2020
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Monitor Daily Podcast

July 17, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

When hope has wings – and a beak, and is lost

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.”

That’s the title of one of Emily Dickinson’s most famous poems. It might also apply to Chi Chi, a pet cockatiel lost, and then found.

Bright yellow with peach cheeks and a mohawk of head feathers, Chi Chi looks like a banana. Her name is short for Chiquita.

Earlier this month she was riding on owner Alan Zimberg’s shoulder as he walked around his house in Potomac, Maryland. He forgot she was there and went outside. She flew away.

Mr. Zimberg and wife, Lisa Morton, were distraught, according to an account in The Washington Post. The next day, Ms. Morton went to an optometrist appointment at a nearby shopping center and talked all about it. Optometrist Andrew Plaxen did his best to comfort her.

You know what happens next. Later that day Mr. Plaxen walked out to the parking lot and saw two crows attacking a yellow bird. It plummeted to the ground. He ran over and reached out. Chi Chi got up and walked onto his arm.

What were the odds?

Found pet stories are always a balm for the soul. But in these troubled times the tale of Chi Chi might be that and a metaphor as well, a reminder of the persistence of light in the darkest days.

Which is maybe what Emily Dickinson was talking about:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all – 

A deeper look

America has bungled the pandemic. Now what?

COVID-19 would have been devastating under any president. But ineffective leadership and a lack of centralized action has made the crisis worse, and created a more difficult road ahead.

Peter
Dan Koeck/Reuters
Family and friends of Myron Wagner visit him from outside Bethany Retirement Living as they practice social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, in Fargo, North Dakota, July 15, 2020.

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Many nations that suffered severe initial COVID-19 outbreaks are now cautiously returning to something resembling normal life, with restaurants, sports, and schools beginning to reopen.

Not the United States. Four months into the crisis, cases here are skyrocketing, the death toll is ticking ominously upward, and the outlook for August and beyond looks worse.

How did the richest nation bungle the pandemic so badly? Bad planning. Poor leadership. Politicization. Inconsistent communication. Unconnected and ineffective action.

The point now is to refocus and keep going, say experts. The greatness of the U.S. has often depended on its ability to rally and improve after initial disaster.

There is still hope for American unity, despite the halting government response, says Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health from 2002 to 2008.

Scientific and health care workers continue to risk their lives to save patients. Collaboration in the scientific community has been unprecedented. Entire states have locked down to some degree, sacrificing economic stability for human life.

“That’s what makes America great,” says Dr. Zerhouni. “And it will remain great as long as we have that unselfish behavior.”

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1. America has bungled the pandemic. Now what?

In North Carolina, as in much of America, coronavirus cases are on the rise again. Nash County, a largely rural area in the north of the state, hasn’t yet been overwhelmed by the pandemic. But people there are anxious about the persistence of the virus and uncertain about the road ahead, as summer ticks away and autumn begins to glimmer in the distance.

Melody Boyd already lost her father to COVID-19 in April. Interviewed outside a post office in Nashville, the county seat, she says he was 75 and had no underlying health conditions. Now her sister has contracted the virus. She worries about her grandchildren returning to classrooms and wishes politicians would stop pushing so hard to reopen schools.

“I just thought this would have died down by now,” she says. “This feels like our new life going forward, and I thought it would be over by now.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Laura and Randy Wood opened a coffee shop and café in downtown Nashville on June 1. They say that so far, they’ve exceeded their sales goals and are excited for what the business might be like post-pandemic. But they’d thought the virus would be gone by July, and it isn’t. They have two kids and are nervous about schools and their uncertain future.

“I’m scared for my kids. How will the new normal be?” says Ms. Wood. “What we know of as a childhood, I just feel like that’s been taken away from them – and I don’t think things will be normal again soon.” 

Four months after COVID-19 erupted into a crisis in the United States of America, the nation continues to struggle to contain and respond to the virus, as cases skyrocket, the death toll ticks ominously upward, and health officials warn that far from improving, the outlook for August and beyond looks worse.

Most developed nations, including those such as Italy that suffered severe initial outbreaks, have rallied to produce coherent country-wide responses that knocked down their outbreaks. They are now cautiously returning to something resembling normal life, with restaurants, sports, and yes, schools beginning to reopen.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Laura and Randy Wood opened Corner Coffee Cafe in Nashville, North Carolina, on June 1, 2020, in the midst of the pandemic shutdown. They say they feel nervous about schools opening back up, but they don't require masks in their store nor do they wear them themselves. "This isn’t going to go away," says Ms. Wood. "Unless we shut everything down, you’re not going to escape it.”

Not the U.S. How did the richest nation on earth – indeed, by some measures the richest and most powerful nation the earth has ever seen – bungle the pandemic so badly?

Bad planning. Poor leadership. Politicization. Inconsistent communication. Unconnected and ineffective action. And more.

“We basically blew it,” says Kenneth Bernard, an epidemiologist who was the lead for public health issues on the National Security Council staffs during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

The point now is to recover, refocus, and keep going, say experts. The greatness of the U.S. has often depended on its ability to rally and improve after initial disaster.

And there is hope for American unity, despite the halting government response, says Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health from 2002 to 2008.

Collaboration in the scientific community has been unprecedented, he says. Scientific and health care workers continue to risk their lives to save patients. Congress moved quickly to pass a massive economic aid bill, though more may be necessary. Entire states have locked down to some degree, sacrificing economic stability for human life. 

“That’s the value of courage,” says Dr. Zerhouni. “That’s what makes America great. And it will remain great as long as we have that unselfish behavior.”

A new record 

On July 16, the U.S. set a new record for the number of coronavirus cases recorded in a day: 75,600. It was the 11th time in the past 30 days that the daily case number represented a new high.

The upturn began in mid- to late June. It followed a period of almost two months when new daily cases, as measured by a seven-day rolling average, had plateaued between 22,000 and 28,000, according to Centers for Disease Control numbers.

Initially, deaths from COVID-19 did not rise along with case numbers. But that is a lagging indicator of the pandemic, experts note, and the daily death rate has begun to rise in recent days, reaching 977 on Thursday. It has been below 1,000 since the beginning of June, and on some days last month it fell into the 200s.

Among developed countries, the U.S. stands out for its worsening pandemic numbers. Last Sunday, Florida alone reported 15,000 new cases – 3,000 more than all of Europe combined. By early June, more than 20 countries had reopened schools shut by the pandemic, including Denmark, Austria, Singapore, and Australia. In the U.S., President Donald Trump is pushing for schools to reopen, but many parents and teachers remain worried about possible transmission, as trends in most states continue to go in the wrong direction. Several large school districts have already announced that they will be online-only in the fall. 

So how did the U.S. get into this mess?

The mistake from which many others flowed, according to Dr. Bernard, was ignoring existing plans after it became clear a pandemic had taken hold in America. Those plans exist, he says – the George W. Bush administration drafted a National Biodefense Plan in 2004. The Obama administration drafted a 57-page checklist following its experience with the Ebola epidemic.

“We had a plan out there. We should have exercised that plan,” he says.

Particularly unfortunate was the denial, early on, that the virus was a major threat. On February 28, President Trump said the coronavirus in the U.S. was “going to disappear.” Other administration officials took his cue and assured the American people it was a problem well under control. 

Other White Houses have engaged in this sort of evasion before. Prior to 9/11, a number of administrations downplayed the dangers of terrorism to the U.S. homeland.

But happy talk can itself be infectious. Administration officials should have been planning for the worst-case coronavirus scenario, instead of just hoping things would work out, says Georges Benjamin, director of the American Public Health Association.

“We pretended like it wasn’t going to happen to us and then seemed surprised that it happened to us,” says Dr. Benjamin.

When bad things began to happen – the shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment, the failure of early CDC tests and the testing shortage, the need for more hospital equipment and the rising death toll – the federal government didn’t take centralized action. Instead, it decentralized responsibility to the states, ensuring conflicting and contradictory responses nationwide.

It is important to remember that COVID-19 would have been enormously dangerous and costly under any U.S president. It has ripped through many countries without regard for who leads them. It is an entirely new virus, and public health experts at first had no idea how to treat it. Scientists still haven’t definitively answered many basic questions about its effects, and how it’s transmitted.

And some things have gone right. Communication and cooperation between states within some regions, such as New England and the mid-Atlantic, has been impressive. Initially, the U.S. did flatten the curve of new cases. That’s not easy, points out David Satcher, Founding Director and Senior Advisor at the Morehouse School of Medicine. 

But asked about problems in the U.S. response, every expert contacted for this article at some point used the word “leadership.” The U.S. is not in a pandemic due to President Trump’s inconsistencies, poor communication, and disjointed actions, they say. But the president’s moves have in some ways made the pandemic worse, and have contributed to the fact that the nation is now facing an anomalous resurgence in cases, with a return to anything like normal life receding in the distance for entire regions.

“We do not have the kind of leadership that it takes to succeed in dealing with something like this pandemic,” says Dr. Satcher, who served as an Assistant Secretary of Health and Surgeon General of the United States in the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Fighting the tide in Virginia’s Tidewater region

In Hampton, Virginia, the coronavirus trend has been heading in the wrong direction. Cases have tripled since Virginia began reopening at the end of May.

Still, the city – one of the jurisdictions that make up the Hampton Roads coastal area – has had trouble with young people crowding beaches and big social gatherings, says Donnie Tuck, Hampton’s mayor.

Mayor Tuck, a political independent, says he also hears from older people who don’t want to wear masks or social distance because they perceive such orders as government tyranny. He’s received countless emails saying that things should reopen and that prevention measures violate constitutional rights.

Asked whether the response to the pandemic has become a matter of political polarization, he laughs and says, “Oh yeah.”

“You have a polarization, and you have also individuals who believe that ‘I have a right to do any and everything that I want to do,’” Mr. Tuck says.

Experts say that’s another underlying reason why the U.S. response to the coronavirus has not been as organized and cohesive as in other developed nations. Countries such as France have strong central governments and a tradition of collective action. The United States, in contrast, has a culture of individualism.

“In other countries I have seen, [citizens] might push back, but for the most part they trust the leadership to do what they think is in their best interest,” says Mr. Tuck, who was recently elected to a second term.

The Hampton mayor says the Trump administration could have helped with a consistent public health message. It’s not those citizens who are willing to wear masks or stay home who need a nudge from leaders to act in the community’s best interest, he points out. It’s those who are unwilling to face inconvenience – or who believe the whole thing is a hoax – who need convincing.

Yet throughout the crisis, President Trump himself has sent mixed messages that often contradict the advice given by his own administration’s health officials and scientists, point out public health experts.

This has produced a clear credibility problem, according to recent polls. Six in 10 respondents in a new Washington Post-ABC poll say they do not trust what their own president says about the coronavirus outbreak.

Overall, poll ratings for the president’s handling of the crisis continue to deteriorate. According to the Post-ABC survey, only 38% of Americans approve of President Trump’s handling of COVID-19, down from 46% in May, and 51% in March.

How to bounce back

The nation does not need to accept defeat in this battle. America can still fight back. It does not have to hunker down and wait for the arrival of a vaccine or other magic bullet.

As former NIH chief Dr. Zerhouni points out, the United States may be exceptional among developed nations in its still-rising COVID-19 numbers, but it is also exceptional in its ability to rally scientific and technological tools in service of a defined goal.

That kind of multi-faceted response is what helped win World War II. It can work again.

“You only win these battles with logistics, not heroics,” he says.

We’re still learning about the intricacies of the virus day-by-day. But we generally know some basic, effective guidelines for individuals. Social distance, wear masks, wash hands. 

“All people need to do is listen. All government needs to do is organize,” Dr. Zerhouni says.

To see how this can work, look back at the example of Ebola, says former NSC official Dr. Bernard.

The Obama administration downplayed the risks at first and ignored existing plans.

“People forget that the beginning of the Ebola outbreak was a mess in the United States. We did not have a coordinated response,” Dr. Bernard says.

But eventually, the CDC began delivering a consistent, televised message on the crisis every day. The president appointed an effective ex-official as an “Ebola czar,” and bickering agencies began operating like a “well-oiled machine.”

This sort of approach is in everyone’s best interest – including, in an election year, President Trump’s, says Dr. Benjamin of the American Public Health Association. 

“The health problem is the secret to the economic problem, which is the secret to being perceived as a person in charge of properly managing the outbreak,” he says. “Americans have short memories.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

A deeper look

‘Justice needs to be served’: Minnapolis businesses put principles first

Minneapolis’ small businesses were already having a precarious 2020 because of the pandemic. Then 1,500 were burned or looted during outrage over George Floyd’s killing. Instead of anger or self-pity, many say their life’s work can’t compare to a lost life.

Peter
Jim Mone/AP
A pedestrian passes a colorful painted tribute to George Floyd on a boarded-up business June 18, 2020 in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis.

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A desire for racial justice and a distinct lack of self-pity unite small business owners in Minneapolis’ Longfellow neighborhood as they attempt to recover from the fires, looting, and vandalism that damaged or destroyed almost 1,500 businesses in the Twin Cities.

The neighborhood of 5,000 residents – a mix of young families, downtown workers, and retirees – absorbed perhaps the heaviest blow of any in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The casualty list includes grocery, drug and department stores, dozens of restaurants and cafes, the post office, a medical clinic, and a 200-unit affordable housing complex that was under construction.

Residents have rushed to ease the hardship of businesses by cleaning up debris and contributing to recovery funds and GoFundMe campaigns for rebuilding efforts. Yet for Longfellow business owners, many of them people of color, the outpouring neither obscures nor alleviates an uncertain future as the coronavirus clogs the economy and the city struggles with enduring racial inequities.

“Most people who run small businesses don’t see it as only a job,” says Jamie Schwesnedl, co-owner of Moon Palace Books. “They’re part of the neighborhood, and their customers are their neighbors. The way we see it, we’re in this together.”

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2. ‘Justice needs to be served’: Minnapolis businesses put principles first

First came the pandemic. In March, as Minnesota and the country ran low on certain essential supplies, Chris and Shanelle Montana realized they could help meet demand for one coveted item and, in turn, save their business. The owners of Du Nord Craft Spirits, a microdistillery that opened in 2013, they started producing a new alcohol-based commodity, switching from vodka, gin, and whiskey to hand sanitizer.

Then came the protests. After Minneapolis police killed George Floyd on Memorial Day, demonstrations erupted in the state’s largest city. The four officers charged in Mr. Floyd’s death worked out of the 3rd Precinct in the Longfellow neighborhood, five blocks from Du Nord. Mr. Montana braved clouds of tear gas to hand out bottled water and hand sanitizer to protesters as they filled the streets around the police station.

And then came the destruction. As mostly peaceful marches in the area gave way to sporadic rioting, looters started a fire in Du Nord’s warehouse, setting off the sprinkler system. Water flooded the building and caused its ceiling to collapse. Shaking off their initial distress, the Montanas rallied employees and volunteers to convert the warehouse into a food bank, where residents in need could pick up donated goods.

The couple decided against defending their business as protests flared. “There’s nothing in here that’s worth a life,” Mr. Montana says, standing in Du Nord’s almost unscathed main building, a space that contains its distillery equipment and cocktail room. He attributes its survival to his employees, who boarded up windows with signs that read “Black-Owned.”

“Our thinking was, ‘We’re going to give the building to Minneapolis and continue to support the demonstrations,’” says Mr. Montana, one of the country’s few Black distillery owners. “As much as this place means to us, you can’t compare that with what happened to George Floyd.”

A desire for racial justice and a distinct lack of self-pity unite small business owners in Longfellow as they attempt to recover from the fires, looting, and vandalism that damaged or destroyed almost 1,500 businesses in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Martin Kuz/The Christian Science Monitor
Chris Montana, who with his wife, Shanelle, owns Du Nord Craft Spirits in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis, shifted from spirits to hand sanitizer during the pandemic. A warehouse on the property was damaged during protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.

The neighborhood of 5,000 residents – a mix of young families, downtown workers, and retirees – absorbed perhaps the heaviest blow of any in the Twin Cities. The casualty list includes grocery, drug, and department stores, dozens of restaurants and cafes, the post office, a medical clinic, and a 200-unit affordable housing complex that was under construction.

Residents have rushed to ease the hardship of businesses by cleaning up debris and contributing to recovery funds and GoFundMe campaigns for rebuilding efforts. Yet for the Montanas and other Longfellow business owners, many of them people of color, the outpouring neither obscures nor alleviates an uncertain future as the coronavirus clogs the economy and the city struggles with enduring racial inequities.

“The pandemic and the protests have been a double gut punch,” says Karl Benson, president of the Minnesota Black Chamber of Commerce. “Most of our minority businesses owners won’t be able to last without government grants and subsidies because they don’t have much in the way of financial reserves to ride things out. There are a lot of tough days ahead.”

“Let my building burn”

The riots blunted in a matter of days the gradual progress that Longfellow has nurtured over the past quarter-century. Minority-owned businesses lie at the heart of the revival in a neighborhood located a 10-minute drive from downtown and known for its tree-lined streets, ethnic restaurants, and lower cost of living relative to most of Minneapolis.

The area began to grow in size and diversity in the mid-1990s after stagnating for two decades as white residents departed for the suburbs. A steady flow of immigrants from Africa, Latin America, and South Asia settled in Longfellow and nearby neighborhoods to raise families and pursue career dreams.

Ruhel Islam moved to Minneapolis in 2000, four years after arriving in New York from Bangladesh, and in 2008 he opened a restaurant in Longfellow. Gandhi Mahal weathered the Great Recession and blossomed into a beloved neighborhood spot that attracted customers from across the city and coverage from the Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.”

Mr. Islam provided a room in his restaurant for medics to treat injured protesters during the first two nights of unrest after Mr. Floyd’s death. The following night, when rioters set fire to the 3rd Precinct a block away, flames destroyed much of the restaurant.

The next morning, in a Facebook post that went viral, Mr. Islam’s teenage daughter, Hafsa, quoted him as saying, “Let my building burn, justice needs to be served, put those officers in jail.” He likens the largely white police force in Minneapolis – accused for decades of using excessive force against people of color – to the military dictatorship he lived under in his youth in Bangladesh.

“I grew up in a police state,” he says, recalling the deaths of two fellow students at the hands of officers in his homeland. “So I understand why people here are angry.”

Lillie Nelson, a retired assembly-line worker who grew up under Jim Crow laws in the Deep South, has rented her one-bedroom apartment in Longfellow since 2000. The fires during the protests claimed the Aldi, Cub Foods, and Target where she bought groceries and the Walgreens where she picked up her medications.

The loss of the stores has complicated her daily life. Still, Ms. Nelson, who is Black, finds little fault with demonstrators. “I don’t blame them,” she says. “I blame the police. They’ve been treating us wrong as long as I’ve been here.”

Martin Kuz/The Christian Science Monitor
Jordan Baynard stands in the front yard of his home in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis on June 6, 2020. He and his wife, Emily, are weighing whether to leave Minneapolis in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.

Mr. Islam returned to the ruins of Gandhi Mahal on a recent afternoon to salvage items from the ashes and meet with an insurance adjuster. He credits the loyalty of Longfellow residents for his restaurant’s success, and his vow to rebuild extends beyond its charred walls to the community that has embraced him.

“We need to have a multicultural movement for racial justice,” he says. “If all of us do our part, we can fix things so that our children don’t have to deal with the same problems.”

The question remains whether people of color who live in Longfellow will care to wait for buildings to rise and inequality to fall.

Jordan and Emily Baynard, who rent a duplex near Gandhi Mahal, once a favorite dinner destination, lean toward leaving after eight years in Minneapolis. The interracial couple – he’s Black, she’s white – is mulling a move to Charlotte, North Carolina, to raise their two young children in a more racially mixed city.

“We’re tired,” says Mr. Baynard, a national sales manager with a St. Paul company. “We’re asking ourselves, do we want to stay and fight and see if things change? Or do we want to find a more diverse area to live?”

Shared values

The liberal reputation of Minneapolis shrouds chronic disparities in income, education, and housing between minorities and white residents, who make up 60% of the population. A similar imbalance afflicts the business sector, including access to bank loans, and Mr. Benson worries that the damage to businesses in the Twin Cities – with losses estimated at $500 million – will summon the forces of gentrification.

“The hard truth is that there’s now an opportunity for white developers to buy properties for pennies on the dollar,” he says. The added burden of rebuilding during a pandemic could persuade minority business owners in Longfellow and other neighborhoods to walk away. “There’s a realization that this is a chance to take the insurance money and get out.”

Mr. Montana says he felt the urge to close his distillery for good when knee-high water gushed out of his flooded warehouse in late May. He has heard from several business owners in the area who have received offers to sell.

“We know the developers are out there circling,” says Mr. Montana, a former attorney and the father of three children. He and his wife hope to resume producing spirits by fall. “We need public officials and the private sector working together to protect our businesses. When we give Black and brown people a path toward business development, that’s how we can build generational wealth and reduce inequality.”

The federal government last week denied Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s request for $16 million to assist with rebuilding businesses in the Twin Cities. State lawmakers have proposed a $300 million aid package that would help business owners recover and create a redevelopment agency to preserve small businesses owned by people of color.

The Longfellow Community Council has launched a neighborhood initiative to provide guidance to business owners planning to rebuild. Marya McIntosh, a member of the council’s board of directors, explains that the nonprofit advocacy group seeks to prevent a washing away of the neighborhood’s independent restaurants, coffee shops, and retailers.

“We have to be really vigilant with the city and state to make sure that businesses have enough time to recover,” she says. Ms. McIntosh bought a house in Longfellow five years ago, lured by its affordability, easy access to bus lines, and proximity to downtown, where she works for the Nature Conservancy. “Residents here want to go to businesses that reflect their values. That’s part of what makes a neighborhood feel like a neighborhood.”

The demonstrations revealed those shared values as business owners supported the cause of protesters. Moon Palace Books occupies a storefront less than a block from the 3rd Precinct, and as crowds in the area swelled, police tried to commandeer the shop’s parking lot to use as a staging area. Jamie Schwesnedl, who owns the store with his wife, insisted the cops leave.

Mr. Schwesnedl and his employees posted a large sign in the shop’s upper windows that read “Abolish The Police.” They later boarded up the facade and painted the same message across the wood planks. The building went nearly untouched during the unrest.

“Most people who run small businesses don’t see it as only a job,” he says. “They’re part of the neighborhood, and their customers are their neighbors. The way we see it, we’re in this together.”

Can Iraq rein in Shiite militias? What one killing tells us.

Good governance and balancing sectarian interests have challenged successive Iraqi leaders. The assassination of a key security analyst paints a revealing portrait of Baghdad’s struggles with Iran-backed militias.

Peter

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Once seen as heroes in Iraq for their role in helping defeat the Islamic State, Shiite militias were one target of months of nationwide protests that began last October and led to the formation of a new government.

Security analyst Hisham al-Hashemi long warned of the danger such armed groups posed to the rebuilding of the Iraqi state. His views made him a high-value target, analysts say, and his assassination July 6 has become a key episode in the escalating battle between Iraq’s new prime minister and the Iran-backed militias that reject government control.

“This is a calculated attack to send a message to the prime minister,” says Renad Mansour, an Iraq expert at Chatham House in London. Analysts say the escalating fight against the militias has become an inflection point likely to shape the future of Iraqi governance and sovereignty.

The picture that is emerging, analysts suggest, is sobering. As popular as its campaign against the militias is, the new government has been unable to dent their power. The attack on Mr. Hashemi, says Belkis Wille, an Iraq specialist at Human Rights Watch, “shows that these groups are absolutely convinced that there won’t ever be a price to be paid.”

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3. Can Iraq rein in Shiite militias? What one killing tells us.

Receiving death threats from Shiite militias was no surprise to Iraqi security analyst Hisham al-Hashemi, who had long warned of the danger such armed groups posed to rebuilding the Iraqi state after years of war.

But Mr. Hashemi – gunned down on July 6 in front of his Baghdad house – could hardly have predicted his own assassination would become a key episode in the escalating battle between a new Iraqi prime minister and the defiant Iran-backed militias like Kata’ib Hezbollah that reject government control.

“That’s what they want for Iraq, they want an Iraq without a state,” Mr. Hashemi’s friend and colleague Sarmad al-Bayati told Al Jazeera during the funeral march. “We are a country without a state, and this is the victim.”

Once seen as heroes in Iraq for their role in helping defeat Islamic State militants from 2014 to 2018, the Shiite militias were one target of months of nationwide protests that began last October against corruption, lawlessness, and ties to Iran, and led to the formation of a new government.

Analysts say the escalating fight against the militias’ influence – the stakes made all the higher by Mr. Hashemi’s killing – has become an inflection point for the Iraqi state, likely to shape the future quality of governance and sovereignty.

And the picture that is emerging so far, analysts suggest, is a sobering one for the new government in Baghdad. As politically popular as its campaign against the Shiite militias is, it has so far been unable to dent their power.

The attack on Mr. Hashemi, says Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher and Iraq specialist at Human Rights Watch, “shows that these groups are absolutely convinced that there won’t ever be a price to be paid or accountability.”

High-value target

Known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Iran-backed elements among them were widely blamed for spearheading violent crackdowns on the protests that left more than 500 dead.

Under pressure from the street, former Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi stepped down in November and his successor, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a former head of intelligence, was sworn in on May 7. He vowed to tackle rogue militias and restore the “prestige of the state.”

Mr. Hashemi, a jocular and generous expert on militant groups such as the Sunni Islamic State and Shiite militias, and a father of four, advised and informed Iraqi leaders in equal measure, repeatedly warning of the home-grown danger.

“They became like the gods of the temple, and see themselves as sacred people” who were enabled by Iran, became corrupt, and who “mistreated” ordinary Iraqis, Mr. Hashemi told The Christian Science Monitor last December, for example.

His views made him a high-value target, analysts now say.

“This is a calculated attack to send a message to the prime minister,” says Renad Mansour, an Iraq expert at the Chatham House think tank in London, who often worked with Mr. Hashemi.

“This is not killing an activist, this is killing a political actor ... closely connected to the president, the prime minister, to senior elements of the state,” says Mr. Mansour. “This is not following a protester back home and gunning them down because they made you angry.”

“The fact that [militias] are resorting to this type of violence ... shows they feel threatened,” says Mr. Mansour.

Contributing to that perception he says, are the government efforts to rein in the militias and a sharp reduction in cash for Iran-backed groups flowing from Tehran, as U.S. sanctions and low oil prices throttle Iran’s economy.

Brewing conflict

Indeed, top of the prime minister’s target list has been Kata’ib Hezbollah, which Washington has targeted with strikes, accusing it of mounting multiple attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq, as well as storming the U.S. Embassy last December.

Its leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis – regarded as the PMF commander most capable of bringing all Shiite groups under one roof – was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad along with Iranian Lt. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

The early January attack ignited a blaze of anti-U.S. sentiment in Iraq, and rocket attacks on U.S. and NATO forces and embassies have continued. But so has the internal Iraqi strife.

Khalid Mohammed/AP
Iraqi riot police cordon off the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and foreign embassies, as demonstrators gather to protest against armed Iranian-backed militias, in Baghdad, Iraq, July 12, 2020.

Mr. Kadhimi – whose candidacy was opposed by Kata’ib Hezbollah – has shaken up his top security ministers and officials, and on June 26 took the unprecedented step of ordering the Iraqi counterterrorism unit to arrest 14 militia members, citing an attack plot.

Shortly after the raid, Mr. Hashemi tweeted his support, saying it had “given the necessary message to the security forces and the judiciary to allow them to overcome the barrier of fear made by these armed groups.”

Yet, tellingly, all but one of the Kata’ib Hezbollah men were freed within days after a militia show of force: a heavily armed 30-vehicle column that rolled around the fortified Green Zone demanding their release. When freed, the militants burned U.S. flags and trampled on portraits of the prime minister.

Qais al-Khazali, head of another Iran-backed militia, warned the prime minister that he “could never” curb attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq by “resistance factions” like his.

Mr. Kadhimi could “lose everything” if he tried, said the militia chief, noting that no previous Iraqi government had attempted such action. “Instead, they were all ignoring this issue because they knew they couldn’t touch it,” boasted Mr. Khazali.

“Playing the long game”

But striking at Shiite militias is popular politics for a prime minister tied to no political party, whose leadership is a result of widespread protests that called for change – including imposing state control over rogue militias and ending Iranian influence in Iraq.

“One thing we’ve seen consistently is popular sentiment toward the [PMF] has declined,” while the raid on Kata’ib Hezbollah was “extremely popular,” says an Iraqi government adviser in Baghdad who asked not to be named.

“The average Iraqi is able to differentiate between the brigades that are looking to enrich themselves, versus those that are looking to protect the community, and those that do answer to the prime minister, and those that threaten him and state it openly,” says the adviser.

Despite the setbacks, the adviser voiced confidence that Mr. Kadhimi had a winning strategy, noting that new appointments, from the ministers of defense and interior, to counterterror and police force chiefs, are based on his experience leading Iraqi intelligence for four years.

“We are seeing some positive changes, but it will take time for those changes to be felt. He’s playing the long game,” says the adviser.

Militias strengthening

Since the last major battles against the Islamic State in Mosul in 2018, the dozens of PMF brigades were meant to have been integrated into the Iraqi military and receive salaries from government coffers.

But some, often those with the closest ties to Iran, have eschewed Baghdad’s control. They instead exert influence on the ground and have learned to finance themselves by skimming money at checkpoints, border posts and ports, and even oil fields.

“What I think we are watching – and have been watching for the last couple years – is this level of autonomy and empowerment of these groups ... at the very local level,” says Ms. Wille at Human Rights Watch.

She points to PMF influence especially in Iraq’s eastern Diyala province, areas around Kirkuk, and in the south of the country.

“From every account that I have, the PMF, in their view, are becoming stronger and stronger, to the point that they are becoming in many areas the sole security apparatus that is functional,” says Ms. Wille.

Even in Baghdad, the release of the Kata’ib Hezbollah detainees, coupled with the murder of Mr. Hashemi, “paints the picture that the prime minister tried to draw a line in the sand,” but was met with defiance, she says.

Indeed, even inside the Green Zone – the heart of the Iraqi government – Kata’ib Hezbollah and other militias occupy 22 buildings and field from 2,000 to 5,000 armed men, making both the prime minister’s headquarters and Republican Palace “unsafe” for officials, according to an analysis this week by Michael Knights and Alex Almeida for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

That reality will make the task of exerting control even more difficult.

Mr. Kadhimi “is not a revolutionary, he is going to try incremental reform, to slowly build toward something,” says Mr. Mansour from Chatham House. “But along the way there is going to be a lot of pushback, there is going to be a lot of conflict, violence, and deaths.”

Essay

When Black athletes choose Black schools: Commentary on activism in sports

Audiences can’t get enough of athletes on the field and the court but they are often sidelined when it comes to public discourse. Columnist Ken Makin explores the role of conscience and activism in sports, from Muhammad Ali to Sharone Wright Jr.

Peter
Michael Shroyer/USA Today
Wake Forest Demon Deacons guard Sharone Wright Jr. (No. 2) drives to the basket in a game against the Virginia Tech Hokies in Blacksburg, Virginia, Jan. 19, 2019. Mr. Wright has decided that he would rather play for an HBCU and announced this month that he will transfer to Morgan State University.

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From Jackie Robinson to Colin Kaepernick, a proud history lies at the intersection of athletics and activism. It is also precarious.

Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in the Vietnam War cost him $10,000 in fines and three years of his boxing prime. Nevertheless that legacy of activism carries on today – both in action and interpretation. Recently, a few young men have either committed to attend historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or transferred from predominantly white institutions.

Sharone Wright Jr. is a child of basketball promise. His father played professional basketball for a decade. Yet in the face of social unrest and upheaval, Mr. Wright found that he had to make a decision for himself. His decision to transfer from Wake Forest University to Morgan State University carries great sociopolitical promise for Black people.

For Mr. Wright, there’s a lot at stake – not just to raise his profile, but to demand respect for mostly Black colleges. He hopes that by playing for Morgan State he can help to change the minds of “people who think just because we’re an HBCU, that we don’t deserve the same privileges and things as other major schools.”

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4. When Black athletes choose Black schools: Commentary on activism in sports

The intersection of athletics and activism contains a powerful history – one that stretches through the present summer. The names at that intersection are iconic – Jackie Robinson. Curt Flood. Colin Kaepernick. The stories of that history are proud, yet they are also precarious. 

A number of Black athletes organized in Cleveland, Ohio, in the summer of 1967 for a conference known now as the Ali Summit. A picture of the event shows famous Black athletes such as Bill Russell, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar surrounding Muhammad Ali in solidarity for Ali’s conscientious objection and refusal to serve in the Vietnam War. Nearly three weeks after the summit, Ali was convicted of draft evasion, which came with a five-year prison sentence. He was also banned from boxing for three years and fined $10,000. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971, and he served no prison time; nevertheless, he was stripped of his boxing prime.

The next October, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Early that year, Mr. Carlos met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a meeting to discuss a possible Olympic boycott. While the boycott didn’t happen, King impressed upon Mr. Carlos the power of a nonviolent protest. That imperative only grew when King was assassinated in April of that same year.

“I wanted to do something so powerful that it would reach the ends of the earth, and yet still be nonviolent,” Mr. Carlos said in an oral history for the Library of Congress. 

That legacy of activism carries on today – both in action and interpretation. Recently, a few young men have either committed to attend historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or transferred from predominantly white institutions. Their decisions have been heralded as game changers in a world where the feats – and labor – of Black players are often underappreciated and undervalued. Long before those decisions can profoundly affect the world, they have the power to change the individual.

It’s a decision that must be made for one’s self.

Sharone Wright Jr. is a child of basketball promise. His father, Sharone Sr., was selected sixth overall in the 1994 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers and played professional basketball in the NBA and abroad for a decade. Sharone Jr.’s prep career yielded a commitment to play basketball at Wake Forest University, which competes in the same Atlantic Coast Conference as his father’s alma mater, Clemson University.

Yet in the face of social unrest and upheaval, Sharone Jr. found that he had to make a decision for himself, as described in a Twitter post from July 3 titled “for myself”:

Before i made this decision, i wanted to thank God for blessing me with the ability to play the game of basketball. I am forever grateful that I’ve gotten to experience the many great things basketball has given me. I’ve been thinking on this for some time now and with everything that is going on in the world today, it has been a difficult time for many people but mainly US as African Americans. It’s saddening to me to know the world with always be this way towards US whether if we play a sport or not. It doesn’t matter. MY decision was for myself and what i thought was best for me. With all of that being said, after thought and much prayer with my family (handshake emoji) i’ve chosen to further my education and basketball career at Morgan State University (bear emoji) (two exclamation points emoji)

Mr. Wright’s decision to transfer, in conjunction with five-star prospect Makur Maker’s commitment to Howard University, carries great sociopolitical promise for Black people. There are people who envision a collective transfer from traditionally white schools to Black schools as a form of empowerment and a social awakening. While there are a number of factors to consider, including the matter of paying college athletes, it’s clear that young Black athletes are at least considering the prospect of attending HBCUs. 

In an exclusive interview, Mr. Wright specifies what he meant when he said it’s been a difficult time for many people, but mainly Black people:

“When I said that it’s been a hard time for Black people, i meant everything as far as how we are treated in the world,” Mr. Wright writes in a text message exchange.

While he acknowledged the effect of the pandemic in this country and worldwide, he expressed that Black people have also dealt with the perpetual issue of “social injustice.” ”It’s one of the things we have been faced with our entire lives,” he says.

Ironically enough, sports played a huge role in the initial shutdown. When Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus on March 11, it sent shock waves through the sporting world and led to a host of cancellations and postponements. Months later, athletes, like the rest of us, are still in limbo.

“With everything going on, it’s been hard for athletes to maintain our shape. The gyms have been closed. This summer, I’ve been running and trying to get back in the game shape that I was in prior to the virus [outbreak],” Mr. Wright says. “It’s worrying me because people around the world aren’t listening and following [guidelines]. So, it’s frustrating for us as athletes because we may not have a season or fans to watch us play. Mentally, I’m just trying to think about the positives and never the negatives.” 

For Mr. Wright, there’s a lot at stake – not just to raise his profile, but to demand respect for mostly Black colleges.

“My relationship with my coaches and their desire to win is what brought me here to Morgan State. I know we all have the same goal in mind,” Mr. Wright says. “That goal is to make it to the national tournament and be able to showcase our talents to the world for people who think just because we’re an HBCU, that we don’t deserve the same privileges and things as other major schools.” 

Tony Avelar/AP/File
John Carlos (left) and Tommie Smith pose for a photo in front of the statue that honors their iconic, black-gloved protest at the 1968 Olympic Games, on the campus of San Jose State University in San Jose, California, Oct. 17, 2018.

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A model for letting go of the past

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Reconciliation among peoples is hard work. Just ask officials of Vietnam and the United States. On July 11, the two countries celebrated the 25th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties. Working through the bitter legacy of their long war has taken that many years. Yet even though much mending is still to be done, Vietnam is now regarded as America’s closest ally in Southeast Asia.

The two have built up valuable trust by helping each other locate their missing soldiers and by jointly reducing the everyday damage from unexploded war ordnance and the American military’s use of Agent Orange. Further progress in their friendship, says Vietnam’s Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, depends on “a mentality to let go of the past.”

One bonus of all this hard work is the people ties. Nearly 30,000 Vietnamese attend U.S. schools while more than 1,200 Americans study in Vietnam.

Hanoi remains wary of being a close ally of any major power. And the U.S. hardly embraces the Communist Party’s suppression of dissent. Yet the two have squarely faced the pain of their history and are replacing it with lasting bonds.

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A model for letting go of the past

Reconciliation among peoples is hard work. Just ask officials of Vietnam and the U.S. On July 11, the two countries celebrated the 25th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties. Working through the bitter legacy of their long war has taken that many years. Yet even though much mending is still to be done, Vietnam is now regarded as America’s closest ally in Southeast Asia and a major business partner.

The two have built up valuable trust by helping each other locate their missing soldiers and by jointly reducing the everyday damage from unexploded war ordnance and the American military’s use of Agent Orange. Further progress in their friendship, says Vietnam’s Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, depends on “a mentality to let go of the past.”

One bonus of all this hard work is the people ties. Nearly 30,000 Vietnamese attend U.S. schools while more than 1,200 Americans study in Vietnam. For the first time, Hanoi has agreed to allow the Peace Corps to operate in the country. And the U.S. ambassador recently visited Vietnam’s cemeteries for its “war martyrs.”

This steady healing of the war’s aftermath is not the only reason for the closeness. The two are slowly forming a strategic partnership to counter China’s growing use of naval force against Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines over disputed islets, fisheries, and oil deposits in the South China Sea.

Vietnam is allowing more U.S. warships to visit its ports. And for the first time, the United States has taken the position that China’s claims to the South China Sea are “completely unlawful.” Washington may further help Vietnam beef up its maritime forces. Hanoi, meanwhile, is reportedly weighing whether to take Beijing to an international court over its persistent bullying tactics in Vietnamese waters.

Hanoi remains wary of being a close ally of any major power. And the U.S. hardly embraces the Communist Party’s suppression of dissent. Yet the two have squarely faced the pain of their history and are replacing it with lasting bonds. The U.S., for example, is now Vietnam’s biggest export market. The Trump administration has lauded Hanoi’s leadership in the region and its remarkable success in preventing COVID-19 deaths.

As the two keep working on the physical and moral legacies of the war, they are opening a future that few people imagined a few decades ago.

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.

Make a place

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Sometimes the demands of everyday life, which for many have been heightened by the pandemic, can feel overwhelming. But as this poem highlights, divine Love, God, is here to inspire us with peace, stillness, and inspiration.

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1. Make a place

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Make a place
for stillness
in morning’s rough alarm
in the noon of human busyness
in evening’s muffled hope
in starless corners of the night.

Whether the stillness is easy
or is wrestled for and won,
the place
for stillness
is no bleak or silent emptiness,
for stillness
is a listening prayer
where Love’s voice speaks,
and Love speaks
volumes
to Her child, whose love
for stillness
Love imparts.

Originally published in the March 2001 issue of The Christian Science Journal.

Viewfinder

Elephant’s best friend

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Every writer I’ve worked with knows I love animals – whether furry, scaly, or feathered. They’re my favorite subjects. I never miss an opportunity to include them in portraits, or to find stories to tell about them. One reason why? You never know what they’ll do. Imagine my surprise when, while photographing a cranberry harvest near my home, the farm manager’s dog jumped into the bog and started swimming – apparently chasing frogs. A black dog against red berries? Beautiful. I took one of my funniest animal shots while working on a story about a little capuchin monkey named Minnie, who was a service animal. Besides being a delightful companion, she was capable of turning on lights, opening the refrigerator, and picking things up for her human. During the shoot, I left my soda on the kitchen counter. When I turned around again, I saw Minnie taking a big sip of my drink through a straw with an impish look on her face. Perhaps my most touching animal photo is of Tarra and Bella – an elephant and a dog who were best friends. They lived at an elephant sanctuary where they followed each other, ate together, and slept side by side. (They were even the subject of a children’s book.) The photo captured the look on Bella’s face as she gazed up at her humongous sidekick. Can it be anything other than love? Click the link below to see more of my favorite images. – Melanie Stetson Freeman
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Thanks for joining us and have a great weekend. On Monday, we’ll look at how the U.S. Air Force hopes to lead the way in making sure military justice is fairly applied.

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