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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2018
August
17
Friday
Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

The spikes in the US political news cycle formed a jagged saw this week, as they have for months on end.

One writer’s roundup yesterday took the form of – what else? – a tweet: “President’s campaign chairman is waiting to find out if he’s going to prison. Architect of bin Laden raid is daring president to take his clearances. Reality show contestant/WH employee has tape of $180K offer she got to stay quiet. Years of chaos in one day.”

That’s a formula for exhaustion, division, and dismay. Where to look for some unity and affirming values? To stories that show our humanity.

A 14-year-old in Vermont figured out that he met the requirements to be on the primary ballot. He’s running for governor. Why? “If I can get one person who wasn’t involved in the political process before involved now,” he told a reporter, “then my campaign will have been a success.”

In London, a onetime refugee,​ ​who now has two engineering degrees, ​was holding a work-for-hire sign outside a subway station​. ​A straphanger tweeted his photo and has generated more than 19,000 replies.

And some residents of fire-ravaged Redding, Calif., have a few words for the individuals authorities say sparked the blaze with the exposed rim of a trailer tire gone flat. The messages are overwhelmingly not of anger, but of support. “We’ve had people who’ve lost everything,” a resident said, “and they are even saying ‘it's not your fault.’ ”

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Now to our five stories for your Friday, including shifts in thought on guns​ in Canada, on an old-conqueror in Siberia, and on our collective place in the universe. 

1. For Pakistan’s populist new leader, a steep road to reforms

Imran Khan, to be sworn in tomorrow as prime minister, has signaled he wants a new chapter for his country. That’s a standard promise of break-the-mold politicians. But can his charisma override the realities of his government? 

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Pakistan’s next prime minister, Imran Khan, would be an interesting character under any circumstances. Once a heartthrob athlete who led his cricket-mad country to its only World Cup victory, he then made a new name for himself as a philanthropist and politician. His campaign vows to create a “New Pakistan” are especially significant in light of the nation’s outsize role in the region, from the war in Afghanistan, to tense relations with neighboring India – which, like Pakistan, is a nuclear power. Then there’s its place at the middle of a tug of war between the United States and China. But Mr. Khan is likely to find his road to reform a steep one, regional experts say: hemmed in on one side by an economic crisis, and on the other, by a military that traditionally wields power over civilian governments. “When it comes down to it, all this is with Khan is old Pakistan getting a new PR manager – who will try to market it to the world as a new Pakistan,” says Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington.

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For Pakistan’s populist new leader, a steep road to reforms

When Pakistan installs Imran Khan as its new prime minister Saturday, the cricket star-turned-populist politician will be wearing an old sherwani, or traditional coat-length garment.

As part of his bid to demonstrate frugality and a new path for Pakistan’s leadership, Mr. Khan plans to forego the crisp new sherwani traditionally crafted for the ceremonial swearing-in by one of Islamabad’s go-to tailors to the political elite.

The gesture seems to fit a politician who ran on a slogan of “New Pakistan,” and attracted the support of down-on-politics millennials and a besieged middle class by promising an end to the country’s rife corruption, nepotism, and political-party patronage.

But wearing a used garment to take the oath of office is likely to be the easiest, if not one of the only, innovative and tradition-shattering steps the mold-breaking Khan is able to take. Hemmed in as he will be by a deepening economic crisis on the one hand and a military that continues to hold the levers of power on the other, Khan is likely to find the road to his “New Pakistan” a steep and encumbered one, regional experts say.

“Despite Khan’s image as a breath of fresh air with new approaches to Pakistan’s old problems, I don’t think he’ll have the capability to make much domestic change,” says Mohammed Ayoob, a South Asia expert and distinguished professor emeritus at Michigan State University.

“No prime minister can change course unless it’s first approved by the military quarters in Rawalpindi, and chances are little to nonexistent he’ll be able to make good on something like his campaign pledge to help bring peace to Afghanistan unless the military sees it fits their purposes,” he adds. “Across the board, the military is going to keep Prime Minister Khan on a very short leash.”

Pakistan has retreated from the central place it once held in US foreign policy, as Washington has turned its sights to building a strategic partnership with India, lost interest in Afghanistan, and tired of its old game plan of modifying Pakistani behavior with foreign aid.

So the prospects of a new type of Pakistani political leader might not seem to matter much in the global scheme of things – were it not for a few critical realities:

  • Pakistan’s status as a nuclear power with Islamist insurgents at home and smoldering tensions with neighboring nuclear-power India;
  • Its outsize role in the war in Afghanistan, a conflict the United States dearly wants to conclude and leave behind;
  • And its place at the center of a regional tug-of-war for influence between the US and China.

For all these reasons, Pakistan is unlikely to fade further from US interests. Yet in the same way that Khan will have trouble delivering a new Pakistan of corralled corruption and a vibrant economy at home, he will also run into roadblocks if he tries to move in new directions on foreign policy that the military does not support, analysts say.

“When it comes down to it, all this is with Khan is old Pakistan getting a new PR manager – who will try to market it to the world as a new Pakistan,” says Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US who is now director of South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

'Follow the script'

Khan is hardly a vocal critic of the military. Throughout the campaign, Pakistan observers have underscored the army “establishment’s” seeming support for the unconventional candidate. After dozens of parliamentary candidates for the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif were intimidated or otherwise forced to pull out of the elections by what they alleged was a military campaign, cries arose of a “soft coup.” No civilian leader in Pakistan’s 71-year history has finished a full term, with many deposed in military coups.

Khan has been critical of the US treatment of Pakistan but won’t be allowed to risk rupture with the US, Ambassador Haqqani notes, since the military depends on the US for sophisticated weaponry. On the other hand, the military continues to see its source of power and legitimacy as its defense of the nation against India, he adds, so any effort by Khan to follow through on campaign pledges to improve relations with New Delhi are likely to be undermined. 

Faisal Mahmood/Reuters
Paramilitary soldiers walk past the Supreme Court building in Islamabad, Pakistan on Jan. 16, 2012. Some analysts say the military's significant influence will likely limit the new civilian government's maneuvering room.

Professor Ayoob points to the case of the previous prime minister, Mr. Sharif, who was brought down ostensibly over corruption and for sizable and questionable financial holdings outside the country. The three-time PM returned to Pakistan in July, one week after being sentenced to 10 years in jail.

“But if that were indeed the reason for his removal we’d have to see similar action against 99 percent of Pakistani politicians,” Ayoob says. The real reason, in his view, is that Sharif did not “follow the script” the military set for him, particularly on India – and, indeed, was deposed by the military in 1999 before winning a third term in 2013.

Sharif “tried to move away from the course set for him,” Ayoob says, “but his efforts at warming relations with India were especially alarming to the military, so they got him out of the way.”

Put to the test

As Khan launches into what many say will be a make-or-break first 100 days in power – most critically assuming management of a nose-diving economy – for some analysts it remains to be seen whether the prime minister’s new political model will end up a strength or a weakness.

“What we’re seeing with Imran Khan is another example of a new populism replacing the old machine party politics,” said Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies, speaking recently at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.

Comparing Khan’s rise to that of Norendra Modi in India, Mr. Markey said “charismatic leaders” are increasingly able to use new technologies to sidestep political parties and “reach out directly to individual voters.” Yet while the “new populism” may have got Khan elected, he adds, “it doesn’t necessarily bode well for the management of democratic governance.”

Indeed Pakistani political observers note that while Khan’s movement won a plurality of votes, the two main traditional parties together outpolled Khan’s PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) party by several million votes.

Moreover some analysts, like Ayoob, believe that Khan’s election victory, which required him to cobble together a coalition of numerous small parties and factions, was a design on the part of the military to further limit the new civilian government’s maneuvering room.

Money troubles

Still, the military powers that helped pave Khan’s path to victory are not going to want him to fail precipitously, experts say. And that means action will be expected on the country’s first order of business, the plummeting economy.

With more than 70 percent of Pakistan’s GDP eaten up by servicing of the external debt, and with foreign exchange reserves around a meager $10 billion – or about two months’ worth of imports – most analysts believe the new government will have to move quickly to secure a sizable bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Any IMF bailout would also presumably come with a raft of austerity measures – not exactly the “Islamic welfare state” Khan promised in his campaign. Moreover an IMF loan bid would run afoul of the US – which is already voicing its objection to a loan, for fear that it would be used to pay off what it sees as China’s predatory loans to Pakistan.

The US has effective veto power over loans at the IMF. At the same time, some analysts say, the US may end up thinking twice about any action that could push Pakistan deeper into China’s arms.

But what troubles some most about the prospect of a big international bailout is that it would just be more of the same – Islamabad has received a dozen over the past three decades – and would suggest “New Pakistan” really was just a campaign slogan.

“Everyone would agree on building a new Pakistan, but it’s not going to be achieved by following old patterns and perpetuating old excuses,” Haqqani says. “The country’s vision remains limited by those old ways,” he adds, “and that’s going to handicap us.” 

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2. Amid 'summer of the gun,' Canada sees shift in views on firearms

Much of the world sees Canada as America’s responsible neighbor when it comes to gun control. But the arms landscape has been shifting in recent years, and so has the conversation about guns.   

Andy Clark/Reuters
Jeff Wright waits his turn while trap shooting at the Vancouver Gun Club in Richmond, British Columbia, in 2013. The country has a long history of sport shooting and hunting. But as high-profile shootings and gun deaths rise in Canada, its debate sounds increasingly like the US one.

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It has been a "summer of the gun" in Canada. A spate of high-profile shootings and a surge of handgun-fueled gang violence in Toronto have the country steeped in debate over the increasing role of firearms in Canadian society. The streets in Canada are much less violent and its debate about guns much less virulent than those in the United States. But many see an American “creep,” both in the prevalence of guns and the polarization around them. Government figures showed 223 homicides by firearm in 2016, which was the highest number since 2005. There are also simply more guns today: The number of lawfully registered restricted weapons, predominantly handguns, rose from 660,000 to 840,000 between 2013 and 2016. As the government weighs tighter restrictions, some are calling into question the comfort Canada has long taken in its relative peace compared with the US. “We've been sliding in the last few years,” says Peter Donolo, director of communications to former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, whose government introduced a now dissolved national firearms registry. “Instead of looking smugly [at the US], we should look in the mirror.”

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Amid 'summer of the gun,' Canada sees shift in views on firearms

A shootout on a summer evening in July killed a high school graduate and a 10-year-old girl. In August a sniper in an apartment complex shot dead four people, including two police officers, at sunrise.

This might sound like a familiar storyline in the United States. But the tragedies have mounted in Canada – these latest respectively in Toronto and Fredericton, New Brunswick – part of what has been dubbed a “summer of the gun” here.

Not surprisingly, it has spurred a debate on the increasing role of firearms in Canadian society. But the conversation is taking place in a newer context.

While streets in Canada are much less violent and its debate about guns much less virulent than in the US, many see an American “creep,” both in the prevalence of guns and the polarization around them. As the government weighs tighter restrictions, some are calling into question the comfort Canada has long taken in its relative peace compared with the US.

“We've been sliding in the last few years,” says Peter Donolo, who was director of communications for former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, whose government introduced a now-dissolved national firearms registry for unrestricted guns. “Instead of looking smugly [at the US] we should look in the mirror.”

Chris Helgren/Reuters
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends the site of the mass shooting at Alexander the Great Parkette on Danforth Avenue in Toronto on July 30.

The evolving debate

The arms landscape in Canada has been shifting in recent years. Government figures showed 223 homicides by firearm in 2016, which was the highest number since 2005, the original “summer of the gun” when gang violence flared as it has this summer.

There are also simply more guns today. According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the number of lawfully registered restricted weapons, predominantly handguns, rose from 660,000 to 840,000 between 2013 and 2016. In Canada, “unrestricted” guns, which include rifles and shotguns, require licenses but their purchases are not tracked. “Restricted” guns, on the other hand, have steep requirements for legal purchase and must be registered with the government.

Gun control advocates say the current laws aren’t sufficient. “Handguns are supposed to be hard to get,” says Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control. “The most obvious explanation is we have just not been applying the criteria as rigorously over the past decade.”

Canada has a long tradition of guns used for hunting and trapping. Blake Brown, author of “Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada,” says that in the 19th century some advocated that citizens practice target shooting in case of a potential American invasion.

It was with handguns that the cultures took a significant turn, with much tighter restrictions and checks leading to far fewer guns than in the US. There is no constitutional right to bear arms, no narrative about settling the West with arms, and no equivalent to the NRA either. But “a lot of urban Canadians I think underestimate the number of gun owners in Canada, and the passion with which the people in some parts of rural Canada value their firearms,” Mr. Brown says.

That goes some way to explain why restrictions have been relaxed over the past decade. The most visible change came with the 2012 dissolution of a registry under the Conservative government. It had been introduced in the 1990s for rifles and shotguns after a 1989 massacre at a Montreal university in which 14 women were gunned down. But critics painted it as a misuse of funds that targeted law-abiding gun users without addressing public safety.

And gun regulations only partially address Canada's handgun crime, as a significant portion of weapons are illegally smuggled from the US.

Blair Hagen, a board member of the National Firearms Association gun lobby, says the debate in Canada has become louder, which he dates back to the controls established in the '90s. “That is when we really saw, frankly, the gun debate in Canada become more aligned with the gun debate in the United States,” he says.

Now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government is proposing new legislation, to be taken up this fall, for stricter background checks and record controls, though he has repeated he will not reinstate the registry. Many say the proposals don’t go far enough.

“There is a bit of mythology that grew that somehow the gun registry was fatal for the Liberal Party's electoral chances,” says Mr. Donolo. “And I think that’s one reason in my view that [Trudeau] hasn't been very aggressive on the gun control front.”

A less knowledgeable public?

Because of the relatively low rates of crime, gun control hasn’t been a salient issue for voters. A poll by public relations firm H+K Strategies earlier this year showed that only one in five Canadians say they are knowledgeable about their country's gun laws.

Ms. Cukier points to this spring’s March for Our Lives in the US after the Parkland shooting. “You had Canadians going to Washington marching. You had marches in solidarity in major cities across Canada calling for a ban on the AR-15 in the United States, among other things,” she says. “Most of those people did not know, I think, that the AR-15 is sold as a restricted weapon in Canada.”

She says Canada also too often looks only south, when it should set its standards beyond the gun troubles of the US. In a ranking of industrialized countries, Canada sits at fifth place in homicides with firearms. “When we compare ourselves to the United States we look good,” she says. “But we very seldom compare ourselves to European countries.”

She sees more urgency infusing the public debate, however. In the days after the rampage in Toronto’s Greektown, Mayor John Tory asked: “Why does anyone in this city need to have a gun at all?”

It's led to a vote in Toronto City Hall for a ban on handguns in city limits. This week Montreal said it would push for a federal ban on them, which would be a major turning point. Trudeau said Wednesday he is “listening.”

Distinguishing itself from the US on gun culture has been a constant theme in the Canadian debate since the last third of the 19th century, says Brown, but the concern mounts. “I think these episodes drive some Canadians to say, ‘we don’t want to become like the United States.’”

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Siberian crossroads

3. Russia takes a new look at an old enemy: Genghis Khan

It isn’t easy for the conquered to see the contributions that a conqueror made to their country. It’s even harder when that conqueror is Genghis Khan in Russia. But in the republic of Buryatia, the view is indeed shifting. This is the third of five stories in a series

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At its peak the Mongol Empire was the largest contiguous land empire in history, and it left its imprint everywhere, including present-day Russia. It took the Russians 200 years of hard struggle to unite themselves and throw off what they still refer to as the “Mongol yoke.” To this day, Russian schoolchildren learn that the Mongol occupiers brought nothing but pain, devastation, and humiliating subjugation. But that view is being challenged by historians and other thinkers here in Buryatia. They offer a more subtle interpretation that sees the Mongolian occupation as the impetus that shaped the enduring Russian state, with its highly centralized form of government dependent on an indisputable leader, its constant military-led expansionism, and its collective forms of social organization. “In Soviet times any mention of Genghis Khan was forbidden,” says Nikolai Kradin of the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography of the Peoples of the Far-East. Today, “we’re coming to a more complex view of the Mongol conquest and its historical ramifications. Yes, they overran and destroyed civilizations, they were ruthless, but they integrated Russia into a vast empire.”

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Russia takes a new look at an old enemy: Genghis Khan

In the south of Buryatia, near the present-day border with Mongolia, there is a mountain-sized rock outcropping known locally as the Merkit Fortress, which looks out over the arid, rolling steppe that gradually fades into the Gobi Desert a few hundred miles away.

According to legend, this formidable natural fortification was stormed more than 800 years ago by the forces of a young Mongol warlord who claimed his bride had been stolen by the Merkit tribe, which had made its home base here. He seized the rock, and went on to unite most of the nomadic Mongol tribes of northeast Asia, including the ancestors of today’s Buryats. Taking the name Genghis Khan, which means “universal ruler,” he flung his vast army of highly disciplined, horse-mounted shock troops to the south and west, conquering China, most of Central Asia and the Middle East, present-day Russia, and parts of Eastern Europe.

At its peak the Mongol Empire was the largest contiguous land empire in history, and it left its imprint everywhere. For the West its impact was mainly positive, because the Mongol-secured land passage to China – the fabled Silk Road – enabled travelers like Marco Polo to bring home Eastern wonders such as spices, silk, gunpowder, the compass, and the printing press.

But Russian historians have traditionally treated it as an unmitigated catastrophe. The first wave of Mongol invaders smashed the European-like Kievan Rus state in present-day Ukraine, sending the survivors fleeing into the northern forests, where they congregated around small statelets like Moscow. It took the Russians 200 years of hard struggle to unite themselves and throw off what they still refer to as the “Mongol yoke.” To this day Russian schoolchildren learn that the Mongol occupiers, known as the “Golden Horde,” brought nothing but pain, devastation, and humiliating subjugation.

But that view is being challenged by historians and other thinkers here in Buryatia, and even some in Moscow. They offer a more subtle interpretation that sees the Mongol occupation as the impetus that shaped the enduring Russian state, with its highly-centralized form of government dependent on an indisputable leader, its constant military-led expansionism, and its collective forms of social organization.

“Putin is a khan. What he says is done. This is in the Mongolian tradition, and it’s not a European one at all,” says Alexei Gatapov, author of several books about Genghis Khan and Buryat history. “What I say may be controversial in Moscow, but we can see that quite clearly.”

Heirs of the empire

Russia and China are both products of centuries of Mongol rule, which took them in very different directions from Western development. In their 20th-century efforts to modernize, both adopted forms of communism that might not be recognizable to Karl Marx, but would probably get a nod of approval from Genghis Khan.

Despite the demise of communist ideology in the past quarter century and the wholesale adoption of capitalism by both Russia and China, geopolitical tensions with the West have not gone away, and may even be intensifying. Buryat scholars say they can understand why that is happening.

Karen Norris/Staff

“Russia and China were both part of the great Mongol Empire, and we see the persistence of Mongol influence on the Russian state, military, and political culture to this day,” says Timur Dugarzhapov, editor of Novaya Buryatia, an independent political journal. “When Vladimir Putin and Chinese leaders meet today and find common geopolitical language, and China talks of using its economic might to reestablish the old Silk Road, they are reaching back to that historical experience. It was totally different from the Western one, and it created societies that are very unlike the West right down to their political DNA.”

Since the collapse of the USSR, Russia has embraced Western economic methods and also many other values, including a stated commitment to build democracy. But it remains founded upon a political system that Western critics now call “autocracy” in the same tone of voice they used to say “communism.” Those differences are not imaginary. China recently amended its constitution to allow Xi Jinping to remain president for life. Mr. Putin, recently elected to his fourth term in the Kremlin, is under quite a bit of pressure from below to do something similar.

Hero of the Buryats

The Mongol influence is particularly resonant in Buryatia. Buryats are descendants of Genghis Khan’s hordes who developed a separate identity after the Russian Empire conquered this territory and drew a border between them and the rest of Mongolia in the 17th century. Their lands were conquered by Russian Cossacks – the militarized colonists who spearheaded czarist expansion – and was later settled by Old Believers, religious dissidents exiled from European Russia in the 18th century.

Imaginechina/AP
Statues of a 160-ft. Genghis Khan and a 100-ft. Kublai Khan overlook statues of 800 Mongol troops at a scenic spot in Xilingol League, north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Genghis Khan was the founder of the Mongol Empire, which became the largest contiguous empire in history after his death.

Unlike American settlers who pushed westward across North America, the Russians tended to coexist with the native peoples they conquered, often intermarrying with them. Early Russian settlers to Buryatia brought agriculture to the river valleys, and developed an economic symbiosis with the cattle-breeding, nomadic Buryat tribes around them. That doesn’t mean it was always peaceful.

“We were taught in [Soviet] school that we joined Russia voluntarily,” says Mr. Gatapov. “But in the 1990s, when we had more freedom, we were able to study more widely. We learned that Russia conquered the Buryats in a decades-long war. So, Russian education lied to us. On the other hand, all the civilization we have is due to Russia, and the Russian language is our window on the world. So we have this strange ambivalence. But it does help to explain why you don't find any aggressive Buryat nationalism here.”

The growing controversy about Genghis Khan and the Mongol heritage in Russia is equally vexed.

“Genghis Khan was always a folk hero among the Buryat people. But in Buryatia, even today, children learn the same history that’s taught in all Russian schools,” says Mr. Dugarzhapov. “I used to be a history teacher myself, and I would regale my pupils with tales of how terrible the ‘Mongol yoke’ was, how it set Russia back and was responsible for all sort of historic ills. Now we can explore new views.”

‘It all leads back to Genghis Khan’

Scholars say the Mongol influence is still visible in Russian political culture and military organization, and also in the Russian language itself. Though not many Russian words can be traced to the Mongol and Turkic tribes who made up the Golden Horde, those that do relate to administration, trade, and military organization. They include the Russian words for money, horse, customs, tea, and treasury.

“In Soviet times, any mention of Genghis Khan was forbidden, even in Mongolia [then a Soviet satellite] itself,” says Nikolai Kradin, acting director of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Ethnography of the Far-East, which is part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Today, Mongolia is independent, and Genghis Khan is their national hero. In Buryatia, it’s a topic of discussion and even among Russian historians new interpretations are gradually being considered. We’re coming to a more complex view of the Mongol conquest and its historical ramifications. Yes, they overran and destroyed civilizations, they were ruthless, but they integrated Russia into a vast empire.”

He says that many historians now believe the technological, military, and political transformations Russia underwent in the 16th century, which put it on the path to becoming a global power, can be traced to its two-century-long immersion in the Mongol Empire.

“Russia today is a greatly modernized place, and it has adapted a great deal from the West. You can’t say that Russia is just the product of its Mongol heritage, because that’s just one among many influences,” says Dugarzhapov. “Here in Buryatia, we don’t see any future separate from Russia, but we do understand that we have a somewhat different identity. We all speak Russian, but we have our own language, culture, and history. Tradition is very much in demand among young Buryats these days, and it all leads back to Genghis Khan.”

Karen Norris/Staff
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4. Chasing asteroids for hidden clues to our solar system’s past

Here’s a cosmic piece. Missions to space offer more than a thrill of exploration, they can also expand our understanding of our place in the universe. This year’s twin missions to sample asteroids are no exception.

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As we speak, NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft is hurtling through space at a speed of more than 300 miles per second. Its mission: sidle up alongside an asteroid and capture samples to return to Earth. At the same time, Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission is maneuvering into place to sample a different asteroid. Scientists hope that these samples, however small, might offer glimpses into the origins of the solar system. Many things could go wrong with these daring missions. But if they succeed in carrying pristine pieces of rock back to Earth, these celestial souvenirs could change the way we see asteroids – and ourselves. Chemistry will be a major focus of the missions, but the movement of asteroids and whether they might pose a future threat to Earth will be of interest, too. In the end, the two asteroid missions will no doubt yield valuable new information about the chemistry, physics, and movement of space rocks. These new insights could unravel long-standing mysteries about Earth, life, and the dangers these orbiting time capsules hold.

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Chasing asteroids for hidden clues to our solar system’s past

It was a normal Friday morning in the industrial city of Chelyabinsk, Russia. Adults were on their way to work, and children were in school. But that ordinary day was about to become extraordinary.

Suddenly, a fireball shot across the clear morning sky leaving a thick trail of smoke, accompanied by the sound of a huge explosion. The shock wave knocked people over, shattered glass, and collapsed a factory roof. As many as 1,200 people were injured. A global network of infrasound sensors designed to pick up nuclear explosions calculated that the boom was 30 to 40 times more powerful than the atomic bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II. 

But this event on Feb. 15, 2013, wasn’t a declaration of war. It was simply an asteroid that crossed paths with Earth on its travels around the sun. 

As the space rock hurtled toward Russia, the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere was too much for it. The asteroid exploded over Chelyabinsk. Much of the material burned up in the atmosphere, creating a spectacular fireball. The remaining chunks fell to Earth, the largest of which plunged through a thick layer of ice into a lake.

The Chelyabinsk meteor stirred up fear in people around the globe. Nobody died this time, but what if a bigger asteroid hits Earth over, say, New York or London? Is humanity in for an asteroid-driven Armageddon?

ITAR-TASS/ZUMAPRESS.COM/Newscom
Divers pull a chunk of meteorite weighing more than 600 pounds from a lake near Chelyabinsk, Russia. The rock came from a meteorite that exploded over the area in February 2013, injuring 1,200 people.

While this terror periodically grips people around the world – and engages Hollywood screenwriters – it is hardly an imminent threat. True, an asteroid the size of a car plunges toward Earth about once a year, but most of the rock burns up in the atmosphere. 

Scientists consider the chance of a wayward asteroid actually doing major damage on Earth quite remote. Instead of doomsday plots, many researchers are far more interested in the space rocks for another reason: the clues they offer to the origins of the solar system.

Because asteroids are the leftover building blocks of planets, their composition may explain how the planets – and the broader galaxy and universe – were formed.

“They’re sort of these time capsules of the early solar system,” says Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “This is our history that we’re looking at.”

The problem with asteroids is that they’re tricky to study. Most of what scientists know about them comes from afar: They try to match the bits that fall to Earth as meteorites with types of asteroids spotted in telescope data. But that has proved difficult, largely because a lot of material burns off an asteroid as it passes through Earth’s atmosphere. 

Now two missions are under way that could yield vital new information about the heavenly objects. Both are robotic envoys settling into position to collect samples directly from asteroids and spirit them back to Earth. A Japanese spacecraft, the Hayabusa2, arrived at asteroid 162173 Ryugu on June 27. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a probe set to pull up to asteroid 101955 Bennu in the fall. Both asteroids orbit the sun near Earth’s own path, and Bennu is also characterized as potentially hazardous – one that could collide with our planet.

Many things could go wrong with these daring missions. But if they succeed in carrying pristine pieces of rock back to Earth, these celestial souvenirs could change the way we see asteroids – and ourselves. 

“It’s pretty exciting,” says Daniel Glavin, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and a co-investigator on the US mission OSIRIS-REx. “You wouldn’t think you could learn so much just from a rock.”

JAXA/AP
The asteroid Ryugu appears as a blistered, diamond-shaped body in this image taken by Hayabusa2, a Japanese spacecraft that will eventually try to bring back samples from the space rock.

***

Asteroids are space rocks that never became big enough during the birth of the solar system to grow into planets. Some 4.6 billion years ago, there was a wispy cloud of gas and dust in our galaxy that collapsed in on itself, transforming into a flat, spinning disk. In the middle of this swirling mass, material coalesced into what would one day become our sun.

Across the rest of the roiling disk, particles clumped together to form smaller celestial bodies. Just as in a flowing river, eddies formed in the gas and dust, harboring some of the lumps and causing them to concentrate further. Gravity drew them even more tightly together and they condensed into bigger objects: planetesimals, or baby planets. The dust, clumps, pebbles, and planetesimals kept merging, forming larger and larger masses, until eventually some grew into planets.

The planetesimals that never became planets make up the comets and asteroids now whirring around the cosmos. Some of them orbit beyond Neptune in the cold Kuiper belt. Others are collected in a swath between the orbit of Mars and the orbit of Jupiter known as the asteroid belt, with a handful scattered elsewhere.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

These space rocks frequently collide with each other. Often they are moving so fast that they shatter on impact, shooting sometimes massive chunks out in all directions, including occasionally toward Earth.

Bits of asteroids that have rained down on Earth have, in effect, offered free samples for scientists to study. And some of those meteorites have already yielded some tantalizing clues as to what might have been present in the early solar system.

The Japanese and American missions will try to build on these previous discoveries – and glean new information altogether. But first, they will have to bring some of the rocks back to Earth, which won’t be easy. Retrieving samples from an asteroid isn’t like picking up pebbles at the beach. 

Just ask the Japanese. 

***

In 2003, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) embarked on the world’s first attempt to bring back specimens from an asteroid. The mission, dubbed Hayabusa after the Japanese word for “falcon,” would eventually make history. But not before virtually everything that could go wrong did. 

The problems began shortly after liftoff on May 9 when a large solar flare damaged the spacecraft’s solar panels. Then, the spacecraft lost two out of three reaction wheels that stabilize the probe as it was getting into position to study its target: near-Earth asteroid 25143 Itokawa. When the crippled probe tried to deploy a small rover, instead of descending to Itokawa’s surface, the rover spun off into space. Mission scientists also lost contact with the spacecraft for several months.

Hayabusa’s central goal – sample collection – didn’t go smoothly, either. First, the chosen landing site was too rocky, so mission controllers had to pick a new one. When it finally descended to the asteroid, Hayabusa was supposed to fire tiny pellets into the ground to kick material up into a cone-shaped basket. But no pellets came out.

The return flight didn’t go much better. The beleaguered probe faced fuel shortages, thruster problems, and emergency shutdowns. At one point, it seemed Hayabusa would never make it back to Earth.

But it did arrive on June 13, 2010, with a pleasant surprise: The probe had actually brought back some rock samples. It turns out when the collection device had brushed up against the asteroid, some grains fell into the conical collector.

Photo courtesy of JAXA
Japanese space agency workers in contamination suits retrieve a capsule in the Australian desert in 2010 containing the first grains of rock brought back from an asteroid.

The current asteroid missions will do some things similarly and some differently than Hayabusa – and without, scientists hope, all the theatrics. Hayabusa2 has already been snapping pictures of Ryugu, bringing it into focus for the first time. They reveal a diamond-shaped, boulder-covered rock with a strange rotation axis and a large crater on its equatorial bulge. It’s about a half-mile wide in size.

NASA’s spacecraft is closing in on Bennu at a speed of more than 300 miles per second. It will begin its orbit of the rock sometime in December. Although Bennu is one of the most well-studied asteroids, scientists have only been able to get a fuzzy image of it from telescope data. They think it looks like a spinning top with a ridge along its equator. 

Both probes will gather information while orbiting the rocks, measuring their mass and gravitational pull, mapping the surfaces for good landing spots, and snapping more pictures. Hayabusa2 will also deploy four small landers, one of which was built by a European group.

Sample collection will again be one of the most treacherous tasks. Once it selects a landing site this fall, Hayabusa2 will descend slowly toward Ryugu to tap the asteroid with a robotic arm. It will fire pellets, like its predecessor was supposed to, to kick dust up to be caught by the collection arm. The spacecraft will also fire a metal impactor at Ryugu to create a crater and get down to the subsurface for the third and final sampling attempt. The plan is to arrive back at Earth in 2020 with at least a gram of asteroid debris in tow.

OSIRIS-REx will use a slightly different method. It will shoot nitrogen gas into the surface of the asteroid to stir up material for collection, using a mechanism NASA calls “Touch and Go,” or TAG. In both missions, granules captured in the sample capsule will be sealed off to protect them from any contaminating forces on the return flight home.

OSIRIS-REx will spend a little longer at Bennu, starting to sample the asteroid in the summer of 2020. The hope is to collect somewhere between 60 and 2,000 grams (2 to 70 ounces) of space rock to carry back to Earth in 2023.

These missions, in addition to the first Hayabusa, are laying the groundwork for more rock-collecting journeys deeper into space and at more challenging targets. JAXA is already working on a sample return mission to the moons of Mars.

“Sample return is an objective we strive for, not just for asteroids but for all the other planets,” says Dr. Chabot, who is not involved in either mission. “You can get way more information about something if you can bring a part of it back to the lab and use your latest lab techniques to study it.”

***

One central question about asteroids is where they were formed. Scientists think that asteroids made up of certain materials were created at specific distances from the sun.

The planets that were birthed nearby were probably formed from the same material. So, because asteroids haven’t undergone the same complex internal processes that planets have, they might expose a new view into the original composition of their early planetary neighbors.

In their study of meteorites that have fallen to Earth’s surface, scientists have uncovered some clues about what might have been present in the early solar system. One kind of meteorite in particular, called a carbonaceous chondrite for its carbon-rich composition, has been found to contain things such as water-bearing minerals, organic materials, amino acids, and chemical building blocks of DNA. 

“It seems like every [carbonaceous] meteorite we analyze, we find something cool with respect to the building blocks,” Dr. Glavin says. “It’s just a real treasure-trove for an organic chemist.”

Scientists think carbonaceous chondritic meteorites come from a class of space rocks called C-type asteroids because they are also thought to contain a lot of carbon. The OSIRIS-REx and Hayabusa2 missions will gather data that might confirm that link, since Bennu and Ryugu are classified as C-type objects. Even the few tiny grains brought back by the first Hayabusa mission were instrumental in helping scientists identify the origin of some meteorites. 

Perhaps more important, if experts can figure out where in the solar system C-type asteroids formed, they might be able to piece together whether those same materials existed on the early Earth, or if they might have been delivered by a stray rock from another part of the solar system.

Another possibility is that those materials are common throughout the solar system, says Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator and professor at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. And if the ingredients for life are plentiful throughout our solar system, they might be in other star systems, too.

***

While chemistry will be a major focus of the missions, the movement of asteroids and whether they might pose a future threat to Earth will be of interest, too. The risk of rocks falling from the sky remains a big part of asteroid research. (See sidebar on asteroid deflection efforts.) It also happens to be what fuels the popular imagination about them, for understandable reasons.

Most people are aware that a massive asteroid slammed into Earth some 66 million years ago and triggered the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs. This theory first started to take shape in the early 1980s. Evidence discovered in the 1990s linking that event to a crater in the Yucatán Peninsula bolstered the idea. 

Newscom
This illustration depicts an asteroid colliding with Earth on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico – a collision believed to have led to the death of dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

Then, in 1993, scientists spotted chunks of a comet that had broken up in orbit around Jupiter, which they believed would probably collide with the gas giant. They eventually did, in July 1994, leaving dramatic disruptions in Jupiter’s gaseous shroud that were visible from Earth. It was the first time scientists had witnessed a space rock slamming into a planet.

Government officials were worried by all this. In 1994, Congress directed NASA to develop a program to discover, characterize, and track potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs).

Hollywood couldn’t resist cashing in on people’s fears and fantasies. Several asteroid disaster films, both for television and the big screen, came out in the 1990s. These included “Without Warning,” “Doomsday Rock,” “Asteroid,” “Deep Impact,” and “Armageddon.” Scary “science” seemed to be a popular theme at the time: People could either be in danger from falling rocks or the runaway dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park.” 

By 1998, NASA had established a program to find 90 percent of NEOs larger than a kilometer (about 0.62 miles). It completed that goal by 2010 and is now focused on finding 90 percent of NEOs 140 meters (153 yards) or larger at Congress’s direction.

Before NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies was established, fewer than 500 NEOs were known. Today, NASA scientists are tracking more than 18,000. And that has been a major source of data for scientists, too.

“The Near Earth Object Program has clearly been a vehicle that has built the science of asteroids into what it is, just from the sheer numbers of asteroids that have been found,” says Paul Chodas, manager of the NASA program. 

***

Bennu is officially classified as a potentially hazardous asteroid because it is on track for a close shave with Earth in 2135. At that point, our planet’s gravity could alter its orbit in a way that would pull the big rock even closer toward us on a future pass around the sun. Bennu is 5-1/2 football fields in width, so such a visit could have a major impact. Yet there’s a very slim chance – just 0.037 percent – that this will happen. The OSIRIS-REx mission will study Bennu in the hope of refining those risks.

To do that, the team will look at the asteroid’s mass and motion, explains Dr. Lauretta. This will include homing in on a force that has turned out to be surprisingly important in the movement of asteroids throughout the solar system: sunlight.

On Earth, sunshine heats the dark asphalt of a street on a clear day. Similarly, the surface of an asteroid also absorbs solar radiation. As the asteroid rotates, the heated side turns away from the sun and releases the radiation into cold, dark space – just as a sidewalk releases heat at night. On a small body like an asteroid, this produces a tiny thrust, influencing its path around the sun. This is called the Yarkovsky effect. 

“There is this amazing physics going on,” Lauretta says. OSIRIS-REx will measure the heat radiating off Bennu to help scientists refine their models of how the Yarkovsky effect works, and therefore make more precise predictions about the path of any potentially hazardous asteroid.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Yet there’s more to the effect than just avoiding collisions. It could also prove useful in answering questions about the history of the solar system. For example, scientists can figure out when and where a planetesimal may have collided with another and broken up into a bunch of smaller asteroids using the Yarkovsky effect. Smaller bodies get a bigger push from the release of heat radiation, so researchers can look at the relative distance between different-sized fragments and calculate how long it may have taken for those pieces to spread apart from a common location. 

“It’s a small little force,” says Bill Bottke, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute. “But it actually has the potential to say very interesting things about our world and how it fits in with the solar system.”

In the end, the two asteroid missions will no doubt yield valuable new information about the chemistry, physics, and movement of space rocks. These new insights could unravel long-standing mysteries about Earth, life, and the dangers these orbiting time capsules hold. Who knows? Maybe even Hollywood will find some chilling new theme to exploit in the study of the stony worlds.

But, as with any space venture, the biggest breakthroughs may come from things scientists haven’t even thought about yet.

“I don’t even want to predict what we’re going to find,” says Glavin of NASA Goddard. “The only thing I can guarantee is we will be surprised.”

Check out a subscriber web chat with the Monitor science team at bit.ly/asteroidchase.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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5. Destinations disrupted: Can tourist meccas beat the searing heat?

Besides endangering the unsheltered, Europe’s heat wave has travelers reconsidering where to take breaks from work. Can the world’s tourist destinations stay attractive in the face of global warming?

Fabian Bimmer/Reuters
Beachgoers packed Timmendorfer Strand at the edge of the Baltic Sea in Germany last month. Soaring temperatures – including in some unlikely places – are prompting many around the world to rethink how and where they want to spend their leisure time.

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It has been an extraordinarily hot summer in Europe, with temperatures surpassing 114 degrees in Portugal, and scientists predict that global warming means this is just a taste of summers to come. That means that in the future, tourists may think twice about heading for popular hot spots such as the Mediterranean – especially if the weather is just fine closer to home. And it’s not just the heat giving vacationers pause for thought. Climate change is intensifying extreme weather events such as droughts and hurricanes that are making many traditional tourist meccas less attractive. Wildfires have ravaged northern California, Greece, and even woods inside the Arctic Circle this summer. Winter resorts are finding it harder to make snow and maintain skiable slopes as average temperatures rise. But Australian rural resort owner Christopher Warren, coping with a 30-month drought, says his visitors are happy to deal with its effects; they save their used shower water to keep the garden alive, for example. “We appeal to people’s sense of the right and responsible action to take,” he says. “That can be enriching.”

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Destinations disrupted: Can tourist meccas beat the searing heat?

For Christopher Warren, global warming has gotten uncomfortably up close and personal.

Dr. Warren and his wife run Crystal Creek Meadows, a rural get-away tourist resort a couple of hours outside Sydney, Australia. They are now entering their 30th month of the worst drought in living memory. And would-be tourists are noticing. 

“Whenever there’s media coverage about the drought, the phone stops ringing” and bookings drop off, says Warren. “If there’s not a blade of grass and animals are dying, that hardly encourages you to come to us,” he adds. “Things could get very difficult.”

Weird weather in Europe this summer – temperatures topped 114 in Portugal and British beaches rivaled the Mediterranean Riviera – has made theoretical climate-change models a stifling reality for tourists from around the world. It is making some of them think twice about what they want from a vacation. And the more they wonder, experts say, the more their decisions will disrupt the global tourism business, the world’s largest service-sector industry.

“Climate change is already affecting the attractiveness of destinations” around the world, says Marcelo Risi, spokesman for the United Nations World Tourism Organization. “It is a clear and present threat.”

From Cape Town in South Africa to the islands of the Caribbean, from the European Alps to the Great Barrier Reef, hotel managers, tour guides, ski-lift operators, and deck chair attendants have seen visitor numbers falling off, eroded by the higher temperatures and extreme weather events that scientists say are brought on by global warming.

Basking on a Baltic beach?

This year’s blistering summer heat in southern Europe has made it uncomfortable just to lie in the sun, let alone drag children around Athens or Venice. The economic effects, however, may not be felt until next year. Since northern Europe has enjoyed a delightful season, “there will be a lag effect next summer,” suggests Daniel Scott, a research professor of climate and society at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “More Brits and Scandinavians will stay at home” in hopes of a repeat performance, he predicts.

Alternatively, they might just alter their travel dates, sticking to favorite destinations but visiting in the spring or autumn, when the weather is likely to be more clement. Of course, many factors beyond the weather influence tourists’ decisions about where to go on vacation. School calendars, for instance, determine many people’s holiday plans – as do costs, previous vacation experiences, time availability, and what they like to do. But climate change is narrowing tourists’ choices.

In Australia, warmer waters have led to the bleaching of corals on the Great Barrier Reef; fewer Australians are bothering to go there. Many Caribbean resorts are struggling to welcome American tourists again after the devastating hurricanes that blew through the region last September; it will take five years before the region returns to previously forecast visitor levels, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, an industry lobby group. Rising temperatures in the Alps mean that the number of viable ski areas there could shrink from 666 to just 202 by the end of this century, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

“Mountains are very susceptible to climate change,” explains Carlo Buontempo, who works with Copernicus, Europe’s earth observation program, to make its climate-change data accessible and useful to businesses.

Ski seasons in the Alps and Pyrenees are shortening, he says, not only because it snows less than it once did, but because the number of days suitable for making artificial snow, when the temperature is at or below freezing, has been dropping at a rate of one day a year for the past several decades. 

Many ski resorts in Europe and North America are broadening their appeal so as to attract tourists in the summer. They adapt their ski lifts to take mountain bikes instead of skis and tempt walkers into high-altitude meadows with the bucolic promise of cowbells and herds grazing in summer pastures.

In Canada, the mountain town of Whistler, which hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, now attracts as many summer visitors as winter sports enthusiasts. “That’s a good strategy to deal with global warming and many destinations will follow that path,” says Professor Scott.

Ben Nelms/Reuters
People walk down a street in the village of Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, June 2, 2018.

Global warming: good for the soul?

Fewer adaptation options are open to small islands – traditional tourist paradises that are now at the top of the list when it comes to climate-change vulnerabilities. They are low lying, so rising sea levels pose a threat; many of them lie in the habitual paths of cyclones; they are often short of fresh water; they are generally far from their tourist markets and rely on CO2-heavy air connections; and they are short of new attractions that might help them branch out.

And while the Mexican resort of Cancun is wealthy enough – and critical enough to Mexico’s tourism industry – to be able to spend nearly 100 million dollars to restore its storm-ravaged beach, that is beyond most Caribbean islands’ possibilities.

Back in Australia, though Crystal Creek might have run dry, Warren, who researches sustainable tourism, finds that the clients at his high-end rural retreat are showing their mettle in the face of global warming’s effects.

The resort’s four cottages are entirely dependent on rain for their water; the area has seen only 25 percent of normal rainfall for the last 2-1/2 years. “So we’ve put a clock in each shower, and that makes guests laugh,” says Warren. “And there’s a bucket in there too, so they can pour waste water into the garden.”

“We need to change the way we consume to cope with extreme weather events, and it’s possible if you approach people in the right way,” he believes. “We appeal to people’s sense of the right and responsible action to take, to their ethics. We find people draw on the positive side of life when they need to, and that can be enriching.”

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The Monitor's View

The nature of talking in Turkey

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Turkey is the largest economy between Italy and India, a pivotal state between East and West. It teetered this past week after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he would personally run monetary policy, appointed his son-in-law as finance minister, and baffled experts by claiming high interest rates are the cause of inflation, not a solution. That sent ripples across world bond markets. Countries with independent central banks tend to have successful economies. Politicians often think only to the next election, while independent central banks use a range of experts and data to guide the economy for the long term (not that they can’t be wrong). In a representative democracy, both must be held accountable. But citizens often prefer that complex policy with far-reaching effects is best left to appointed bodies. Such bodies seek out opposing views. They pay attention more than persuade. They deliberate. The wisdom to run an economy, indeed an entire country, must be sifted and refined by seeking out the best ideas and the highest virtues of its people.

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The nature of talking in Turkey

When financial markets were put on edge this past week by Turkey’s shaky economy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to offer some advice. Turkey, after all, is the largest economy between Italy and India, a pivotal state between East and West.

“Nobody has an interest in economic destabilization in Turkey,” she said. “But everything must be done to ensure an independent central bank.”

Ms. Merkel was not alone. Inside Turkey, leading business groups asked that the central bank be free to raise interest rates in order to rein in 15 percent inflation and overcome a currency crisis. Turkey’s lira has lost nearly a third of its value since May.

That’s when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he would personally run monetary policy. In addition, he appointed his son-in-law as finance minister. And he baffled experts by claiming high interest rates are the cause of inflation, not a solution. These missteps sent ripples across world bond markets.

Countries with independent central banks tend to have successful economies. The reason is that politicians often think short-term to the next election, preferring high growth regardless of a risk in inflation. In contrast, independent central banks use a range of experts and data to guide the economy for the long term. In a representative democracy, both must be held accountable to the public. But citizens can realize, after learning from hard experience, that complex policy with far-reaching effects is best left to appointed bodies, such as central banks, commissions, and supreme courts.

Economists in central banks can certainly be wrong in their analysis, as the 2008 financial crisis in the United States revealed. Many theories in economics are not yet established as fact. That is one reason why the Federal Reserve has become more transparent about its decisionmaking process in the past decade.

Yet central banks do something better than do many elected leaders – especially leaders who personalize power and suppress dissidents as Mr. Erdoğan has done since first elected in 2002. They seek out opposing views and respectfully listen to them. In a spirit of equality, they encourage free-flowing discussion. They test new data. Out of humble uncertainty, they ask questions before giving answers. They understand the need for selfless, patient reflection. They pay attention more than persuade.

In other words, they deliberate.

Informed deliberation brings out the best in people. It rests on the knowledge that good ideas will float to the top. Representative democracy is not just a process of accumulating the interests of the people through the competition of elections. It also relies on the understanding that wisdom and virtue are available to each individual and can be brought to light through reason, sharing, and listening.

In his design for the US government, James Madison set up both elected and appointed bodies to achieve what he called “successive filtrations” of public wisdom. Chosen bodies of citizens would refine the views of the public and achieve “the cool and deliberate sense of the community.”

Those countries with high polarization and a low trust in governing institutions are often the least deliberative. Too many of their citizens prefer to listen mainly to the like-minded. In the US, such polarization is now reflected in institutions meant to be the most deliberative, such as the Supreme Court and Senate.

In her gentle nudge of Turkey, the German leader reminded that country to run its institutions with thoughtful, respectful, and open deliberations. The wisdom to run an economy, indeed an entire country, must be sifted and refined by seeking out the best ideas and the highest virtues of its people.

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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.

‘When the heart speaks’ – no language barriers

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News of language barriers between volunteers and children at a US border facility prompted today’s contributor – who faced a similar challenge working at a refugee camp in Asia – to share ideas about the power of divine Love in fostering meaningful connections.

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‘When the heart speaks’ – no language barriers

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Sometimes you don’t need to share the same language to connect with others, especially children. You can still experience a heartfelt connection, joy, and laughter. I have found soccer to be one way to relate to children in many places in the world. When I worked in a refugee camp on the Thailand/Myanmar border, living and working conditions were challenging; there were many who had suffered great loss, and many children spoke little or no English.

Yet it was in this remote camp in the mountainous jungle where I saw the power of love break through barriers – in this particular instance, through soccer, which the boys would often play after school. At first they were not quite sure about me, but after a few brave ones passed the ball my way and I scored a goal, I was invited to play often.

I was thinking about this recently when I heard about children separated from their parents on the southern border of the United States. One account mentioned that many of the volunteers working to help the children don’t speak their language.

While I don’t know that a giant game of soccer could help in this situation, I do know that a willingness to listen and speak from our heart with love can cut through barriers. As Mary Baker Eddy, founder of this newspaper, states in “Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” “When the heart speaks, however simple the words, its language is always acceptable to those who have hearts” (p. 262).

What’s the basis for this? Love. Christian Science explains that God is ever-present Love itself, which knows no boundaries or barriers and is always with us. No matter where we are, we can find refuge in Love’s ever-present embrace. When I am feeling afraid and alone, I often turn to the psalms in the Bible for messages of comfort and reminders of God’s love and protection. Psalms 46 assures us, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (verse 1).

Just as a father or mother would comfort a child in times of trouble, we can trust that God is here, tenderly speaking to us in just the way we need to feel His love. Christ Jesus’ famous prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, begins, “Our Father which art in heaven” (Luke 11:2). This shows that God is the divine Father of all of us. “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” by Mary Baker Eddy, gives a spiritual interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer and puts that line this way: “Our Father-Mother God, all-harmonious” (p. 16).

If we all have the same divine Parent, we are all brothers and sisters. There is no one left out. There is no one that is unworthy of God’s tender Mother-love or Fatherly protection and guidance. I have found that when we view our fellow men, women, and children through that spiritual lens, we experience more of God’s “all-harmonious” nature. What wouldn’t we do for our sister, brother, mother, father, or child? Think about it. Many would go to the ends of the earth to support their family in times of need. What if we extended our view of humanity to include all in that sense of family, not even as distant cousins, but as spiritual brothers and sisters? When this spirit of love is present, that’s the heart speaking.

Most of us may not be able to support, in person, those children in need at the US border (or elsewhere). But we can help! We can pray to know that we all – including children, parents, volunteers, and government workers – have the ability to open our hearts and feel God, Love, communicating to us and through us. God enables each of us to hear just what is needed to bring connection – heart to heart.

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Viewfinder

Pride and remembrance

Emilio Morenatti/AP
A woman wraps her waist with a Spanish flag during an Aug. 17 ceremony marking the first anniversary of a terror attack in Las Ramblas promenade in Barcelona, which killed 16 people. Commemorations were attended by Spain’s King Felipe VI, Queen Letizia, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, and other government officials.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by , Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( August 20th, 2018 )

Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Have a great weekend, and see you Monday. Does the economy feel ... different? After long dormancy, inflation is starting to creep back in, diminishing purchasing power and eating away at wage gains. Our econ desk and graphics team are working on some telling visualizations. 

Monitor Daily Podcast

August 17, 2018
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