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Updated: 7 min 44 sec ago

Bangladesh Bomb Blasts Kill Three, Scores Injured

8 hours 7 min ago

DHAKA (Reuters) - At least three people, including a policeman, were killed and scores wounded in two separate bomb blasts on Saturday near a militant hideout that was raided by commandos in northeastern Bangladesh, police said.


The explosions in the Sylhet district came a day after a suicide bomber blew himself up at a security checkpoint near the country’s main airport in an attack claimed by Islamic State.


Two people were killed and more than 30 injured in one of the blasts near the hideout and a policemen died in the second in front of the building, police official Rokon Uddin said.


Several army and police personnel were among the injured, he added.


There was no immediate claim of responsibility.


Army commandos had stormed the hideout, which belonged to the local Islamist group, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, blamed for the cafe attack in July last year in which 22 people were killed, most of them foreigners.


On Saturday, commandos rescued all 78 people trapped inside the five-storey building for more than a day in an operation that was still underway.


The raid came after a string of suicide attacks on security bases this month. A forensic report confirmed that Friday’s attack was a suicide blast that was the third incident involving explosives in the capital, Dhaka, in a week.


Islamic State and Al Qaeda have made competing claims over killings of foreigners, liberals and members of religious minorities in Bangladesh, a mostly Muslim country of 160 million people.


The government has consistently ruled out the presence of such groups, blaming domestic militants instead, though security experts say the scale and sophistication of the cafe attack suggested links to a transnational network.

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Categories: News Monitor

Iran Denies Harassing U.S. Warships In Gulf, Warns Of Clashes

8 hours 9 min ago


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Iran denied on Saturday U.S. accusations that its fast-attack boats were “harassing” warships at the mouth of the Gulf, and said Washington would be responsible for any clashes in the key oil shipping route.


U.S. Navy commanders earlier accused Iran of jeopardizing international navigation by “harassing” warships passing through the Strait of Hormuz and said future incidents could result in miscalculation and lead to an armed clash.


They spoke after the U.S. aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush confronted what one of the commanding officers described as two sets of Iranian Navy fast-attack boats that had approached a U.S.-led, five-vessel flotilla as it entered the Strait on Tuesday on a journey from the Indian Ocean into the Gulf.


It was the first time a U.S. carrier entered the narrow waterway, where up to 30 percent of global oil exports pass, since President Donald Trump took office in January pledging a tougher U.S. stance towards Iran.


In Tehran, Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri, deputy chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, said the U.S. claims of the confrontation in the Gulf were based on “false reports or ulterior motives”, the state news agency IRNA reported.


“We emphasize that the Americans would be responsible for any unrest in the Persian Gulf, and again warn that the U.S. military must change its behavior,” Jazayeri said, without elaborating.


U.S. commanders earlier said Tuesday’s incident, in which the George H.W. Bush sent helicopter gunships to hover over the Iranian speedboats as some came as close as 950 yards (870 meters) from the aircraft carrier, ended without a shot being fired.


But it underscored growing tension between the United States and Iran since the election of Trump, who has condemned the 2015 nuclear deal that his predecessor Barack Obama and leaders of five other world powers struck with Tehran and labeled the Islamic Republic “the number one terrorist state”.


The encounter with Iranian Navy boats occurred as the USS George H.W. Bush was en route to the northern part of the Gulf to participate in U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.


Earlier in March, Iran disputed the U.S. account of another confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz between its speedboats and a U.S. Navy vessel. {nL5N1GL1SL]


(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Helen Popper)

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Categories: News Monitor

U.S. Military Confirms Air Strike In Mosul District Where Scores Were Killed

10 hours 52 min ago


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MOSUL, Iraq, March 25 (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Saturday a U.S.-led coalition strike had hit an Islamic State-held area of the Iraqi city of Mosul where residents and officials say dozens of civilians have been killed as result of an air raid.


The incident occurred on March 17 but what exactly happened is still unclear as IS militants fight to defend the areas of the city they still control.


Iraqi government forces paused in their push to recapture western Mosul on Saturday because of the high rate of civilian casualties, a security forces spokesman said, a move apparently motivated by the incident.


The United Nations also expressed its profound concern, saying it was “stunned by this terrible loss of life.”


Initial reports from residents and Iraqi officials in the past week said dozens of people had been killed or wounded in Mosul’s al-Jadidah district after air strikes by Iraqi or U.S.-led coalition forces.


U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military Middle East operations, said on Saturday that a review had determined that U.S.-led coalition operation, requested by the Iraqi government, had struck Islamic State fighters and equipment “at the location corresponding to allegations of civilian casualties.”


It was investigating to determine the facts and the validity of reports of civilian casualties, it said. It did not specify which coalition nation carried out the strike.


Reports on the numbers of civilian dead and wounded have varied but Civil Defence chief Brigadier Mohammed Al-Jawari told reporters on Thursday that rescue teams had recovered 40 bodies from collapsed buildings. Many other lay buried in the rubble.


The exact cause of the collapses was not clear but a local lawmaker and two residents said on Thursday the air strikes may have detonated an IS truck filled with explosives, destroying buildings in the heavily-populated area.


The speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Salim al-Jabouri, said in a statement: “What’s happening in the west part of Mosul is extremely serious and could not be tolerated under any circumstances.”


Up to 600,000 civilians are still believed to remain in IS-held areas of Mosul, complicating the government offensive tactically but also politically as the Shi’ite Muslim-led government seeks to avoid alienating people in the mainly Sunni city.


 


NEW TACTICS

Residents escaping besieged western Mosul have told of Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition air strikes demolishing buildings and killing civilians in several cases.


The insurgents have also used civilians as human shields and opened fire on them as they try to escape Islamic State-held neighborhoods, fleeing residents said.


“The recent high death toll among civilians inside the Old City forced us to halt operations to review our plans,” a Federal Police spokesman said on Saturday. “It’s a time for weighing new offensive plans and tactics. No combat operations are to go on.”


The U.S.-backed offensive to drive Islamic State out of Mosul, now in its sixth month, has recaptured the entire eastern side of Mosul and about half of the west.


But advances have stuttered in the last two weeks as fighting enters the narrow alleys of the Old City, home to the al-Nuri mosque where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate spanning large areas of Iraq and Syria in 2014.


“We need to make sure that taking out Daesh (Islamic State) from the Old City will not cost unwanted high casualties among civilians. We need surgical accurate operations to target terrorists without causing collateral damage among residents,” the Federal Police spokesman said.


A U.S. deputy commanding general for the coalition told Reuters on Friday that the solution could lie in a change of tactics. The Iraqi military is assessing opening up another front and isolating the Old City, U.S. Army Brigadier General John Richardson said.


Fleeing residents have described grim living conditions inside IS-held parts of Mosul, saying there was no running water or electricity and no food coming in.


But families are streaming out of the northern city, Iraq’s second largest, in their thousands each day, headed for cold, crowded camps or to stay with relatives. Hunger and fighting are making life unbearable inside.


The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights said that since the campaign on western Mosul began on Feb. 19, unconfirmed reports said nearly 700 civilians had been killed by government and coalition air strikes or Islamic State actions.


The militants have used car bombs, snipers and mortar fire to counter the offensive. They have also stationed themselves in homes belonging to Mosul residents to fire at Iraqi troops, often drawing air or artillery strikes that have killed civilians.


The United Nations chief humanitarian official, Lise Grande, said civilians were at extreme risk as the fighting intensified and all sides must to do their utmost to avoid such casualties.


“International humanitarian law is clear. Parties to the conflict — all parties – are obliged to do everything possible to protect civilians. This means that combatants cannot use people as human shields and cannot imperil lives through indiscriminate use of fire-power,” she said in a statement.


 


(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Alaa Mohammad in Baghdad and Jonathan Landay in Washington; Writing by Angus MacSwan in Erbil; Editing by Bernard Orr and David Evans)

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Categories: News Monitor

Man Named 'Grabher' Is Appalled He Can't Have A 'GRABHER' License Plate

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 23:32



Look, we get it. It cannot be easy going through life when your last name is “Grabher.” One man in Nova Scotia, Canada, however, appears to be making life even more difficult by fighting to keep that name emblazoned on his license plate.



This license plate has created a man vs. government situation. Lorne Grabher is fighting to get his personalized NS plate back on his car. pic.twitter.com/7HdMkcasM7

— Kelland Sundahl (@KSundahlCTV) March 23, 2017


Lorne Grabher told CTV Thursday that he had a vanity plate reading “GRABHER” made for his father in 1991 to honor their German last name.


“It was to have our name be put on something and be proud of it,” he said.


The plate made its way back to Lorne Grabher’s vehicle, but the Nova Scotia Registry of Motor Vehicles has taken issue with it. Grabher got a letter in December informing him the plate would be canceled because people could “misinterpret it as a socially unacceptable slogan,” CBC reports.


Grabher is now accusing the government of “discriminating” against his name. He also said that no one has ever complained to him about the plate.


However, Department of Transportation spokesman Brian Taylor told CBC that they received a complaint that “some individuals” were taking the license plate as “misogynistic and promoting violence against women.”


The phrase “grab her” has also taken on political significance since October, when a leaked 2005 tape revealed now-U.S. President Donald Trump bragging about how he can do “anything” to women and stating, “Grab them by the pussy.”


But Grabher said the plate has nothing to do with Trump, and stressed that he is no fan of Trump.


“Nobody should be ashamed of their name,” he told the Chronicle Herald.


CBC published a list of some other words banned from Nova Scotia plates, including “HESHE,” “GONADS” and “HOOTCH.”


Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks, Tracy Morgan, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Moore, Padma Lakshmi and a whole host of other stars are teaming up for Stand for Rights: A Benefit for the ACLU. Donate now and join us at 7 p.m. Eastern on Friday, March 31 on Facebook Live. #standforrights2017

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Categories: News Monitor

Trump Is Dragging Us Into Another War... And No One Is Talking About It

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 22:47

Quietly, while Americans have been focused on the ongoing drama over repealing the Affordable Care Act and the new revelations about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, President Trump has been busy dramatically expanding the American troop presence inside Syria. And virtually no one in Washington has noticed. Americans have a right to know what Trump is planning and whether this will lead to an Iraq-style occupation of Syria for years to come.


Without any official notification, Trump sent 500 new American troops into Syria, ostensibly to take part in the upcoming assault on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. News reports suggest this deployment may just be the tip of the iceberg, with some saying that the plan is for hundreds more American troops to be added to the fight in the coming weeks. No one actually knows how many troops are inside Syria now, because the administration has largely tried to keep the build-up a secret.


This deployment poses a significant, potentially catastrophic risk for the United States and the future of Syria and the Middle East. Congress cannot be silent on this matter. I have long been against putting U.S. troops on the ground in Syria—I opposed the idea during the Obama administration and I oppose it now, because I believe we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the Iraq War if we try to force political stability simply through the barrel of a gun. I would urge my colleagues who have not focused on the question of U.S. troop presence in Syria to, at the very least, demand the administration answer two basic questions before signing off on the money to fund this dangerous escalation.


First, what is our mission and what is our exit strategy?


The public explanation of the military escalation has been to prepare for the assault on Raqqa. Taking Raqqa is a necessary and long-desired objective. The problem lies in making U.S. troops an indispensible part of the invasion force, which likely will require us to stay and become an indispensible part of the occupation force as well. This is what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I see no reason why we wouldn’t face the same trap in Syria. But if this is not the administration’s plan, they should be explicit about this. They should assure Congress and the American public that we are in Syria simply until Raqqa falls, and no longer.


There are other important questions to ask. Recently, Trump sent a small group of Special Forces operators to Manbij to keep the peace between Kurdish and Turkish-backed forces fighting for control of this remote section of northern Syria. This suggests our military mission is much broader—and more complicated—than simply helping to retake Raqqa.


Many Syria experts agree that once Raqqa is taken from ISIS, the fighting is just beginning. The contest then begins between the various proxy forces (Saudi, Iranian, Russian, Turkish, Kurdish) over who ultimately controls the city. Will U.S. forces leave at that point, or does Trump’s plan envision that we will stay to mediate future control of large portions of the battlespace? This would be a mirror of Iraq, in which thousands of Americans died trying to figure out the post-Saddam settlement of accounts between the Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds. And it could result in just as much American bloodshed.


Second, do we have a political strategy or just a military strategy?


This past Thursday, I joined other members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee for lunch with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. I was glad that Tillerson was willing to open the doors of the State Department to a bipartisan group of Senators, and our discussion was honest and frank. In the meeting, Tillerson showed admirable candor in admitting that the military strategy was far ahead of the diplomatic strategy in Syria.


But this was actually a dramatic understatement. Unless a secret plan exists that Trump is keeping from U.S. Senators and his own Secretary of State, there is absolutely no plan for who controls post-ISIS Raqqa, or post-Assad Syria.


The obstacles to a political plan for the future of Raqqa increase by the week. U.S. military leaders want to rely on Kurdish and Arab fighters to retake Raqqa, but hope that the Kurds will then abandon the city after they lose hundreds or thousands of their soldiers in the assault. Even if this fantasy were to become reality, it would come at a price – the Kurds would expect something in return for their effort. And today, we have no idea how to execute this two-step without having peace undermined by the Turks, who remain violently opposed to giving territory the Kurds. To add complications, the Russian and Iranian-backed forces, sitting just outside Raqqa today, are not going to allow for a U.S.-backed Arab or Arab/Kurdish government to be peacefully installed inside the city. They will want a piece of the action, and we have no credible plan to accommodate them today.


Without a political plan for the future of Raqqa, a military plan is practically useless. Yes, getting ISIS out of Raqqa is a victory in and of itself, but if we set into motion a series of events that simply prolongs the broader conflict, ISIS will easily pick up the pieces and use the ongoing turmoil to regroup and reemerge. We should have learned in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya that a military victory without a plan for what comes next is really not a victory at all. But unbelievably, we seem on the verge of making this mistake again, because of (understandable) enthusiasm for taking the fight to a vicious enemy.


I want ISIS gone. I want them destroyed.  But I want it done the right way. I do not want to Americans to die and billions of dollars to be wasted in a war that makes the same mistakes as the disastrous American invasion of Iraq. And I certainly don’t want the war to start in secret, without Congress even noticing that it’s starting. Congress needs to get in the game and start asking questions - before it’s too late.

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Categories: News Monitor

Flying Taxis Could Soon Be Coming To A Sky Near You

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 21:55

Flying taxis and other futuristic passenger vehicles are about to take a giant leap out of science fiction and into reality.


It’s not exactly the vision of the “Back To The Future” film trilogy, which predicted that by 2015 we’d fill the skies with flying cars and get around on personal anti-gravity hoverboards.


But it turns out the movies may have just been a few years off. Singapore plans to have airborne cabs taking flight by 2030, according to the island city-state’s Business Times daily newspaper.


Singapore’s Ministry of Transport Permanent Secretary Pang Kin Keong said he’s in talks with tech companies to begin trials to create drones to carry passengers.


Three companies on tap to manufacture the drones include a Russian-made Hoversurf Scorpion, the German Volocopter VC and China’s autonomous aerial device Ehang 184, pictured at the top of this story and in the video below.





The electric-powered Ehang 184, with its four arms with eight mounted propellers and weighing 440 pounds, can transport a person for about 23 minutes ― covering a distance of 10 miles at a maximum height of just over 11,000 feet. The passenger would merely punch in a location on a control pad and Ehang 184 does the rest.


Single-person taxi drones aren’t the only ultra modern transportation mode on Singapore’s drawing board. They’re also looking to create driverless buses that carry multiple passengers.


Pang revealed both of these concepts at the Business Times Leaders’ Forum this week.


“There is going to be a significant shift in the public mindset from one of ownership of transport assets ― which is the mindset today ― to one of procurement of transport services as and when you need them,” Pang told the 400 forum attendees.


But you won’t have to wait until 2030 for Singapore’s launch of the Ehang 184. Dubai is preparing to roll out that high tech drone this summer, according to Fortune.com.



“Ehang 184 has enough room for a small suitcase and will be controlled through 4G mobile Internet,” Fortune reports. “It is able to carry a single passenger who weighs less than 220 pounds over short distances at 62 miles per hour with a fully-charged battery.” 


And with news that Uber has hired a NASA engineer to develop airborne cars, it’s surely only a matter of time before you, too, can hitch a ride in a flying cab.


Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks, Tracy Morgan, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Moore, Padma Lakshmi and a whole host of other stars are teaming up for Stand for Rights: A Benefit for the ACLU. Donate now and join us at 7 p.m. Eastern on Friday, March 31 on Facebook Live. #standforrights2017

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Categories: News Monitor

From The ‘Nation Of Poets’ To Trump’s America, One Somali-Born Writer Is Giving Refugees A Voice

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 21:48

In this week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer interviews Boyah J. Farah, a nonfiction writer whose work has appeared in Salon and The Guardian.


Farah was born in Somalia and came to the U.S. in 1993 as a refugee.


Somalia is one of six countries facing restricted immigration into the U.S. under President Trump’s travel ban. But when Farah came to the U.S. as a teenager, life was much different. Leaving behind his war-torn country, Farah honed his nonfiction skills through a memoir program at Grubstreet, a creative writing school in Boston.


Now, unfortunately, immigration to the U.S. is much more difficult, and refugees face heightened racism and xenophobia in Trump’s America. Farah tells Scheer of President Trump’s dangerous “tribal rhetoric” and draws parallels between political language in war-torn Somalia and the language employed by Trump and other politicians today.


“Last Tuesday, I was sitting at Starbucks,” Farah remarks. “A random guy came in with a knife—just last Tuesday—and the guy that he hit was an Indian guy who has nothing to do with anything at all. And later on we found out that the guy was mentally unstable, but I am sure he heard that rhetoric from the television, from our leaders, and he acted on it.”


The two also discuss how Farah’s nonfiction work helps to dispel harmful misconceptions about refugees in America.


“You’re one of the Muslim refugees we are supposed to be apprehensive about, from a country [Trump] has actually mentioned,” Scheer says. “As a writer, you must be deeply offended by the character profiles of people as the simple ‘divide and conquer’ enemy.”


“There’s wisdom in the progression of time,” Farah responds, and goes on to explain how he has numerous identities as a Somalian refugee living in the U.S.


Noting that America was seen as “heaven” in the refugee camp, Farah continues:


“Those that I can help, I try to help them out. That was my way of restoring my broken past. But the more I stay in the belly, metaphorically, the belly of America, the more you get to see what black folks in this country go through. And there was a danger in not realizing that I’m African-American. ... I had different lenses through which I looked through the world. In Somalia, the nickname for Somalia is ‘nation of poets.’ They value words more than anything else. ... The more you live in the belly, the more you understand that, hey, what African-Americans have complained about for many years: it’s true. And not only is it true in literature, but I have experienced it, so I know for sure it’s true.”

Farah also uses writing to convey the intense violence he experienced in war-torn Somalia, in the hopes of deglamorizing war in America.


For many Americans, Farah explains war is seen as “entertainment, it’s a movie.”


“And I can understand that now, because my favorite movie before the war was ‘Rambo.’ I thought ‘Rambo’ was fantastic,” he says. “But now I know that ‘Rambo’ is not fantastic. It does more damage than anything else. ... Now, I’m using literature to understand the psychology of war.”


Listen to the full interview below:



Adapted from Truthdig.com

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Categories: News Monitor

Donald Trump Is From Mars

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 21:15

So, let me see if I’ve got this right.


North Korea has been pushing its ally China to rein in the United States. Pyongyang is worried that Washington is about to launch a preemptive attack, so it has tried to use whatever minimal amount of influence it has to persuade China to use its considerable economic leverage with the United States to get those knuckleheads inside the Beltway to listen to reason.


Or maybe I misheard the report on the radio.


How about this: As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump promised to stop reckless U.S. military interventions overseas, like the one he so disliked (after it failed) in Iraq. So, as president, he is withdrawing all troops from Syria, reducing U.S. military presence in Asia, and pulling the United States out of NATO. Oh, and he’s going to cut the military as part of his overall promise to downsize government.


Perhaps I misheard that report as well.


During the Obama administration, the comic duo of Key and Peele famously introduced the “anger translator” who could give voice to what President Obama was really thinking as he provided measured responses to all manner of nonsense lobbed in his direction. Ah, those were halcyon days when we made fun of the American president for not giving voice to his true feelings.


What kind of translator do we need for the Trump era? Perhaps a “reality translator” that reveals the simple, id-like intentions behind the current president’s Tweet-rants and policy proposals.


Type in “Obama bugged Trump Tower” and out comes: “Hey, hey, stop looking at my links to Russia, okay!?” Type in “2017 budget proposal” and out comes: “I’m gonna destroy every potential source of resistance to me and my ambitions.” Type in “Trumpcare” and out comes “I’m going to rob poor Peter to pay propertied Paul.” (To quote just one example: Trumpcare would encourage health care companies to pay their overpaid CEOs even more money!)


I’ve come to the conclusion, after about 60 days of presidential antics, that the problem is not “fake news.” The problem is a fake administration.


It’s no surprise that Donald Trump, as president, just makes things up. He’s been doing that all his career. But now an entire government is being re-engineered around the pathological dishonesty of the executive and his advisors. This is bait-and-switch on a level never seen before in the United States.


It would all be rather amusing if millions of lives weren’t at stake — both domestically through the self-destruction of the federal government and internationally through the very real prospects of war.


This president, with his insuperable ambition to score some “wins,” is in search of some missions to declare accomplished. North Korea and the Islamic State are at the top of the list. But don’t be surprised if the $54 billion that Trump wants to add like an enormous cherry on top of the Pentagon’s over-rich sundae will translate into even more conflicts around the world.


Let’s Go to the Numbers


If Trump’s proposed Pentagon increase of $54 billion were the military budget of a distinct country, it would come in fifth on the list of global military expenditures. Basically, Trump wants to add an entire annual British military budget on top of what the United States already spends — which already towers above any imaginary coalition of potential rivals.


With the rest of his deplorable budget request, Trump will encounter pushback from Congress and cities and major constituencies like the over-65 set. Some of his own voters might finally come to their senses when they realize that Trump the Great is waving his magic hand in the air to distract them from seeing the other hand pick their pockets.


But on the military side, Trump has, if anything, underbid. Congressional hawks are complaining that Trump is not throwing enough money at the Pentagon. They say that he’s only offering a 3 percent increase over what the Obama administration estimated for 2018, that Trump the candidate made even grander promises, that the Pentagon should get at least another $37 billion. If Congress comes back with this figure, it would increase the increase to $91 billion. Trump’s boost alone would then rise to number three on the list of global spenders, after the United States and China.


What does Trump want to spend all this extra money on? He wants a 350-ship navy — even though the Navy is already undertaking a 30-year program to raise the number of ships from the current 272 ships to 308. He has hinted at pulling out of the New START treaty with Russia — once he found out what it was — so that he could build more nukes. There would be more soldiers, including as many as 60,000 more in the Army.


But all of this is just skirting the real issue. Donald Trump wants to spend more money on the military because he wants to go to war.


First: Islamic State


As a candidate, Donald Trump focused most of his martial fury on the Islamic State. He promised to “bomb the hell” out of ISIS and, within 30 days in office, come up with a plan to defeat the entity. When he was elected, radical jihadists predictably rejoiced: Bring it on, they effectively said.


Within 30 days, Trump indeed published a memorandum on defeating ISIS. Bottom line: We need to come up with a plan.


In the absence of a strategy, what Trump has done is chilling enough. He has unleashed the CIA to conduct drone strikes, reversing an Obama administration order. He has continued to sanction B-52 strikes, like the one this month in the Syrian village of Al Jinah that killed dozens of civilians. He’s sending 1,000 troops to join the fight against ISIS in Syria. He wants to rely more on Special Forces in raids like the one in Yemen in January that went so spectacularly wrong, leaving one Navy SEAL and several civilians dead.


In some ways, Trump is merely continuing Obama-era practices. But it promises to be a no-holds-barred version of the last administration counter-terrorism program.


Even our allies in the region are getting concerned. Trump met this week with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, pledging to stand side-by-side with Iraq in the campaign to defeat ISIS.


But after the meeting, Abadi apparently had second thoughts. “Committing troops is one thing. Fighting terrorism is another thing,” he said at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “You don’t defeat terrorism by fighting it militarily. There are better ways.” Perhaps Abadi was thinking of the Trump administration’s initial inclusion of Iraq among the seven countries on the “Muslim travel ban” list. Or maybe he was thinking of Trump’s alarming pledge to seize Iraqi oil now under ISIS control.


Or perhaps the “better ways” simply referred to all the non-military parts of U.S. foreign policy — diplomacy, food aid, cooperation with international organizations — that Trump wants to ax from the federal budget. Even stalwart Trump supporters like Bob Dole are up in arms about humanitarian programs — like the Dole-McGovern initiative that provides school meals to 40 million children around the world — that are now on the chopping block.


What better way of creating the next generation of America haters?


Next: North Korea


Rex Tillerson, the empty suit that Trump has installed in the now supererogatory position of secretary of state, is trying to get back in on the action. On a recent trip to Asia, Tillerson sat down with Chinese premier Xi Jinping to plot the further isolation of North Korea.


Tillerson pointed out that the “strategic patience” approach toward North Korea had failed over the last eight years. That’s obviously true. The alternative, however, was much worse: Tillerson said that all options, including military ones, were on the table.


All of the military options come with unacceptable risks of retaliation and escalation to full-scale war. The United States could try to destroy a single missile launch, take out as much of North Korea’s nuclear complex as possible, or attempt a full regime change a la Iraq. “North Korea would perceive even a limited strike as the start of a war,” Max Fisher points out in The New York Times, “and respond with its full arsenal.”


Given the relatively crude ICBM capability that North Korea currently possesses, the people who would suffer from an escalation would be Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese.


Perhaps Trump is simply trying to scare the Chinese into doing more to rein in its erstwhile ally. But China doesn’t have that kind of influence in Pyongyang (just as it doesn’t have that kind of influence in Washington to change the Trump administration’s policies).


Or perhaps the Trump administration will go to war simply out of a general attitude of un-strategic impatience.


Beyond ISIS and Pyongyang


Building the Navy up to 350 ships and inducting another 60,000 people into the Army have little to do with dealing with either ISIS or North Korea, unless the Trump administration anticipates sending another large occupation force to the Middle East or Asia. Even Trump knows that dispatching tens of thousands of American troops to a warzone is a political mistake.


Partly Trump’s moves are about ensuring that the military is on his side. Partly it’s about tilting government in general away from soft power and toward hard power. Partly it’s about Trump’s personal vulnerability on military matters given his decision not to fight in Vietnam. It wouldn’t be the first time that a guy stocked up on weapons as part of a grand scheme of compensation.


There’s been speculation that Trump is really bulking up for a showdown with China. Given Trump’s phone call with Taiwan, his threats to impose tariffs on Chinese imports, and his bellicose rhetoric about China’s role in the island dispute in the South China Sea, there does seem to be some good evidence for this possibility. But the Trump administration has recently dialed back the hostility. Trump himself assured Chinese leader Xi Jinping of U.S. commitment to the “one-China” policy. Tillerson followed with a visit in Beijing that emphasized “mutual respect.”


There’s also a possibility that Trump is gearing up to confront Iran in the event that the nuclear deal unravels. Certainly the war of words has escalated. But the deal may well hold over the next four years, and the United States in any case doesn’t need all that extra military hardware to take on Iran, which is far from a military superpower.


The uncomfortable truth is that Trump probably doesn’t have any specific war-fighting scenario beyond laying waste to ISIS territory and declaring mission accomplished over the smoking ruins. Rather, he wants to put the United States on a permanent war footing as a way to sustain his unpopular presidency.


Until a challenger emerges that can focus U.S. national security concerns, Trump will let fire at range of targets such as terrorists, journalists, and Germans. Perhaps his provocative rhetoric and actions will encourage some small country to stand up suicidally against the United States and allow Trump to declare a Grenada-like or Panama-like victory.


Like the $19.5 billion that the Trump administration is giving NASA for its Mars program, Trump’s war plans are a long shot. Casinos know that once a gambler wins on a long shot, they’ll go bankrupt trying to reproduce that once-in-a-lifetime event. Unfortunately, bankruptcy in Trump’s case means collective ruin for the rest of us.


Any chance we can convince NASA to send Trump on its first manned mission to Mars — so that he can return to the planet that birthed him?


Crossposted with Foreign Policy In Focus

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Categories: News Monitor

Elevating Palestinians

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 20:32

It was 40 years ago that I co-founded the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC) and wrote “Palestinians, the Invisible Victims.” I was concerned that in the American mind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been reduced to a simple equation: Israeli humanity versus the Palestinian problem.


When most Americans thought of the conflict they were able imagine Israelis as people just like us. They were parents who loved their families. They wanted what we wanted—peace, prosperity, and a chance to watch their children grow and realize their dreams. They had names and faces. They experienced pain and loss. They were real.


Palestinians, on the other hand, were, at best, presented as an abstraction. They were objectified into a faceless mass, without names or personalities. When spoken of at all, they were refugees or terrorists or, after a conflict, mere numbers in a body count. We did not know them as individual people and what we did know was cast in negative stereotypes. The only emotions we ascribed to them were that they were angry and violent and not to be trusted. They were not people to be supported, but a problem to be solved.


It was through this lens that most Americans, both policy makers and the public, at large, viewed the conflict. When given the choice between a people or a problem, is was an easy call to support the Israeli people.


This framing of the issue was not by accident. Rather it was the result of a systematic campaign to dehumanize the one side while humanizing the other. It was best captured by the 1960’s propaganda film The Exodus which transposed the then popular American narrative of pioneers confronting the Indians onto the story of “courageous Israelis” fighting the savage “Arab natives.”


During the following decades, this framing of the conflict continued. In 1981, I reported on TV news coverage of a cross border confrontation between Israel and the PLO in Lebanon. On the first day, two Israelis were killed. TV cameras were there interviewing weeping family members, telling their story of fear and pain. The next day Israeli jets bombed the Fakhani neighborhood in West Beirut killing over 383 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. That night, the TV cameras were again in Northern Israel with more follow up interviews. There was no coverage from Lebanon, just reports of an Arab body count. When the TV coverage did occur a day later, the reporter stood at the end of a bombed out street showing massive destruction. No one was interviewed, no personal stories were told. In Israel the story was the people, in Lebanon it was the buildings and a body count.


In 1994 when Baruch Goldstein, a young American-Israeli terrorist massacred 29 Muslim worshipers in a Hebron mosque, the Washington Post did a major feature piece trying to understand what happened to turn the young man to violence. The faces, names, and ages of the Palestinian victims never made it into print. Goldstein was the story; his victims were invisible. A few years later a 3 month Israeli baby was murdered by a Palestinian sniper. The story was front page news for three days with pictures and interviews with the weeping parents. When, just days later, a 3-day old Palestinian baby was murdered by an Israeli sniper—no major paper picked up the story. It was only reported on the seventh line of a short AP story. No name was given and the parents were not interviewed. It was as if their child and their pain did not matter.


Palestinian invisibility and/or objectification continues to define the conflict today. Even the most progressive voices in Congress don’t speak about Palestinians. Instead they advocate for a “two state solution” to preserve Israel a Jewish democratic state. A liberal pro-Israel group periodically puts full page ads in the New York Times and the Washington Post calling for two states making the obscene argument of the demographic threat to the Israel’s Jewishness posed by the Palestinian birthrate.


Unfortunately, oftentimes progressives unconsciously contribute to this by failing to elevate Palestinian humanity. Their efforts focus on condemning Israeli policies (which, no doubt, deserve condemnation), calling for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against the State of Israel. While I support BDS, I fear that at times the case for BDS is made without telling the personal stories of Palestinian victims of occupation. Instead of elevating Palestinians, punishing Israel becomes the goal.


And so the problem remains—Americans still do not know Palestinians as real people and, as a result, do not care about them. Because this remains the challenge we face, I have decided that 100 years after Balfour, 70 years after the partition, and 50 years after the 1967 war, I will go back to my roots to tell the Palestinian story. To do so will inevitably confront the Zionist narrative that has denied not only Palestinian humanity but their very existence as a people with a history. I want to elevate Palestinian poets and artists. I want to spend my energy elevating the Palestinian narrative, putting flesh on the bones of the Palestinian experience, and challenging Americans to know Palestinians as real people who want and deserve justice, equality, peace, prosperity and as parents who love their families and want to see their children grow and realize their dreams.


Some may find this threatening because it challenges the fundamentally racist equation that has defined this conflict for a century. So be it.


Follow @jjz1600 for more.

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Teenager Calls Cops On His Mom For Confiscating His Cell Phone

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 19:09

Hell that no fury like a teenager denied their cell phone.


A 15-year-old boy in southern Spain reported his mother to police after she confiscated his device in a bid to get him to study for a test.


The mom, 37, asked her son to hand over his phone at their home in El Ejido, near Almeria, on Feb. 28, La Voz De Almeria newspaper reports.



Quita el móvil a su hijo, él la denuncia y el juez la absuelve. El fiscal pedía 9 meses de cárcel. https://t.co/PIgERN8FZ9 pic.twitter.com/b96AbzGLeV

— La Voz de Almería (@lavozdealmeria) March 22, 2017


When he refused, she forcefully took it from him and allegedly scratched him in the resulting struggle, according to national El Pais newspaper.


The youngster denounced his mother for “mistreatment.” Appearing in court in Almeria this month, prosecutors called for the mother to be jailed for nine months over the incident. 


But the judge, Luis Miguel Columna, dismissed the case. He ruled she was “well within her rights” to seize the cell and had taken “the correct action.”


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U.S. Agents Seize 40,000 Counterfeit Condoms In Puerto Rico

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 11:49


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U.S. federal agents have confiscated 40,000 items that consumers hope are never fake: condoms. The counterfeits were seized in San Juan, Puerto Rico, officials said.


The condoms were manufactured in China, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection statement Thursday.


They were seized over a period of five days by Food and Drug Administration and Homeland Security officials and Immigration and customs agents.


Federal officials warned that counterfeit condoms will likely not protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and the materials they are made with can also cause health problems.


“Counterfeit condoms, as well as cosmetics and beauty products, unlike legitimate brands, are not subject to strict quality controls and may contain substances that could lead to long-term health problems,” said the statement from customs. “In the past, seized cosmetics have been found to contain hazardous substances including cyanide, arsenic, mercury, lead, urine and rat droppings.”


Ricardo Mayoral, a special agent who oversees Homeland Security investigations throughout Puerto Rico and the U.S., added, “The trafficking of counterfeit goods is simply illegal, and in some cases, as this, it becomes a problem of public health.”


In 2013  a massive international underground ring of counterfeit condom manufacturers was shut down in China after almost 5 million condoms with fake brand names were found as they were about to be shipped out of China, reported ABC News. 


That same year, 110 million counterfeit condoms shipped to Ghana from China were confiscated.


At least 1 million had been delivered to Ghana’s health agency to distribute, The Guardian reported.


“When we tested those condoms, we found that they are poor quality, can burst in the course of sexual activity, and have holes which expose the users to unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease,” a Ghana official told The Guardian.


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Protesters Slaughter Sheep, Strip Naked In Bizarre Action At Auschwitz

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 07:38


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At least 11 people were arrested at Auschwitz, the former Nazi death camp, on Friday after they slaughtered a sheep beneath the entry gate, removed their clothing and chained themselves together.


Local police said the men and women, ages 20 to 27, unfurled a banner reading “love” in English as they stripped naked, according to Deutsche Press Agentur. Some kind of firecracker was also launched from the nearby parking lot, according to a spokesman for the Auschwitz site, which is now a state museum.


Officials in the southern Polish city of Oswiecim didn’t immediately comment on a motive for the bizarre action. But the Polish newspaper Gazeta Krakowska reported that the individuals were protesting the continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine.


Police moved in as the protesters sat chained beneath the entry gate marked with its infamous slogan, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (”Work sets you free”). An estimated 1.1 million inmates, the vast majority of them Jewish prisoners, died at the extermination and labor camp complex built by Nazi Germany. Russians, Poles and Romani were among the many other victims.


Visits to the site, some 30 miles from Krakow, were suspended while police and guards at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum dealt with the demonstrators. Police described them as one German national, six Poles and four Belarusians, the BBC reported. 


A museum statement criticized the decision to protest there, declaring that using the symbol of Auschwitz to draw attention “is outrageous and unacceptable. It is disrespectful to the memory of all the victims of the German Nazi Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp.”



A statement regarding an incident at the site of the Memorial today. pic.twitter.com/UxBM69r79W

— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) March 24, 2017


If convicted of disrespecting a memorial site, the protesters could face stiff fines, The Associated Press reported.


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Weekend Roundup: The End Of (Human) History

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 06:22

Francis Fukuyama famously declared that the triumph of liberal democracy and free markets after the Cold War heralded “the end of history.” Yuval Noah Harari now predicts the end of human history as post-Promethean science grants us godlike powers to redesign our own species and create a new one in the form of artificial intelligence. Only time will tell if his vision of the future is closer to the mark than Fukuyama’s, and if humans as we know ourselves today will even be around to witness it. As the Israeli historian says in a WorldPost interview, “Human history began when men created gods. It will end when men become gods.”


Harari contends that a new mythic authority ― “dataism” ― is being born and that the algorithm is its patron saint. “Authority came down from the clouds, moved to the human heart and now authority is shifting back to the Google cloud and the Microsoft cloud,” he provocatively quips. “Data and the ability to analyze data is the new source of authority. If you have a problem in life, whether it is what to study, whom to marry or whom to vote for, you don’t ask God above or your feelings inside, you ask Google or Facebook. If they have enough data on you, and enough computing power, they know what you feel already, and why you feel that way.” 


The Homo Deus author has little doubt that dataism’s brave new dominance over our lives will be established willingly. “What will ram such a future through the wall is health,” he says. “People will voluntarily give up their privacy.” And while Harari acknowledges the dangers these developments could bring, he also sees the potential for a future that goes beyond the humanist literature that has historically warned us that transgressing natural limits invites catastrophe.


“These are myths that try to assure humans that there is never going to be anything better than you. If you try to create something better than you, it will backfire and not succeed,” Harari says. But science is changing all that, he concludes. “Humans are now about to do something that natural selection never managed to do, which is to create inorganic life – AI. If you look at this in the cosmic terms of 4 billion years of life on Earth, not even in the short term of 50,000 years or so of human history, we are on the verge of breaking out of the organic realm.”


For Fukuyama, the prime locus of history’s end was a Europe whole and free after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And as leaders mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the European Union through the signing of the Treaty of Rome, things don’t look so rosy.


Writing from Brussels, Florian Lang worries that the Eastern European nations ― Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia ― that were some of the latest to join the EU in the wake of the Cold War “have not only throttled the speed of the European car but, also changed it into reverse gear” by promoting anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment and eroding civil liberties. 


Writing from Paris, Natalie Nougayrède warns that it is no exaggeration to say that the French republic is in danger in the upcoming elections as Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Front sees recent advances in the polls. “France is today a deeply fragmented country,” the former editor of Le Monde says, “with no common national narrative driving it forward, no sense of direction, and a loss of trust in the political class. Wide gaps separate those who believe in openness and those who would prefer to erect walls on national borders. France’s upcoming presidential election is not just a battle for the Élysée Palace ― it amounts to a redefinition of a collective identity and a nation’s role in the world in the 21st century.”


Even if Le Pen falls short at the polls as Geert Wilders did in last week’s Dutch elections, Cas Mudde writes that the swell of authoritarianism and nativism exemplified by leaders like Le Pen and Wilders isn’t confined to anti-establishment parties. “Under the cover of fighting off the ‘populists,’” he says, “the political establishment is slowly but steadily hollowing out the liberal democratic system.”


Writing from Rome, populist Five Star Movement partisan Davide Casaleggio wants to dismantle the distant EU edifice and reboot democracy at the opposite end, from the bottom up at the grassroots. “People shouldn’t settle for delegation; they should be able to choose participation,” he argues. That can be done, says Casaleggio, through interactive technologies that enable citizens themselves to propose and deliberate legislation. At around 30 percent in recent national polls in Italy, the Five Star Movement may well have a chance to demonstrate if governance through social networks can supplant representative democracy and the Brussels bureaucracy.


Back in the United States where Twitter dictates much of the new administration’s actions lately, Jennifer Mercieca notes the paradox of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “conspiracy rhetoric.” What he “uses to legitimize himself as president threatens the fragile trust that legitimizes his government,” she says. Looking at one issue continually threatening Trump’s trust in the public eye ― his connection to Russia ― Matthew Rojansky writes that as America focuses on the Kremlin threat at home, Moscow is filling the power vacuum in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East.


Our Singularity series this week reports on a short film that depicts moral philosophers debating the ethics of superintelligent AI in front of superintelligent AI. The Future of Life Institute’s Ariel Conn also focuses on superintelligent AI by examining its risk with leading researchers. One of the discussants, Roman Yampolskiy, calls on the principle of “non-zero probability” when answering how we should prepare for AI threats: “Even a small probability of existential risk becomes very impactful once multiplied by all the people it will affect,” he warns. “Nothing could be more important than avoiding the extermination of humanity.”








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Keystone XL Protesters Won't Back Down After Trump Approval

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 06:07


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Environmentalists, Native American tribes and landowners vowed to continue fighting the contentious Keystone XL pipeline project Friday after President Donald Trump reversed the Obama administration and granted a key construction permit.  


Opponents quickly outlined a multi-pronged battle plan calling for litigation, political pressure and demonstrations aimed at derailing construction of the project, intended to deliver more than 800,000 barrels of oil per day from Canada to Nebraska. 


Pipeline owner TransCanada cleared a major regulatory hurdle with Friday’s Department of State permit allowing construction of the international project. But completion is far from a certainty, according to activists who spoke to reporters in a conference call. 


A key remaining battle is a Nebraska government review that’s expected to take months. The project must also withstand court challenges. And heated protests, like those during TransCanada’s attempt to obtain government permission during the Obama administration, are likely to be rekindled. 


“Game on,” said Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org. “The fight will be very intense.”


Pipeline backers claim the project will create jobs — though how many is disputed — and will deepen U.S. energy security. Opponents say the intensive process to extract crude from Canada’s tar sands region makes it particularly harmful to the environment, and ruptures would hold disastrous consequences.


Pressure public officials

Montana and South Dakota officials have previously approved the $8-billion pipeline to carry 830,000 barrels of oil per day through their states. But Nebraska’s five-member Public Service Commission must still decide whether to accept the route. 


The commission’s approval is essential to TransCanada. It would enable the company to use eminent domain to acquire property from dozens of landowners who’ve refused to sell.


Bold Alliance President Jane Kleeb said she’ll encourage voters to express their disapproval of the pipeline to the four Republicans and one Democrat on the commission. 


Keystone  “is all risk and no reward,” Kleeb said. “We will be pressuring those commissioners to reject the pipeline.” Nebraska opponents say the pipeline could harm an important aquifer and the delicate sand hills region. 


The terms for two of the commission’s members expire next year, possibly making them more susceptible to messages about Keystone XL. In a campaign for a commission seat in a liberal district around Lincoln, Kleeb predicted that an anti-pipeline challenger would challenge a Republican incumbent. 


Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R), however, operates as a countervailing force. He said on Twitter that the Trump administration’s decision “is a welcome step forward” to bolster energy security and job creation.


Sue in court

Activists said they believe the State Department approved the pipeline permit by circumventing environmental laws and the rights of Native American tribes living in the three states along the route.


One problem, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Anthony Swift pointed out, is that the State Department may have based its decision on an outdated study of the project. A fresh environmental review would have taken months to complete, but Trump ordered the State Department to make its decision within 60 days. 


To meet the deadline, the State Department didn’t consider new evidence about the harmfulness of tar sands oil production, Swift said. The old data also overestimated the value of the oil, when the commodity was selling for more than $100 a barrel, while the recent price has been less than half that amount.  


Obama rejected TransCanada’s application in 2015 after years of debate, saying it would diminish U.S. standing on global climate change. Nearby Native American tribes have also invoked legal claims against construction. 


The Rosebud Sioux tribe of South Dakota contends the pipeline would violate treaty rights to an area that had been established in mid-1800s agreements with the federal government. That position is reminiscent of arguments made by the Standing Rock Sioux in their ongoing attempts to defeat the Dakota Access Pipeline.


Keystone XL also would run into lands claimed by the Ponca tribe of Nebraska.


“Our tribe has had limited to no consultation” with the Keystone builders, said Ponca Chairman Larry Wright. He described the pipeline as “the continued raping of our land and culture” and said he feared it would pollute what he described as “sacred” waters.


Take it to the streets

The renewed effort to to kill the Keystone XL will likely see public demonstrations to mobilize opponents. Demonstrations were hastily announced for Friday night in Washington, New York and other cities.


The Rosebud Sioux and other Sioux tribes may establish protest camps near the construction route, according to Indigenous Environmental Network organizer Dallas Goldtooth. The tribes “are willing to hold a physical space” and practice non-violent resistance, Goldtooth said. 


A similar strategy helped galvanize public support for the Standing Rock Sioux against the Dakota Access Pipeline, but also led to repeated clashes with police and more than 700 arrests. 


Follow the money

If pressure fails to sway government regulators and corporate bosses, opponents will target pipeline financial backers, said Michael Bruno, the Sierra Club’s executive director. Bruno said banks and other lenders may withhold funds to TransCanada if enough customers threaten boycotts. 


“This project will not get built,” Brune said. “It’s one of the worst deals imaginable to the American people.”


Agreement between the two camps seems unlikely. TransCanada President and CEO Russ Girling said in a video Friday that he’d like to know more about opponents’ views, but made it clear he thinks the pipeline is positive. 


“We will work closer with the communities to best understand what their concerns are,” Girling said. “But the fact that they understand North America needs energy, they need energy and the safest way to get energy is through a safe and modern pipeline.”

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The Big Moves This Past Year In The Fight Against the World's Top Infectious Killer

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 05:24


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Each year, World Tuberculosis Day brings another reminder that an airborne scourge is the top infectious killer worldwide despite being preventable and curable.


An estimated 1.8 million people died in 2015 of the disease, which has a 90 percent cure rate if treated. The growth of drug-resistant strains has experts worried that decades of progress in the fight could be erased. And the World Health Organization estimates there is a $2 billion investment gap in the efforts of low- and middle-income countries to fight tuberculosis each year, as well as a $1.3 billion shortfall in research and development.



But despite those grim statistics, the TB global health community says there are a few things to be thankful for.


As Eric Goosby, the U.N. special envoy on tuberculosis, put it: “We are at a moment where a lot is converging around people’s understanding of the role TB plays, the tragedy of a disease that is allowed to kill almost 2 million people a year that we can cure, and the ability to put a wall down in front of propagating the development of more cases of extensively drug-resistant and multidrug-resistant TB.”


From the release of new treatment regimens to combat drug-resistant strains to the rise in global political attention on the disease, here are some of the things experts in the field pointed to as wins for the year.


THE RELEASE OF A NINE-MONTH REGIMEN FOR MDR-TB

The release of a shorter regimen to combat MDR-TB was hailed as a massive life-saving development by the TB community. Typically, treatment for a patient with MDR-TB could take 18 to 24 months. A shorter regimen means more patients are able to complete treatment, saving lives and preventing further infections.


Lucica Ditiu, the executive director of the international Stop TB Partnership, called the progress toward shorter regimens the “silver bullet” in the fight against TB.


A 2018 UN HIGH-LEVEL MEETING 

The United Nations announced December that it would hold its first high-level meeting focusing solely on TB in 2018, a major win for TB advocates. This will be only the fifth meeting the UN has held to solely discuss health issues ― the others focused on HIV/AIDS in 2001, noncommunicable diseases in 2011, Ebola in 2014 and antimicrobial resistance in 2015.


“Politically speaking, this is a very momentous time for TB that is completely unprecedented,” Dr. Mario Raviglione, director of the World Health Organization’s Global TB Programme, said. “We have a unique opportunity to make sure we get what we need.”


INDIA’S PUBLIC COMMITMENT TO FIGHT TB

For the first time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for an “end TB by 2025” action plan for his country, which is estimated to contain about a fifth of the world’s TB burden. Experts say he’s the first prime minister in such a high-burden country to ask for such a plan, and his continued willingness to speak about the tuberculosis case load in India shows a commitment to fighting it.


THE UPCOMING MINISTERIAL CONFERENCE IN MOSCOW

Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to speak at the first ever Global Ministerial Conference on Ending TB in Moscow this November, which global health experts see as a pivot for Russia into the TB fight. Many hope this conference will deliver the springboard platform needed for an effective UN high-level meeting.


AN UPDATED PEDIATRIC FORMULATION

One million children develop infectious tuberculosis each year, and the WHO and UNICEF updated their dosing information for their youngest patients. The new medication is also water-dispersible, making it easier for children to take.


THE GLOBAL FUND REPLENISHMENT

The international recommitment to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria (and signs from President Donald Trump that he intends to honor that commitment) is key to funding the fight against tuberculosis around the world. Over $4 billion is dedicated each year through the fund in the fight against those three major epidemics.

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Hipsters, Please Don’t Culturally Appropriate Holi On Instagram

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 04:48


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Thousands are expected to crowd outside Utah’s Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple this weekend for what might be the largest celebration of Holi in the United States.


Although Holi is tied to Hinduism, many attendees will likely be young Mormons from nearby schools like Brigham Young University, lured by the promise of big, colorful, messy party.


In recent years, Hindu Americans have found that the Holi celebrations they organize for their own communities are increasingly drawing interest from non-Hindus. The spirit of Holi is one of playfulness and inclusivity, so people of other faiths are often welcomed to join in on the fun. 


But there’s a fine line between appreciating culture and appropriating culture. The problem happens when people who don’t identify as Hindus strip the festival of its spiritual context and history, turning an ancient holiday into a chance for hipsters to throw a raucous party and post the pictures on Instagram.


So before saying “yes” to a friend’s invitation to attend a Holi party, it’s worthwhile to take a second look at the event itself. The important questions in play seem to be first, whether Hindu Americans are involved in putting on the event, and secondly, whether the organizers acknowledge Holi’s origins.



What You Should Know About The Holiday If You’re Going To Participate


Holi is a spring festival that celebrates new life. It’s a time when traditional social boundaries are overturned, according to Anantanand Rambachan, a religion professor at St. Olaf College.  


“Children can squirt elders, and women can douse the men. Animosities, like the darkness and cold of winter, are forgotten and unity prevails. In the celebration of Holi, we all become one, overlooking differences of age, authority and status,” Rambachan told The Huffington Post. 


Hindus in the diaspora often organize Holi celebrations for their communities. The festival is popular on college campuses, with South Asian students hosting events open to classmates of all backgrounds. 



The History Of What Some Call The Largest Holi Celebration In America 


The Festival of Colors USA runs the Spanish Fork event and others in Utah, California, and Nevada. Coordinator Caru Das is a convert who belongs to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement, the society has grown from one that primarily drew young, white hippies to one whose ranks are filled with Indian immigrant families. Hare Krishnas put an emphasis on private devotion, but engaging outsiders is also important.


That’s what led Das to start hosting Holi at the Spanish Fork temple, over 20 years ago. 


“As someone who crossed over from a typical American middle class upbringing to someone who embraced the principles of dharma and reincarnation, I wanted to find a means to make those same treasures available to people from my own background,” Das told The Huffington Post. 


Das claimed last year’s event in Spanish Fork attracted over 37,000 people. He expects a bigger crowd this year.


Despite the festival’s growth, Das said it’s original intentions are still important. Musicians perform songs filled with mantras. There are yoga demonstrations and performers who explain Holi through dance. Every hour, all attendees are invited to count down from 10 and shout the name of Krishna. For Hare Krishnas, this act of saying Krishna’s name is a form of devotion


Das said that it’s not particularly important to him that Holi retains its distinction of being a religious festival.


“As soon as you say Indian or American or Hindu or Christian, you put a barrier between people. You’ve pulled down a curtain. And I wanted to do not a religious festival, not an ethnic festival, but a spiritual festival that’s equally appealing to atheists, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Christians,” he said.



This sense of Holi as a holiday that extends beyond religious and ethnic boundaries seems to be shared by other Hindu Americans. 


For Rambachan, Holi is a celebration of life that is “accessible and has universal meaning.”


“Many Hindus in the United Sates and elsewhere participate in some aspects of the Christmas season (exchange of gifts, for example) without sharing all its religious meaning,” Rambachan said. “In a similar way, I see many who do not identify as Hindus sharing in aspects of Hindu festivals.”


For Megha Kalia, a Hindu-Punjabi dance instructor, Holi is a spiritual and cultural event imbued with memories from her childhood in Mumbai. In 2009, she started organizing Holi Hai celebrations in New York City.


Although the festival started primarily for Hindu Americans, over the years it has drawn a following outside of that community. Kalia doesn’t mind.


“We are celebrating a festival that celebrates universal brotherhood, love and unity - we couldn’t consciously say no to any one community,” she told The Huffington Post. “We welcomed everyone with open arms!”


Aminta Kilawan, co-founder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, said that Holi celebrations in her Indo-Caribbean Hindu community in Queens, New York, are increasingly attended by non-Hindus. 


“To some Hinduism is a religion. To some, it is spiritual. To some, it is cultural. The beauty of Hinduism is its malleability and inclusiveness,” she said. 



Please Stop Diluting Holi As A “Color Run” Or Worse ― “A Feeling Of Woodstock”


But what does trouble Kilawan is when the aesthetics of Holi are used without acknowledging the festival’s history. 


One series of Holi celebrations, Festival of Colours, was founded by three Germans. Tickets to their 2017 festival in London can cost more than $35. The festival promises to give participants a “feeling of Woodstock.”


Another Holi festival, called Festival of Colors: Holi NYC, was reportedly started by a non-Hindu. When asked about whether the festival was a form of cultural appropriation, organizer Jack Langerman was unapologetic.


“I try to be as understanding and respectful of their views as possible,” Langerman told Brokelyn in an interview last year. “I understand, given the fact that I’m not Hindu, I’m some white kid who grew up in New York. I understand why that’s bothersome. All I can say is, Hindus figured out the best way to celebrate spring.” 


Requests for comment sent to the European Festival of Colours and Festival of Colors: Holi NYC were not returned.


The Color Run is a running series that holds races in more than 35 countries around the world. During the races, runners are doused with bright powdered colors in a way that is reminiscent of the Holi festival. 


Travis Snyder, founder of The Color Run, claims he wanted to add a visual component to the event to serve as an “aesthetic reward” for participants. The Color Run told HuffPost in a statement that Snyder’s inspiration came from “day-glow events, Disney’s World of Color and color festivals throughout the world.”


Kilawan doesn’t buy it. 


“Let’s be honest: if you take a look at photos advertising the event, a logical person could very readily mistake the event for a Holi celebration, and not to any of the other sources,” she wrote.


Suhag Shukla, co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, said that The Color Run is a prime example of cultural appropriation. 


“Honestly, there is nothing in the world like the color play that is integral to Holi, so to not acknowledge it comes across as dishonest,” she told The Huffington Post.



When Is A Holi Celebration Cultural Appropriation?


There’s a significant difference between events like The Color Run and the Holi festival that attracts tens of thousands of participants in Spanish Fork every year. Even though the Utah event is a wild, big and brimming with college kids, it’s a festival run by a Hindu organization that pays homage to Holi’s roots as a deeply spiritual holiday. But festivals that ignore the history and philosophy behind Holi risk becoming appropriation. 


Shukla said that it all depends on “intent and the respect accorded to the full aspects of the holiday.”


“Too often, American pop culture picks and chooses cafeteria-style from Hindu traditions, thereby missing the fundamental spiritual context and purpose, and ending up with what can look and feel like a circus,” Shukla told The Huffington Post. “But perhaps rather than making it some hipster or commercial enterprise, people can join local Hindu celebrations to actually enhance their religious and cultural literacy quotient.”


Pandit Dasa, a Hindu American and a mindfulness expert based in New Jersey, said that what’s happening with Holi now is similar to what happened to yoga.


“Yoga is referenced in the scriptures of Hinduism as a practice that helps you come closer to the divine or God. Obviously [most] yoga studios today have nothing to do with that philosophy,” he said.


Dasa said that he’s not necessarily against the idea of people practicing yoga for its health benefits or attending Holi festivals just to have a good time, without diving too deeply into their spiritual dimensions. Still, he thinks it would be helpful for attendees to pay attention to Holi’s history, and take it upon themselves to do some research before attending festivals.


He also thinks organizers can do their part to educate and explain ― perhaps providing placards and signs explaining why Holi is a spiritual time, and encouraging people to remember their relationship with the divine. 


Rambachan believes Holi should be accessible to people of other faiths ― but that it’s always good to identify its cultural and religious context. 


“This identification is also an act of gratitude for the ways that we are enriched by the traditions of our neighbors and our acknowledgement of indebtedness to these traditions.” 


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11 Moments On 'Sesame Street' That Championed Diversity And Inclusion

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 04:06

This week, “Sesame Street” announced that its character Julia, who has autism, will make her TV debut in April in an episode that will teach kids about the disorder. That trailblazing decision marks just one of the series’ many groundbreaking moments. 


Throughout its 47-year history, “Sesame Street” seems to have always embraced diversity and inclusion by having its Muppets and their human friends discuss important issues (like bullying and divorce) and reflect people kids actually see day to day (like children whose parents are in the military).


Though there are many more to choose, here are 11 other important moments from the creative people behind the beloved show.



The HuffPost Parents newsletter, So You Want To Raise A Feminist, offers the latest stories and news in progressive parenting. 

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Dying To Go To Heaven: What The Heaven’s Gate Suicides Teach Us About Islamic Martyrdom

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 03:20

It was 20 years ago this week, March 20-26, 1997, that 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult “graduated” from this life to ascend to the UFO mothership that they believed would take them to an extraterrestrial paradise. I’ll never forget it. I was on book tour for Why People Believe Weird Things, and neither I nor any of my peers who study belief systems had ever heard of the cult. It was hard to fathom. Now, as I look back 20 years later, I believe the mass suicide has a deeper lesson that goes far beyond the confines of New Age fringe cults, and has relevance to understanding the motivations of today’s suicide terrorists.


But first, let’s revisit the story. Heaven’s Gate was founded in 1975 by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles after they met in a psychiatric hospital. They fell in love and believed their pairing had been foretold by extraterrestrials. In the 1980s and 1990s, they recruited several hundred followers, many of whom sold their possessions and lived in isolation, disconnected from their family and friends. They practiced living in dark rooms to simulate space travel and considered sex sinful, with six male members voluntarily undergoing castration.



In early 1997, the appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp foretold to them that the coming of the UFO mothership, said to be hiding behind the comet, that would take them to what they called The Evolutionary Level Above Human (TELAH), where they would live forever in unadulterated ecstasy. This story was reinforced by Art Bell, on his popular late-night radio show Coast to Coast AM, a purveyor of conspiratorial “alternative facts” (before they were known as such). Compared to eternal bliss in this extraterrestrial heaven, life on Earth was but a temporary stage in evolution. The transition was made in three waves that week, as members drank a deadly cocktail of phenobarbital, applesauce, and vodka; also pulling plastic bags over their heads for self-asphyxiation. Authorities found them all dead in a San Diego home on March 26. The event became a media circus.



Twenty years later, the beliefs of the Heaven’s Gate cult members do seem absurdly ridiculous to most of us, grounded as they were in the New Age science fiction pop-culture. But at their core, how different are the motivations of the Heaven’s Gate members from those today who believe that a heavenly paradise awaits them through a dramatic suicide?


Perhaps the closest example in the minds of most Americans is Islamic suicide terrorism, a cult-like belief system with far deadlier implications than Heaven’s Gate. Ever since 19 Muslim men chose to end their life in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Westerners have wondered aloud how a belief in heavenly paradise can drive such extreme actions.



Indeed, the emergence of Islamic martyrdom through suicide bombings seems to have remarkably cult-like traits. It was Muhammad himself (as cited in the Qur'an) who ruled that as a general principle any Muslim soldier who died while attacking an infidel would go straight to paradise. But only in recent times has this statement has been used as a motivator for the style of suicide bombings practiced by the leaders of al Qaeda and ISIS.


Most Muslim scholars agree that the Qur’an forbids suicide, yet according to the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, 224 of 300 suicide terror attacks from 1980 to 2003 involved Islamist groups. Statistics suggest the frequency of terror-based suicide has increased dramatically, from less than one incident per month in the decades prior to 9/11, to more than one per day in 2015.



Consider the final words of the 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta (above), penned in a suicide note found in his luggage that he left in his rental car before flying into the World Trade Center building: “Know that the gardens of paradise are waiting for you in all their beauty, and the women of paradise are waiting, calling out, ‘Come hither, friend of God.’”


Perhaps out of a desire to not criticize other religions, many Western commentators and politicians blame Islamic terrorism on economic or political pressures. These factors may certainly come into play – yet we cannot escape the fact that suicide bombers often believe they are going to heaven for their deadly actions.


Perhaps it is time for anti-terror groups to cease thinking of Islamic suicide bombings as a legitimate act of war, and instead see the similarities with suicides cults like Heaven’s Gate. Consider the 2016 article, “Why We Hate You, Why We Fight You”in the ISIS publication Dabiq. The unnamed author drills home the point that beyond any secondary political motives is the fact that, “What’s equally if not more important to understand is that we fight you, not simply to punish and deter you, but to bring you true freedom in this life and salvation in the Hereafter.”


The Hereafter. Would the leaders of al Qaeda and ISIS be able to recruit as many people into their cult of death without the promise of a glorious afterlife? Surely not.



Whatever other motives Islamic terrorists may have for their actions, beneath them all is the same supernatural belief held by the Heaven’s Gate cult members: that they’re not really committing suicide, but simply transitioning to a better place where they will be rewarded for their actions. And just like most of us would intervene with friends or family who joined a suicide cult like Heaven’s Gate, Muslim moderates and reformers, along with religious people of all faiths, must debunk the false fact that heaven awaits those who kill themselves, especially if they take the lives of others.


Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His next book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Quest for Immortality, the Afterlife, and Utopia. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelShermer.

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Pope Francis Warns Against Other Countries Leaving The EU

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 03:03

Pope Francis warned world leaders on Friday that the European Union “risks dying” without a clear vision for the future. 


The pontiff addressed European Union leaders at the Vatican ahead of the bloc’s 60th anniversary celebrations, scheduled to take place in Rome on Saturday. 


“When a body loses its sense of direction and is no longer able to look ahead, it experiences a regression and, in the long run, risks dying,” Francis said.


Celebrations marking 60 years of Europe’s economic and political cohesion have been dampened by Britain’s impending departure from the union. EU leader Jean-Claude Juncker called the country’s 2016 decision to leave the bloc a “failure and a tragedy.”


“We are not in the best form and shape we could be in,” he admitted in an interview with the BBC on Friday.


Britain’s vote, dubbed “Brexit,” is among a number of blows to hit the EU in recent years, which include an ongoing economic crisis in Greece, rising mainstream support for the far right, and an influx of migrants that has sparked debates over resettlement.


Some have argued that the bloc may simply be “failing forward,” by which incremental reforms follow a period of turmoil. In his address, Pope Francis reminded the union’s leaders that it was the horrors of World War II that gave rise to European solidarity in the first place. 


The bloc’s founding fathers, he said, “were inspired by the hope of a better future and were determined to pursue it by avoiding the rise of new conflicts.”


Six nations signed the 1957 treaty to establish the EU, which grew to a partnership of 28 countries. Britain’s departure, expected to take effect by the summer of 2019, moves the tally down to 27. Francis warned that others may follow if the bloc fails to establish a “patrimony of ideals and spiritual values.”


The pontiff called European solidarity the “best antidote against the vacuum of values of our time, which provides a fertile terrain for every form of extremism,” referencing Wednesday’s terror attack in London.


He also decried “the tragedy of walls and divisions,” echoing previous statements he has made seemingly directed at President Donald Trump. “It is not enough to handle the grave crisis of immigration of recent years as if it were a mere numerical or economic problem, or a question of security,” Francis said.


The EU could recover its strength, the pope argued, by investing in the wellbeing of its people and pursuing a peaceful future. “Its success will depend on its readiness to work together once again,” he said, “and by its willingness to wager on the future.”




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We Must End TB By 2030

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 03:00

“From the Indian Prime Minister to the Russian President, from the Indonesian Vice President to the First Lady of Nigeria, from Ministers of Health from South Africa, Thailand and Belarus to people asking for their rights to diagnosis and treatment ― is TB finally getting the political attention and visibility it needs and deserves?”


Ending TB by 2030 is one of the SDGs and an ambitious goal that the world must achieve. It will not be easy as the burden is huge: an estimated 2 billion people infected globally, 10.5 million new TB cases every year with just a bit more than 6 000 000 detected and treated with proper care, an increasing drug resistant burden and just one in nine people affected by MDR-TB being diagnosed, treated and cured. A pathetic and slow decline of 1.5% per year of TB incidence versus the 7-10% decline needed. No vaccine, no point of care diagnosis, no lean and short treatment regimen without side effects. Declining investment in research and development.


So, where do I get the hope and belief that we will end TB? Where do I see the silver lining in all this?


I see it in the fact that if we – as human beings – really want to achieve something, nothing can stop us and we will do it. And now is the first time ever that I feel that we really, really want to end this disease. I feel it in the continuous amazing and long standing leadership of Minister Motsoaledi of South Africa who dared and pushed away all boundaries and challenges in making the South African people healthier and stronger with regards to TB. South Africa is rolling out all the new drugs and diagnostics for all people, is integrating services for TB/HIV, and women and children have the biggest number of people on TB prevention treatment. I see it in Minister Motsoaledi calling on his peers to do more for TB and in his vision of bringing TB to the UN High Level meetings.


I feel it in the commitments of the Minister of Health of Thailand who has called for a strong health system to be able to end TB, and in the desire of the Minister of Health of Belarus who has worked to secure quality assured TB treatment and diagnosis to all his citizens. I feel it in the voice of the First Lady of Nigeria who decided to be a champion for TB in her country and globally and encouraged Nigeria’s Minister of Health to declare 2017 the year for accelerated TB case detection.



We have a long way to go and it will be difficult – but, we have to agree that we now have a great momentum for TB that we have never had before.



It is there when the Vice President of Indonesia, supported by the Stop TB Partnership of Indonesia holds a meeting with the Minister of Health and other ministers to discuss the TB situation and actions in Indonesia.


Of course we have hope that we will end TB when Prime Minister Modi of India asked for a plan to End TB in India by 2025 and the Ministry of Health team developed and costed one of the most progressive National Strategic Plans to End TB the world has by 2025.


How can we not be strong when the Russian Federation will host the Global Ministerial Conference on TB in Moscow in November 2017 and President Putin is discussing TB with his teams? This is an important milestone on the road to the UN High Level Meeting on TB in September 2018.


Of course there is light at the end of the tunnel as we have more and more Zero TB cities and now countries like Maldives and Sri Lanka are planning to go for Zero TB as well. And more light in a different way, as Mayors of 30 cities in 13 countries agreed in the blink of an eye to light up their most important landmarks in red for this World TB Day.


Of course there is hope as we now have more than 2,300 Parliamentarians in more than 100 countries that are pushing TB on the political agenda.


But more than anything, I feel it in the voices of people affected by TB that are becoming more and more united asking for their rights have access to the newest and most efficient diagnosis, treatment and care. I feel it in the voices of people from communities, civil society and NGOs that are scaling up their work on TB and in TB programs working towards putting people affected by TB at the center of their efforts.


We have a long way to go and it will be difficult – but, we have to agree that we now have a great momentum for TB that we have never had before, something so strong from the high burden countries: a desire, and an energy to end TB! Let’s do it!


This post is part of the ‘Tuberculosis Today’ series produced by The Huffington Post highlighting the challenges of combatting TB. Tuberculosis is now back in the top ten causes of death globally, and it is the world’s leading infectious disease killer despite being curable and preventable.

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