would see you as being soft on crime,” says Jeff Newberry, a lawyer who represents Texas death row inmates and supervises students at the University of Houston Law Center.

Furthermore, “once you have an office that seeks death a certain number of times, it becomes easier for them to do it over and over again,” he says, because prosecutors become more experienced working capital cases and more adept at winning them.

Death sentences started to become a tougher sell to juries in 2005, however, when Harris County introduced the option of a life without parole sentence. Only 27 percent of people in the Houston area think death, not life imprisonment, should be the penalty for first-degree murder, according to a poll last year from the Kinder Institute at Rice University. Nationwide, the DPIC year-end report found that public support for the death penalty is at its lowest point since 1972, the year the US Supreme Court found death penalty laws to be unconstitutional.

The high court reversed that decision four years later. But in 2017 it issued two decisions in cases out of Harris County that are likely to further curtail the use of capital punishment in America.

In the case of Duane Buck, the Supreme Court overturned a death sentence that had been delivered with the help of racially biased testimony. And in the case of Bobby James Moore, the court ruled that Texas used outdated standards for determining whether or not a defendant is too intellectually disabled to be executed.

Both decisions addressed “some of the most unfair death penalty practices in the country,” says Mr. Dunham.

Still, both he and Mr. Newberry will be surprised if there’s a death-penalty hiatus in Harris County again in 2018.

“I don’t think there’s going to be no new sentences or executions next year,” says Newberry, “but I don’t think it’s going back to the levels we had 15 years ago.”

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3. After ISIS, rise of a new Iraqi nationalism

The Sunni-Shiite balance of power has shifted dramatically in Iraq. Some Sunnis see it as a calamity. Others see it as an opportunity to make progress on unifying a nation that has long been marked by ethnic and religious divisions.

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Iraq’s Arab Sunni community has traveled a long and painful trajectory since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the iron-fisted Sunni leader. A widespread Sunni uprising in 2013 against the Shiite-first rule of the Baghdad government meant many Sunnis initially welcomed invading Islamic State forces in 2014. As Iraq celebrates the defeat of ISIS, the Sunni Arabs’ collective failure to repel the jihadists, and the carnage they suffered under occupation, have left the minority community facing what some say is an existential crisis. Nearly every city left in ruins by the fight to expel ISIS – from Fallujah and Ramadi to Mosul – is predominantly Sunni. The result, says an analyst in Baghdad, is a reckoning by some Sunnis that is helping create a fragile new Iraqi nationalism and yielding lessons about accommodation with the Shiite-led government. “There is a serious change in the way of thinking in the central government; everyone believes now that Iraq could not be ruled by one sect,” says Sheikh Fares al-Dulaimi, a Sunni leader who plays a role in government reconciliation efforts. “People start to understand now, but they need time.”

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After ISIS, rise of a new Iraqi nationalism

While unbridled joy has greeted the defeat of the so-called Islamic State across Iraq, the wreckage left behind includes severe trauma to Iraq’s Arab Sunnis – leaving the minority community facing what some say is an existential crisis.

One metric by which to assess this is the numbers: Most of the 5 million displaced persons in Iraq are Sunnis. And most of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who were killed, raped, or kidnapped by ISIS jihadists are Sunnis. Nearly every city left in ruins by the fight to expel ISIS – from Fallujah and Ramadi to Mosul – is predominantly Sunni.

Another metric is psychological: The community’s failure has been so acute – succumbing to nearly four years of brutal ISIS rule, and even sometimes welcoming ISIS, at first – that Iraq’s Sunnis are reeling like they haven’t for a century.

“You have to go back to the Ottoman period, to see the level of damage that has been caused to the Sunni people in the last four years,” says an analyst in Baghdad who has worked for the Defense Ministry and asked not to be named.

The impact has been equivalent to a “Sunni Holocaust,” he says, and it has begun to galvanize part of a community that ruled Iraq for decades until the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The result is a reckoning by some Sunnis and their politicians – but not all – that is helping create a fragile new Iraqi nationalism and yielding lessons about accommodation with the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

“So the realization now among the Sunnis is that, wait a second, who died to liberate us?” says the analyst. “It wasn’t our [Sunni] politicians. It wasn’t their sons. It was some kid in Diwaniyeh, who’s never seen Mosul, will never see Mosul ever again – it’s not like he’s going to come up for vacation – who is Shiite.

“So the idea of Iraqi nationalism, unfortunately, had to go through this process, this bloodshed, in order to strengthen.”

Still, there is no shortage of Arab Sunni politicians who continue to play the Sunni-victim card, and portray their collective calamity as the doing of everyone else, except the Sunnis themselves.

Some suggest that ISIS inflicted only 1 percent of the damage to the Sunni community, while Shiite rule in Baghdad accounts for 99 percent; others that of thousands of “kidnappings,” all of them are of civilians who are “innocent” of ISIS sympathies.

Ali Abdul Hassan/AP
Volunteer Sunni tribal fighters parade during a January 2016 Police Day ceremony in Amiriyat al-Fallujah, a town south of Fallujah, in Iraq's Anbar province. Sunni tribal fighters supported Iraqi security forces in liberating the city of Ramadi from Islamic State group militants.

Sunnis' painful history

Iraq’s Arab Sunnis have traveled a long and painful trajectory, starting with the overthrow of the iron-fisted Mr. Hussein. Almost immediately came the disbanding of the Sunni-led Iraqi Army; then years of ethnic cleansing of Baghdad’s mixed neighborhoods in which Baathists and Sunnis were a key target; then the Sunni militants of Al Qaeda in Iraq – the progenitor of ISIS – led an anti-Shiite suicide bombing campaign and anti-American insurgency.

Finally, a widespread Sunni uprising in 2013 against the Shiite-first rule of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meant many Sunnis initially welcomed ISIS in 2014 as a tool to take on Baghdad.

The subsequent carnage inflicted by ISIS – and the widespread belief among Iraq’s Arab Shiites and Sunni Kurds, for whom ethnic identity tends to trump sectarian affiliation, that all Arab Sunnis are jihadi extremists – are only the latest blows to the Sunni social fabric.

“Everyone says all Sunnis are ISIS, but the destruction that’s happened against Sunnis by ISIS never happened at the hands of any army or occupation before,” says Sheikh Fares al-Dulaimi, a Sunni leader who plays a role in government reconciliation efforts.

“In any invasion, where ISIS enters a country that is suffering injustice by the government, they will find a lot of supporters,” says Mr. Dulaimi. “So anyone is lying if they say ISIS was not welcome in places they controlled, especially at the beginning.”

The main problem now is the settling of scores within the Arab Sunni community, Dulaimi says. “A lot of [Sunnis] lost their sons to ISIS,” he says, “and they want revenge.”

Tribal leaders have been holding conferences in villages and cities, he says, to differentiate between “real” ISIS supporters, and those who may have been forced to act on their behalf, whether at gunpoint or out of economic necessity. More than 100 influential men from one large tribe, for example, signed an agreement that certain families should not be punished by others because of ISIS ties.

'People changed their minds'

As Arab Sunnis try to resolve their own differences, they often face skepticism from their fellow Iraqis. Yet the ability to change minds has been demonstrated before, when the “Sunni Awakening” in 2007 marshaled Sunni anger at excessive Al Qaeda violence. With American military support and cash, Sunni militias called sahwa (“awakening”) subdued the extremists.

“Many people then thought all Sunnis were Al Qaeda, and many people changed their minds,” says Dulaimi.

He notes that today the army and security forces have committees for recruiting Sunnis, and even former officers if they don’t have blood on their hands. And in late October, the sheikhs of Anbar met with Prime Minister Abadi to arrange for 3,150 Sunni policemen to rejoin the national force, after being fired when ISIS came in 2014.

“There is a serious change in the way of thinking in the central government; everyone believes now that Iraq could not be ruled by one sect,” says Dulaimi. “People start to understand now, but they need time.”

But not everyone has had that change of view, and as elections loom next year, some Sunni tribal leaders still push the sectarian angle hard, reminding Sunnis of more than a decade of suffering and disenfranchisement.

ISIS “did 1 percent of all the killing and destruction [to Sunnis], compared with the government,” contends Talal al-Zobaie, a professor and Sunni former lawmaker in Baghdad. Collective punishment for Arab Sunnis, he says, dates back to the Sunni failure to rebel against Hussein in 1991 – while Iraq’s Kurds and Shiites did, in the north and south – and to their forming a “natural resistance” against occupying American forces and pro-US Shiite governments from 2003 onwards.

“Each area that has been liberated [from ISIS], they find mass graves,” says Mr. Zobaie. Shiite militias and Iraqi security forces, he asserts, “kill these people and later say ISIS killed them, burned and destroyed their houses. This shows why Sunnis are more afraid.”

Sectarian atrocities

Some of Iraq’s Shiite militias – a force 150,000-strong, which has now been brought under the official umbrella of Iraqi security forces – have been accused of sectarian atrocities, kidnapping, torture, and the extrajudicial executions of ISIS suspects. Accurate reports of such abuses have fed complaints by Sunni leaders, who often inject further fear into their community by embellishing the results.

In northern Iraq, for example, Sunni tribal leader Najih al-Mizan from Samarra says the thousands of Sunnis who went missing as areas were liberated from ISIS are just one problem, which include “settling scores” from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and “acts of revenge” that date back to the Sunni-Shiite split in Islam 14 centuries ago.

“We all know that ISIS members don’t surrender, they die fighting. All the civilians who have been taken are innocent, whether they were grabbed at checkpoints or off the streets,” says Mr. Mizan.

He argues that one result of the perception of victimhood may be a backlash by Arab Sunnis, especially against Shiites, that could be worse than ISIS.

“I think a new movement will emerge that is even scarier than ISIS, those who are seeking revenge will have no mission but bloodshed,” he adds. “All those who were innocent yet had their homes destroyed, relatives kidnapped and killed, they will want revenge.”

Limit to sectarianism

Such claims are not unexpected for a Sunni community so devastated by their recent history, says the Baghdad analyst, himself a Shiite who worked under a Sunni defense minister, among a mix of Shiite and Sunni officials.

But there is also a limit, he suggests, to how far most Arab Sunnis may follow their politicians once again toward any sectarian confrontation.

Recalling the 2013 protests against Shiite rule in Baghdad, he asks rhetorically: “What did that lead to other than me, as a Sunni, losing my house, my family is in a camp, my youngest probably died of dehydration or diarrhea, and my siblings killed in bombings? Now I’ve got no home, no city, no running water, no electricity … and winter is coming, literally.”

The lesson is that an inclusive government is better than ISIS, says the analyst.

“One thing that you don’t hear when you are speaking with average Iraqis is sectarianism,” he says. “The only people that talk about it are politicians. And I hope they realize that, should they try that in the upcoming elections, they are going to suffer greatly, because people are fed up with that.”

Monitor correspondent Dominique Soguel contributed reporting from Erbil, in northern Iraq.

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4. A soccer star lured by Europe leaves hole in her home country

Our next story goes beyond the sad statistics to paint a moving portrait of a young female soccer star, who, like so many other Africans, chose to leave home. Part of what drew us to this story is that it’s told from the perspective of those left behind.

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When Fatim Jawara was growing up, boys gathered to play soccer outside her home in a sandy street sandwiched between the house and the mosque across the way. Sometimes, they invited Fatim to join. “She played like the boys – she took hits. She didn’t cry,” says her brother. By age 19, Ms. Jawara was a goalkeeper for Red Scorpions, Gambia’s best women’s club; she’d played for the national team, too, and traveled to Senegal, then Azerbaijan. But last fall, she set out on what Gambians euphemistically call “the back way”: the dangerous migrant route across West Africa and Libya, then the Mediterranean, where she died – one of 5,096 refugees and migrants who died or went missing that year. In Gambia, with the highest migration rate in Africa, many young people seem driven by a kind of aspiration gap – between what seems possible abroad and the lack of jobs and social mobility at home. Europe seems present – in houses paid for by relatives abroad; in a never-ending parade of tourists – but with its doors firmly shut.

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A soccer star lured by Europe leaves hole in her home country

For much of Fatim Jawara’s life, almost her entire world fit here – into a single rambling stretch of dirt road in a rundown beach town at the western tip of Africa.

It was here, behind the high green walls of her family’s compound, that her mother, a professional cook, taught her to make akara, black-eyed pea fritters, and yassa –chicken marinated in soft onions, lemon, and mustard.

It was here, on long hot equatorial afternoons, that she shared pots of ataya – a tooth-achingly sweet mix of green tea, mint, and sugar – with school friends and a rotating cast of her 30-some older siblings, doing impressions that made them laugh until their ribs ached.

And it was here, in the sandy street sandwiched between her house and the mosque across the way, that her brothers and other local boys would gather to play soccer, and where, if they didn’t have enough players, they would sometimes invite Fatim to join in.

“She played like the boys – she took hits. She didn’t cry,” says her brother, Modou.

And soon, soccer began to crack open the door to a world that was a little bigger. Fatim became a goalkeeper for Red Scorpions, Gambia’s best women’s club, and later, for the national team. She traveled to Senegal for a game, then to Azerbaijan for a youth World Cup.

But if soccer drew the world in close, it did little to actually make that world any more accessible. It is a dilemma shared by young people across Gambia, and the region: Europe seems present – its wealth on full display in the houses and cars and gadgets in every community, paid for by money sent back from migrants – but at the same time, its doors seem firmly shut.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Children leave the Koranic school across the street from Fatim Jawara's childhood home in Serekunda, Gambia. Fatim herself attended Islamic school here, and learned to play soccer in the road outside.

However hard she dreamed of European pro leagues and endorsement deals, Fatim was was still young, poor, and African in a world where richer countries were turning away people like her by the tens of thousands every year.

So last October, when Fatim was 19, it seems she quietly made a choice. She told her family and teammates she was going to play for a while with a team in neighboring Senegal. Then, with a friend, she set out on what Gambians euphemistically call “the back way” – a treacherous migrant route across West Africa and Libya, and then the Mediterranean Sea.

Last year, about 13,000 Gambians made it to Europe this way – making the tiny country of 2 million one of the top 10 largest sources of migrants crossing the Mediterranean that year, and the country with the highest migration rate in Africa, according to the United Nations.

Overall, more than 362,000 people crossed into Europe by sea that year.

But Fatim wasn’t one of them.

Instead, she took her place within another statistic. In 2016, the UN counted 5,096 people “dead or missing” in the Mediterranean, including Fatim Jawara.

For migration experts, the deaths of young people like Fatim are part of a troubling global trend – citizens of poor but peaceful countries, often comparatively well-off in their communities, willing to risk everything simply for the possibility of a better life in Europe. They’re driven by a kind of aspiration gap – between what seems possible abroad, and the lack of jobs and social mobility in their own countries.

In Gambia, in particular, political malaise has also contributed to the exodus. From 1994 to January of this year, Gambia had a single president, Yahya Jammeh, helping to create a deep sense among many young Gambians that nothing would ever change.

But for those who loved her, Fatim isn’t a symbol or a number. Like each of the other 5,095 tallied by the UN last year, she is a hole torn in the universe that, for those closest to her, may never be filled.

“From that day up until today my life is incomplete because Fatim was someone who can’t be replaced,” says Choro Mbenga, her former coach. It’s been more than a year, but she says Red Scorpions’ practices still feel eerily quiet, like everyone is waiting for Fatim to show up and burst into dance on the midfield line, or launch into a ridiculous impression of one of her teammates.

“The only time we ever saw her serious was during a game,” says Adama Tamba, a friend and teammate. From the goal, she remembers, Fatim shouted encouragement and advice to her teammates on the field. She played soccer, friends say, with the focus of someone who had fought her way up – less raw talent than sheer grit and hard work. “She didn’t joke during a game,” Ms. Tamba says. “She just played.”

But for months after Fatim’s death, an unspoken question hovered over the team, and over her family.

Why had she gone?

She had never mentioned to any of them a desire to go the “back way,” and so suddenly, every passing comment about wanting to play abroad seemed monumental, like a sign they had all missed. Had it started with her dreams that she would go back to Azerbaijan, after the team traveled there for the World Cup in 2012? Or her promise to visit the Glasgow Girls, a Scottish team who came to play a series of friendlies with the top Gambian players in 2015?

But in truth, it was hard to be in Serekunda without thinking of being somewhere else. Flights roared out of the local airport to Amsterdam, London, and Barcelona, carrying with them a never-ending parade of sunburned Europeans returning home from a packaged holiday at one of Gambia’s aging beach resorts. In Fatim’s childhood neighborhood, Dippakunda, Western Union outlets were as ubiquitous as Starbucks in New York, a reminder of the constant flow of money passing from Gambians abroad back into the country. (Remittances make up nearly a quarter of the country’s GDP, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development.)

“It’s extremely frustrating for these women to be able to see the international world, and especially the international world of sport, but not get to it,” says Sang Mendy, a veteran Gambian sports journalist.

But there is also, Fatim’s friends say, so much she has missed in Gambia too since she left.

She didn’t live to see President Jammeh step down at last, or the international money that flowed in afterwards to help create work for young people, and try to stop the tide of migration.

She didn’t live to see Adama score 51 goals in a single 15-game season and then become the first Gambian woman to be recruited to try out for an international professional team – Paris Saint-Germain.

And she didn’t live to see the Red Scorpions’ first league match of the season this November. It was a sticky Friday night, the air heavy and salty. A call to prayer from a nearby mosque crackled over the field as the sun began to set in deep pinks and blues.

And the Red Scorpions were on form. The players moved easily together, zig-zagging down the field again and again in a series of crisp passes. By the closing minutes of the match, they had racked up a 5-0 lead.

Just before the whistle, the opposing team’s goalkeeper caught the ball, then fumbled it. Adama sprinted towards her. Before the keeper could catch her balance, Adama gently slotted the ball into the net behind her.

The knots of teenage fans gathered on the sidelines roared. Her teammates pulled her into a tight hug.

But something was missing. In a way, she knew, something would always be missing.

Fatim wasn’t there.

Saikou Jammeh contributed reporting. Ryan Lenora Brown’s reporting in Gambia was supported by the International Reporting Project.

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5. Will Spaniards be priced out of a signature delicacy?

Holiday meals often evoke warm memories or feelings. But imagine if your favorite Christmas dish was now simply too expensive. Spaniards don’t have to imagine. We look at why Spain's prized delicacy – ham made from pigs that dined on acorns – is now in short supply.

David
Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Pilar Fraile says sales of 'jamón ibérico' are down this holiday season because prices are up by 20 percent from last holiday season.

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Jamón ibérico de bellota is the finest ham on offer in Spain. And in recent years it has taken its place internationally alongside truffles, foie gras, smoked salmon, and gourmet cheeses as among the world’s finest foods. But that has come at a cost – literally. Jamón that cost $37 a pound in one store last Christmas season costs $47 this one. Another major factor in the increase is Spain’s financial crisis, which hit in 2009-10: The jamón production cycle is long enough that the shortage the crisis caused would only be felt now. For their part, Spaniards hope jamón ibérico doesn’t go the same way that another seasonal dish, angulas or baby eels, did. Once a typical Christmas dish, angulas became so expensive that most Spaniards now opt for a faux version instead. And already they are opting for jamón ibérico alternative hams. “There are many prices,” one Bilbao resident says. “You have to find the right equilibrium between price and quality.”

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Will Spaniards be priced out of a signature delicacy?

Of all the delicacies that Spaniards splurge on at the holidays, none is more sought after than the beloved jamón ibérico de bellota, ham produced from black-footed pigs that feed on acorns and that has of late become an international sensation.

At lavish lunches and dinners starting at Christmas Eve, running through the New Year, and ending at Three Kings’ Day (Epiphany) on January 6, dishes will alternate between lamb and suckling pig, between squid in black ink sauce and giant platters of shellfish. But the one constant at each sitting is a plate of dark pink jamón, nutty and tender and sliced perfectly, itself part of the art and the inspiration of not a few local cutting contests.

Looking for the perfect gift to impress? A leg of jamón has long been considered one of the most prestigious presents to offer a Spanish family this time of year.

Yet as this season is in full swing, prices have spiked for an item that just a few years back was considered one of Spain’s best-kept secrets.

This is the biggest time of the year for sales, so “we didn’t notice it until now,” says Pilar Fraile, wearing a Santa hat behind the counter at Dibéricos in the old town of Bilbao. Their leg of jamón ibérico de bellota, bolted to a special cutting board, is selling for 88 euros per kilogram ($47 per pound), up from 70 euros per kilo ($37.6 per pound) last season.

The result? “Customers are buying less this year.”

More demand, less supply

Jamón ibérico de bellota is the finest ham on offer, and some Spaniards don’t even consider it ham, at least anything associated with what is called ham in the US or elsewhere. The Iberian pigs graze in pasturelands of western Spain, known as dehesa, feeding from the acorns that fall from trees. Once they’ve grown, they are slaughtered and salted and hung to cure for months, the best for four years.

Like most things in Europe today, Spain’s jamón problem traces back to the financial crisis, which hit the Iberian Peninsula in 2009 and 2010. The small and medium producers who raise the breed couldn’t keep afloat, with a dearth in demand and no access to credit. Because the entire process takes about half a decade, by the time the economy started to pick up – and with it, domestic demand – the jamón market couldn’t catch up. This coincided perfectly with its popularity abroad. “That’s why today we find ourselves in this disequilibrium between levels of stock and demand, both domestic and international," says René Lemée, the international director for the brand Cinco Jotas.

Their prices for black label bellota, which means the pigs are 100 percent Iberian – part of a new classification put into place in 2014 that guarantees the breed and the upbringing of the pig – have shot up: a leg weighing 7.5 kilograms (16.5 pounds) that sold for 400 euros ($475) in Spain four years ago is now going for 600 euros ($712).

For Mr. Lemée, this is part of a coming of age of jamón ibérico de bellota, finding its rightful place alongside truffles, foie gras, smoked salmon, and the finest cheeses. “The majority of Spaniards feel proud that their iconic gastronomic product, which just a few years back was only consumed essentially in Spain, is now becoming high gastronomy in the whole world.”

In fact, he says, their legs of ham have now become a prestigious gift in China, for Chinese New Year.

This has led some media outlets to warn of a ham shortage, and that the Chinese are at fault. Jesús Pérez,the spokesperson at the Interprofessional Association of the Iberian Pig, says such fears are overblown. China might be the biggest international market for Cinco Jotas’ black label, but over 80 percent of the exports of Spanish ham – not limited to just jamón ibérico but jamón serrano and all the various kinds – goes to Europe, including France, Germany, Italy, and Britain. The market to Asia is just over 4 percent.

“When we talk about there being an increase from China, yes there is, and we welcome that, but this is not going to provoke a scarcity of the product in Spain, or an increase in prices of the product in Spain,” says Mr. Pérez.

Hampering the holidays?

You can’t blame the Spaniards for being spooked. They’ve already seen seasonal traditions stamped out. One of the most typical meals around Christmas and New Year’s used to be angulas, or baby eels. But because of Asian demand and overfishing, now a kilogram can fetch 1,000 euros ($1,180) or more.

On the Saturday before Christmas, the lines outside the main fishmonger in Bilbao were not for the impatient. A sign posted to the mirror advertised that they had baby eels. But only the richest, and the chefs of the finest restaurants, buy them anymore, says Izaskun Urrutia, who was in the line to purchase shellfish for Christmas Eve. Her family, like so many Basque families, used to fish angulas themselves. “I haven’t tasted them in, I don’t know, it’s been 15 years,” she says.

Ever pragmatic, the Spanish came up with a mock version. They are called gulas and are made of surimi (fish paste), and Spaniards swear they taste almost like the original, especially when cooked in a pan soaked in hot olive oil and garlic.

That same kind of judiciousness is on display today as ham prices creep up. According the Ministry of Agriculture, Spaniards consumed 13,000 tons of jamón ibérico from July 2016 to July 2017, amounting to 4 billion euros ($4.75 billion) in sales.

Price increases don’t mean they’ll eat less ham, but that they are simply turning to cheaper mixed varieties – long a staple of everyday meals, snacks for children, and breakfast over baguettes with freshly crushed tomatoes and olive oil. “There are many prices,” says Toño Calvo, a Bilbao resident shopping for his family’s upcoming meals. “You have to find the right equilibrium between price and quality.”

He also recalls when angulas were the norm at this time of year and shrugs. At least there is no shortage of grapes: Spaniards consume 12 of them at each stroke of midnight at the turn of the New Year.

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The Monitor's View

Poland's antidemocratic drift

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The European Union has drawn a line in the sand with Poland. The issue is whether it must abide by certain democratic values to keep its membership in good standing. More than Poland’s future is at stake. So is the very nature of the EU. While it now largely functions as an economic and trading union, many members envision a future of deeper cooperation in areas such as foreign policy based on common, democratic values. But Poland is now moving in a troubling direction over the values of justice and rule of law. The ruling Law and Justice party has taken steps to undermine the nation’s independent judiciary and bring its courts and judges under the control of the executive and legislative branches. For the first time, the EU has invoked Article 7.1 of its treaty, starting a process that could strip Poland of its voting rights. EU critics cite other instances in which the Union has failed to intervene in domestic issues, including the Spanish government’s heavy-handed approach to its Catalan separatist movement. So why pick on Poland? For one thing a corrupted judicial system means trouble for any trading bloc: The rule of law must be applied fairly and consistently for cross-border commerce to flourish. An independent judiciary plays a key role in making that happen. 

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Poland's antidemocratic drift

The European Union has drawn a line in the sand with Poland. The issue is whether that country, which, along with nine other mostly Eastern European countries, joined the EU in 2004, must abide by certain democratic values to keep its membership in good standing.

More than Poland’s future is at stake. So is the very nature of the EU. While it now largely functions as an economic and trading union, many members envision a future of deeper cooperation in areas such as foreign policy based on common, democratic values.

Article 2 of the EU’s governing treaty, for example, speaks of broad standards of behavior. “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities,” the article states. “These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”

But Poland is now moving in a troubling direction over the values of justice and rule of law. The ruling nationalistic Law and Justice party has taken steps to undermine the nation’s independent judiciary, including its Supreme Court, and bring its courts and judges under the control of the parliment, which the party controls.

“Within a period of two years, 13 laws [in Poland] have been adopted which put at serious risk the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers in Poland,” says Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s first vice president. “The entire structure of the justice system is affected ... thereby rendering the independence of the judiciary completely moot.”

As a result, for the first time, the EU has invoked Article 7.1 of its treaty, starting a process that could strip Poland of its voting rights as a member.

Some see Poland’s move as no more than the legitimate exercise of its sovereignty. In a visit to Warsaw earlier this month, British Prime Minister Theresa May refused to take the side of the EU (which Britain is going to leave). The United States hasn’t weighed in either. President Trump, who made a cordial visit to Poland in July, has been silent on the issue.

EU critics cite other instances in which the Union has failed to intervene in the domestic affairs of members, from the Spanish government’s handling of its Catalan separatist movement to Greece’s treatment of refugees. Austria’s government now includes a far-right party with neo-Nazi roots in its ruling coalition. No EU protest has been made.

So why pick on Poland? For one thing a corrupted judicial system means trouble for any trading bloc: The rule of law must be applied fairly and consistently for cross-border commerce to flourish. An independent judiciary plays a key role in making that happen.

Invoking Article 7.1 was among the few choices the EU had available to show displeasure with Poland’s antidemocratic drift. 

The US and Poland have developed close ties since the fall of communism more than a quarter-century ago. If it wished, Washington could easily – and most likely effectively – nudge Warsaw to not wander any farther from democratic values.

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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.

Washing away what doesn’t belong

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At this time of year, it can be nice to step back and take stock of how we may have improved ourselves a bit over the past year. This forward growth includes steps to overcome undesirable traits. Today’s contributor has found that when we make it a priority to let God’s infinite goodness inspire our thoughts and actions, we see that impure qualities of all sorts are truly no part of us as God’s creation. In fact, through the powerful, purifying action of God’s presence, we can do more than temporarily repress traits we’re wrestling with. They can be permanently washed away, through spiritual growth that reveals more of our true nature – reflecting the bright gold of God’s goodness and love.

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Washing away what doesn’t belong

At this time of year, it can be nice to step back and take stock of how we may have improved ourselves a bit over the past year. As life moves forward each day, we’re all learning from our experiences. This forward growth includes steps to overcome things like pride, anger, deceit, envy, or other forms of selfishness. An honest desire to do this elevates our priorities, motives, actions, and thoughts.

Of course, washing such qualities from our thoughts and lives is often easier said than done. I’ve found it helpful to consider the way a miner, when panning for gold, scoops up from a riverbed a pan full of sand and dirt. Then, after agitating the water and swirling the dirt away, all that is left in the bottom of the pan is the bright, precious metal. Doing this is significantly easier than picking out all the dirt by hand, as the action of the moving water separates things in the pan much more quickly.

In a similar way, acknowledging the presence and action of God’s goodness is a powerful way to help expose and wash away selfishness and self-righteousness, egotism and self-justification, effectively purifying our motives and actions. For every one of us, God’s goodness and love are always flowing freely, because we are the spiritual reflection of divine Love.

When we make it a priority to let God’s infinite goodness inspire our thoughts and actions, we see that because we are Love’s reflection, impure qualities of all sorts are truly no part of us. Christ Jesus showed us what we are as God’s children and how knowing this transforms our character. For instance, to a group of people who were puffed up with self-importance, and also to a woman who had fallen into adultery, Jesus spoke of the purifying Christ – the active presence of God’s goodness – referring to it poetically as “living water.” He said, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink.... [O]ut of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37, 38; John 4:10).

God’s presence is always purifying, and it reveals the true view of ourselves. As Jesus put it so beautifully, God’s love is “a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14). With humble joy, we can open our thought to this “living water” and willingly allow it to expose things that need to be changed in our character and to change them, washing away whatever doesn’t belong to God’s creation.

In the miner’s pan, when all the worthless dirt gets washed away, it is forgotten. It can’t be retrieved. Through the powerful, purifying action of God’s presence, we can do more than temporarily repress traits we’re wrestling with. They can be permanently washed away, through spiritual growth that reveals more of our true nature – reflecting the bright gold of God’s goodness and love.

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Viewfinder

Wintry ride

Ma Jianquan/Reuters
Herdsmen tame horses on a snow-covered pasture in Xilingol, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China, on Dec. 26.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( December 28th, 2017 )

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story about four Latin American countries that closed loopholes to child marriage this year – and what continued progress looks like from Guatemala.

Monitor Daily Podcast

December 27, 2017
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