>In February 2008, a pair of suicide bombers struck the Israeli town of Dimona. One of the attackers detonated his explosive vest, killing an Israeli, and injuring nine others. The accomplice was shot before he could trigger his device. A bomb disposal robot then defused the bomb, and ran over the terrorist's body to make sure he wasn't carrying any more explosives.
The encounter symbolized the emergence of two opponents: robots and suicide terrorists. States and non-state actors have moved in opposite directions in the delivery of firepower. Advanced countries like the United States and Israel have developed unmanned weapons. By contrast, terrorist adversaries have adopted the ultimate manned weapon. On one side, you have a robot operated by a technician thousands of miles away. On the other side, you have an individual who is physically present when the weapon explodes. War is a contest between the impersonal and the personal.
Photo: Haim Horenstein/Getty
In the opening act of the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. pilots flew F-117A Nighthawks into Baghdad, hitting targets with laser-guided bombs. Today, two decades later, unmanned drone aircraft lead the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Directed by joystick-wielding pilots sitting in trailers in the United States, the Predator and the Reaper drone are able to stay in the air for at least 14 hours, watching and killing. The supposedly dovish President Obama has massively stepped up the drone war in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As Peter Singer wrote in his fascinating book Wired for War we are in the midst of a new chapter in warfare, with robots moving to center stage. The Predator and Reaper now have a brother on the ground. The SWORDS, or Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System, is a robot chassis that can mount an M-16 rifle or a grenade launcher.
But just when national militaries have evolved from manned to unmanned operations, non-state adversaries have gone the opposite route, with humans delivering the payload. In 1993, Ramzi Yousef followed the traditional terrorist playbook: planting a bomb inside the World Trade Center in New York City, and then fleeing as quickly as possible. Eight years later, Yousef's uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, masterminded a different strategy, with terrorists personally guiding aircraft into the Twin Towers.
To be sure, suicide bombings are only a small fraction of overall terrorist attacks. But they are on the rise. The current era of suicide terrorism began in Lebanon in the early 1980s, and quickly spread to civil wars in Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Chechnya. After 9/11, there was a dramatic uptick in suicide bombings in countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Britain, and especially Iraq--where there were at least 783 attacks from May 2003 to July 2010. In the early years of the Afghan War, there were only a handful of suicide bombings, but in 2009 there were over 180 incidents.
The United States hopes to thrive in this brave new world of robots and suicide terrorists. Americans have long used machines to save soldiers' lives. And robots relish jobs that are dull or dangerous. Drones can patrol the battlefield around the clock. The SWORDS robot can hit its target with incredible accuracy. One day, a swarm of miniature insect robots armed with cameras may buzz around cityscapes, removing the fog of war from urban fighting.
But robots can lack a human's capacity to adapt to sudden changes on the battlefield. This, of course, is the suicide terrorist's ace card. He can switch target at the last second to maximize destruction, or fine-tune the kill. The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka used suicide bombers to get close to, and assassinate, political officials, including former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
For optimists, the era of robots and suicide terrorists could allow the United States to land a one-two psychological punch. American automata send a powerful message: step on me and face a relentless wave of robot warriors. Shocked and awestruck, enemies will be left feeling helpless. Meanwhile, the brutality of suicide bombings marginalizes Al Qaeda's cause and helps us win the battle for hearts and minds. Our iron fist combined with the enemy's fanaticism leave only one winner.
Pessimists worry, however, about how the optics will look. The reliance on robots can make the United States appear both overbearing and vulnerable--just the combination to inspire resistance. Goliath bullies David with advanced technology. But Goliath's strength belies a fatal weakness--his craven fear of death.
Rami Khouri, a scholar and editor based in Beirut, described how the Lebanese viewed the Israeli drones in the 2006 war in Lebanon: "the enemy is using machines to fight from afar. Your defiance in the face of it shows your heroism, your humanity...The average person sees it as just another sign of coldhearted, cruel Israelis and Americans, who are also cowards because they send out machines to fight us." America's population is as frightened as the lion from the Wizard of Oz. And its robots are as heartless as the tin man. Americans will not face death, whereas its enemies embrace it. In anti-American circles, the suicide terrorist may look like a brave rebel resisting the evil Galactic Empire.
The rise of robots and suicide terrorists could also make wars more likely. Suicide attacks such as 9/11 are so horrific they provide a powerful casus belli, rallying Americans to fight. And if presidents can respond by unleashing robots rather than citizens, with less fear of flag-laden coffins coming back, they may be even more tempted to grasp the SWORDS.
How America’s best and brightest once again steered the country to failure
They were the best and the brightest. But, most of all, they believed they were right. Although the scale of disaster was considerably different, the same that was said of those who oversaw foreign policy under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson could be said of the Obama administration.
These were academics, intellectuals, and technocrats who were not only very smart; they took pride in being practical, grounded in reality, and wedded to facts. After the supposed anti-intellectualism and ideological rigidity of the George W. Bush administration, many of us welcomed the prospect of a president who was cerebral and professorial. Even those sympathetic to President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy instincts, however, will agree that it didn’t quite go as planned.
The Michigan billionaire’s confirmation hearing was heavy on partisanship and light on substance.
Donald Trump advocated on the campaign trail for a $20 billion federal school-voucher program. But during her confirmation hearing on Tuesday evening, Betsy DeVos, the president-elect’s choice to lead the U.S. Education Department, said school choice should be a state decision. She framed school choice as a right for students and families. And she said during the hearing that she was committed to strengthening public education for all students.
While the Michigan billionaire has backed charter schools and vouchers, which let families use public money to pay for private schools, DeVos would not, she said, try to force states to embrace school choice. But a number of organizations, largely Democratic, that had raised questions about DeVos’s commitment to expanding charters and vouchers and about her family’s financial holdings and religious causes were unlikely to find much more of the hearing reassuring.
The Russian leader tries to claim the role of senior partner in relationship with the U.S.
You have to feel bad for the Moldovan president. The newly elected Igor Dodon had traveled to Moscow to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin for the first Russian-Moldovan bilateral meeting in nine years. Yet here he was, standing side by side with Putin, his hero and model for emulation, at a regal-looking press conference and some reporter has to go and ask about the prostitutes.
“You haven’t yet commented on the report that, allegedly, we or in Russia have been collecting kompromat on Donald Trump, including during his visit to Moscow, as if he were having fun with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel,” said the reporter with the pro-Kremlin LifeNews. “Is that true? Have you seen these files, these videos, these tapes?”
The president-elect’s lawyers have explained why they don’t think he’ll violate the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause—but their arguments fall apart under closer scrutiny.
Last week, President-elect Donald Trump’s lawyers issued a brief, largely unnoticed memo defending Trump’s plan to “separate” himself from his businesses. We believe that memo arbitrarily limits itself to a small portion of the conflicts it purports to address, and even there, presents claims that depart from precedent and common sense. Trump can convince a lot of people of a lot of things—but neither he nor his lawyers can explain away the ethics train wreck that will soon crash into the Oval Office.
It’sbeenwidelyacknowledgedthat, when Trump swears the Oath of Office, he will stand in violation of the Constitution’s foreign-emoluments clause. The emoluments clause forbids any “Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States]” from accepting any “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State” (unless Congress explicitly consents).
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
Why Nixon's former lawyer John Dean worries Trump could be one of the most corrupt presidents ever—and get away with it
Sometime early last fall, John Dean says he began having nightmares about a Trump presidency. He would wake in the middle of the night, agitated and alarmed, struggling to calm his nerves. “I’m not somebody who remembers the details of dreams,” he told me in a recent phone call from his home in Los Angeles. “I just know that they were so bad that I’d force myself awake and out of bed just to get away from them.”
Few people are more intimately acquainted than Dean with the consequences of an American presidency gone awry. As White House counsel under President Richard Nixon from 1970 to 1973, he was a key figure in the Watergate saga—participating in, and then helping to expose, the most iconic political scandal in modern U.S. history. In the decades since then, Dean has parlayed that resume line into something of a franchise, penning several books and countless columns on the theme of presidential abuses of power.
Why some people are withdrawing from mainstream society into “intentional communities”—and what the rest of the country can learn from them
For the last eight years, Nicolas and Rachel Sarah have been slowly weaning themselves off fossil fuels. They don’t own a refrigerator or a car; their year-old baby and four-year-old toddler play by candlelight rather than electricity at night. They identify as Christian anarchists, and have given an official name to their search for an alternative to consumption-heavy American life: the Downstream Project, with the motto to “do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
As it turns out, exiting the system is a challenging, time-consuming, and surprisingly technical process. Here in the Shenandoahs and central Virginia, a handful of tiny communities are experimenting with what it means to reject the norms of contemporary life and exist in a radically different way. They seem to share Americans’ pervasive sense of political alienation, which arguably reached an apotheosis with the election of Donald Trump: a sense of division from their peers, a distrust of government. The challenges of modern politics—dealing with issues like climate change, poverty, mass migration, and war on a global scale—are so vast and abstract that it’s difficult not to find them overwhelming. But instead of continuing in passive despair, as many Americans seem to do, the people in these communities decided to overhaul their lives.
Many both mainstream and alternative doctors help patients avoid or delay vaccines. Trump’s rhetoric might empower them further.
When Andrew Brandeis encounters patients who are skeptical about vaccines at his family-practice clinic in San Francisco, he doesn’t toe the typical pediatrician party line—that the standard vaccine schedule is a must-do. Instead, he might help the patient delay or space out their child’s shots beyond the recommendations of public-health agencies, if they so desire.
“The earlier you introduce a vaccine to a kid, there is evidence suggesting various adverse reactions,” he said. He believes early administration of the Hepatitis B vaccine is linked to allergies, asthma, and multiple sclerosis—something doctors and health agencies vehemently deny. “The parents might say, ‘I’m just going to wait on that one,’ I’d say that’s okay.”
Surfing the app on a trip back home can be a way of regressing, or imagining what life would be like if you never left.
My parents moved out of my hometown almost as soon as I left for college, and therefore I am obsessed with the idea of other people’s hometowns. Over any major holiday or break from a work schedule, hometowns become a sort of time travel, a way for people who have made adult lives elsewhere to return to their origin story.
Going home for the holidays can act as a kind of regression. Most of us know people, whether our friends, our partner, even our own parents, who suddenly turn into their teen or pre-teen self once they step foot in the house where they grew up. My mom used to say that whenever my dad got within 50 miles of his mom’s house, he suddenly became a teenage boy. Our hometowns become a kind of permission and hideaway, a place where we don’t have to be ourselves, where our actions don’t count and we get to be briefly less visible than we are in the adult homes we’ve made for ourselves elsewhere, the places where we expect ourselves to take action and achieve things and move upward through each day. For many of us, hometowns allow the luxury of a brief period of stasis, a rare few days of doing nothing.
“Trump’s wall is already under construction,” Wole Soyinka says. “Walls are built in the mind.”
Wole Soyinka, the first African writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, once fled to the United States from Nigeria. Now the fickle winds of politics are pushing him in the opposite direction.
Back in the 1960s, jailed for alleged associations with rebels amid the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War, Soyinka composed protest poems on toilet paper in solitary confinement. “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny,” Soyinka wrote in the collection of prison notes he later published. In the 1990s, the Nigerian strongman Sani Abacha confiscated Soyinka’s passport after the playwright urged Nigerians to stop paying taxes in defiance of military rule in the country. Soyinka managed to sneak out of his homeland and take refuge in the United States—a period he described to me as his “political sabbatical, because I never accepted, really, that I was in exile.”Abacha sentenced Soyinka to death in absentia. Soyinka’s crime was said to be treason.