>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 men and women digest differently, diet changes our skin, and gluten remains mysterious: A forward-thinking gastroenterologist on eating one's way to "gutbliss"
Robynne Chutkan, MD, is an integrative gastroenterologist and founder of the Digestive Center for Women, just outside of Washington, D.C. She trained at Columbia University and is on faculty at Georgetown, but her approach to practicing medicine and understanding disease is more holistic than many specialists with academic backgrounds. She has also appeared on The Dr. Oz Show (of which I’ve been openly skeptical in the past, because of Oz’s tendency to divorce his recommendations from evidence).
The scientists are all talking like it’s a sure thing.
On August 21, the “moon” will pass between the Earth and the sun, obscuring the light of the latter. The government agency NASA says this will result in “one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights.” The astronomers there claim to have calculated down to the minute exactly when and where this will happen, and for how long. They have reportedly known about this eclipse for years, just by virtue of some sort of complex math.
This seems extremely unlikely. I can’t even find these eclipse calculations on their website to check them for myself.
Meanwhile the scientists tell us we can’t look at it without special glasses because “looking directly at the sun is unsafe.”
The Boston Police Department said that 33 people have been arrested in connection with the rally and counter-demonstrations on Saturday.
A crowd of counter-demonstrators estimated in the thousands showed up in Boston on Saturday to protest a controversial “free speech” event, scheduled a week after a white-nationalist rally in support of a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, led to fatal violence, including the death of one woman.
The Boston rally concluded earlier than anticipated and was declared officially over by the Boston Police Department by 1:30 p.m. ET. President Trump tweeted at 3:22 p.m. that there appeared to be “many anti-police agitators” in the city, though later he said that he wanted “to applaud the many protesters in Boston who are speaking out against bigotry and hate.”
The city’s Democratic mayor, Marty Walsh, responded to another tweet from the president commending him and local law-enforcement officers by saying: “Today, Boston stood for peace and love, not bigotry and hate. We should work to bring people together, not apart.” Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, also a Democrat, said on Twitter that he “couldn’t be more proud of” the city. “Peaceful, moral, resistant,” he tweeted. “That is our city and commonwealth.”
Empty pedestals can offer the same lessons about racism and war that the statues do.
Six years before it would become the inspiration for bloody protests, the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, was vandalized. The 2011 incident capped off my 11-year residency in the small city—where I’d taught high-school history and where my understanding of the legacy of the Civil War was nurtured. There was no better place to teach the Civil War than Charlottesville. Some of the most important battlefields in Richmond, Fredericksburg, and the Shenandoah Valley are within an hour’s drive. But it was the region’s monuments that played a central role in my teaching, and I believed they should be left alone.
I argued my position in an essay for The Atlantic: “For better or for worse, monuments to Confederate heroes are part of our story, but each of us can choose how to engage with these places. We can express outrage over their existence. We can alter them with statements of our own. Or we can let them be, appreciate their aesthetic qualities, and reflect carefully on their history.” I fell short on understanding what they still meant to some in the community. I didn’t realize that so many of my neighbors didn’t need further reflection at all.
“Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.”
Ever since it was first published in 1982, readers—including this one—have thrilled to “Total Eclipse,” Annie Dillard’s masterpiece of literary nonfiction, which describes her personal experience of a solar eclipse in Washington State. It first appeared in Dillard’s landmark collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk, and was recently republished in The Abundance, a new anthology of her work. The Atlantic is pleased to offer the essay in full, here, until the day after the ‘Great American Eclipse’ on August 21.
It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering. We had crossed the mountains that day, and now we were in a strange place—a hotel in central Washington, in a town near Yakima. The eclipse we had traveled here to see would occur early in the next morning.
The legend of the Confederate leader’s heroism and decency is based in the fiction of a person who never existed.
The strangest part about the continued personality cult of Robert E. Lee is how few of the qualities his admirers profess to see in him he actually possessed.
Memorial Day has the tendency to conjure up old arguments about the Civil War. That’s understandable; it was created to mourn the dead of a war in which the Union was nearly destroyed, when half the country rose up in rebellion in defense of slavery. This year, the removal of Lee’s statue in New Orleans has inspired a new round of commentary about Lee, not to mention protests on his behalf by white supremacists.
The myth of Lee goes something like this: He was a brilliant strategist and devoted Christian man who abhorred slavery and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together.
Trump has again recirculated a debunked history about terrorism. But what the general was really doing in the Philippines can tell us something more important about America.
Another day, another sputtering orgy of confusion following a cryptic Donald Trump tweet. This one came Thursday, a few hours after a van plowed into a crowd on the Barcelona pedestrian mall of Las Ramblas, an attack claimed by the reeling Islamic State. The president replied, via iPhone:
Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!
It seemed to be a reference to a story Trump told at campaign rallies during the 2016 primaries, which in turn was a garbled version of an Islamophobic meme that has made its way around the internet for years. In the fable, the legendary U.S. General John J. Pershing once ended a wave of Muslim terrorism in the Philippines by executing prisoners with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood. Other superstitious fighters were so terrified by the prospect of being killed while touching part of a forbidden animal, the story goes, that fighting immediately stopped, for some period of time. (For 25 years, Trump said at a North Charleston, South Carolina, rally in February 2016; a few weeks later, in Costa Mesa, California, it had jumped up to 42.)
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
The aftermath of Charlottesville has brought up important questions about who should be speaking, and who should be listening.
In a 2012 article published in the Public Opinion Quarterly, a group of researchers shared the results of a study they had done in the aftermath of the 2008 U.S. presidential election. The researchers, based on panels with young voters, found that the impression of Sarah Palin that Tina Fey had made famous on Saturday Night Live—“I can see Russia from my house!”—had changed the public’s feeling about the actual vice-presidential candidate. Fey’s jokes, the researchers suggested, had proven comedy’s power, especially in times of question and perhaps also in times of crisis, to shape people’s sense of the world. The jokes had woven themselves into the workings of American democracy. The researchers called it the Fey Effect.
The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history.
When did America become untethered from reality?
I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004, after President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. “Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books.