Police removed protestors demonstrating against a North Dakota pipeline, the Oregon militiamen were acquitted, groping allegations of Clarence Thomas, and more from across the United States and around the world.
—Police officers wearing riot gear have started removing hundreds of people protesting a controversial crude oil pipeline at its construction site in North Dakota on Thursday. More here
—Ammon Bundy and six other co-defendants were found not guilty Thursday of federal conspiracy and weapons charges stemming from their armed takeover of a federally owned wildlife sanctuary in Oregon earlier this year. More here
—An Alaska lawyer has accused Justice Clarence Thomas of groping her at a dinner party in 1999. More here
—We’re live-blogging the news stories of the day below. All updates are in Eastern Daylight Time (GMT -4).
President Obama commuted the sentences of 98 federal prisoners on Thursday, his latest small step in a broader effort to reduce excessive sentences in the criminal-justice system.
Forty-two of the 98 inmates who received clemency today had been serving life sentences. All had been convicted for nonviolent drug offenses. Obama’s latest round of pardons comes as the White House tries to clear a lengthy backlog before his term ends in January. The Washington Posthas more:
The administration's highly-touted clemency initiative had been tangled up by bureaucratic delays after it got underway. Though the pace of commutations he has granted has worried activists — and, as of earlier this month, there were more than 11,000 petitions pending, according to the Justice Department — there has been a flurry of activity on this front recently.
In August, Obama commuted the sentences of 214 inmates, setting a single-day record for his administration, and the 111 commutations he handed down a few weeks later also helped set a single-month record. Earlier this month, Obama granted clemency to an additional 102 inmates.
Today’s move brings Obama’s total number of commutations to 872, including 688 acts of clemency in 2016 alone. According to the White House, Obama has now commuted more sentences than every post-World War II president combined. (That number excludes mass pardons, like the one granted to Vietnam War draft-dodgers by President Jimmy Carter.)
Six years after a secret recording allegedly led a Rutgers University student to commit suicide, the man who recorded the video has pled guilty to attempted invasion of privacy.
Using a hidden webcam, Dharun Ravi recorded his roommate, Tyler Clementi, kissing another man and shared it with others. Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge three days after he found about about the recording. The case sparked a national discussion about cyberbullying and discrimination against the LGBT community.
The plea deal comes after a New Jersey appeals court last month threw out Ravi's 2012 conviction on 15 counts, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation. The appellate court decision came after the state Supreme Court last year ruled that the laws under which Ravi was convicted were unconstitutional and that the ruling could be applied retroactively.
In the third-degree felony plea deal, Ravi was sentenced to the 20 days he already served. He’s previously paid a $10,000 fine. Clementi’s parents, who started a foundation in honor of their son, said after the plea deal, “We have learned that witnesses or bystanders need to become upstanders for those in our society like Tyler, who cannot stand up for themselves.”
Ammon Bundy and six other co-defendants were found not guilty Thursday of federal conspiracy and weapons charges stemming from their armed takeover of a federally owned wildlife sanctuary in Oregon earlier this year.
For 41 days in January and February, members of a militia occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, demanding the federal government give up control of 188,000 acres of public lands. The men made a national call for arms and aid as they controlled the facility near Burns, Oregon, even as police blocked off roads that led to the refuge.
The Oregoniancalled the acquittal a “stunning verdict, undoubtedly a significant blow to federal prosecutors.”
The New York Timesexplains how the men were able to avoid conviction:
Their lawyers argued that prosecutors did not prove that the group had engaged in an illegal conspiracy that kept federal workers—employees of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management—from doing their jobs.
The episode launched a national debate about who can control public lands, even getting initial support from Republicans like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. The Bundy family previously led another standoff with federal authorities in 2014 in Nevada over similar issues.
Police officers wearing riot gear have started removing hundreds of people protesting a controversial crude oil pipeline at its construction site in North Dakota on Thursday.
An estimated 200 protesters built an encampment of hundreds of tents directly in the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.8 billion, 1,1172-mile pipeline near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, Reuters reports. Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said the roadblocks constructed by the protesters “forced law enforcement to respond.” The sheriff’s department also claimed the protesters had set fire to a bridge.
As my colleague Robinson Meyer previously reported, the pipeline has drawn criticism from members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and environmental activists, who say the project’s construction threatens to destroy sacred tribal sites and contaminate the Missouri River, the Sioux’s sole water source.
Demonstrations against the pipeline have been held for several months, resulting in the arrests of more than 100 people. The protests have drawn nationwide attention, including from civil-rights activists, celebrities, and presidential candidates.
Colombia has suspended peace talks with its second-largest Marxist rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), because the government says the rebels have not released their last remaining hostage.
Peace talks were set to begin Thursday in Ecuador at 6 p.m. local time, but the Colombian government canceled them at the last minute, demanding the release of former congressman Odin Sanchez. Colombia’s chief negotiator with ELN, Juan Camilo Restrepo, said Monday negotiations will be stalled until Sanchez is let go.
But there seems to be some confusion over whether Sanchez has been released or not. The ELN took Sanchez in April. He had offered himself in exchange for his brother, a former governor whom rebels kidnapped three years ago, and who had become ill while captive. The guerrilla group initially asked for a hefty ransom in exchange for Sanchez’s release, but the government insisted rebels set him free as a gesture of good faith before the peace talks. After the government insisted on his release, news organizations reported rumors that ELN had prepared to release Sanchez in the Darien Jungle, and some reports said the ELN already had. But on Wednesday, the Red Cross, which had been appointed to handle the recovery, said it had not been officially alerted of his release, and so had not activated its recovery protocols.
The breakdown in talks is yet another another bump in the negotiations to disarm a decades-old rebel group in Colombia. The ELN and Colombia’s largest, most well-known guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), both emerged around the same time in the 1960s to fight for land reform. About 250,000 people have been killed in the fighting between government forces and the rebels since they took up arms. And though their numbers have drastically declined, FARC still has about 8,000 soldiers; the ELN has about 2,000. Last month, Colombia successfully negotiated a peace deal with FARC, but earlier this month Colombian voters rejected it.
Lawyer Accuses Justice Clarence Thomas of Groping Her in 1999
An Alaska lawyer has accused Justice Clarence Thomas of groping her at a dinner party in 1999.
In interviews with the National Law Journalpublished Thursday, Moira Smith, who is now the general counsel for Enstar Natural Gas Company, said she met the justice while she was a Truman Foundation scholar living in Washington, D.C. During that time, the foundation asked Thomas to present an award it had recently created.
The night before the ceremony, Thomas dined with Smith and other Truman scholars and fellows at the home of Louis Blair, the foundation’s executive secretary. According to Smith, she was helping set up before the dinner when the alleged incident occurred.
Alone with Thomas, “I was setting the place to his right when he reached out, sort of cupped his hand around my butt and pulled me pretty close to him,” Smith said in an interview. “He said, ‘Where are you sitting?’ and gave me a squeeze. I said, ‘I’m sitting down at the garden table.’ He said, ‘I think you should sit next to me,’ giving me squeezes. I said, ‘Well, Mr. Blair is pretty particular about his seating chart.’ I tried to use the seating chart as a pretext for refusing. He one more time squeezed my butt and he said, ‘Are you sure?’ I said yes, and that was the end of it.”
Smith said the other guests then assembled for the dinner and she went to the garden table to take her seat. Buckley said she did not recall seeing anything unusual that evening. Smith recalled being “shell-shocked, but also I was there for work. I had a job to do, to be genial as sort of a stand-in hostess.”
The Journal spoke with four other people, including Smith’s roommates at the time, who recalled her sharing her story around the time it allegedly occurred. Blair and two other dinner attendees told the Journal they didn’t know about the incident until now.
Thomas, who joined the Court 25 years ago this week, emphatically denied Smith’s allegations. “This claim is preposterous and it never happened,” he said to the Journal in a statement.
The justice last faced sexual-misconduct allegations in 1991 during one of the most contentious confirmation battles in Supreme Court history. Anita Hill, the law professor, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Thomas had verbally sexually harassed her while she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thomas vehemently denied the allegations and described the hearings as a “high-tech lynching.” The Senate confirmed him in a 52-to-48 vote.
Smith first went public with her allegations in a Facebook post on October 7, shortly after the Washington Post published video clips from 2005 in which Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, brags about sexually assaulting women. In the post, Smith also noted two other times she had been assaulted by different men.
“I do not take the decision to share these incredibly personal and painful moments lightly,” she wrote. “I also do not share this because of the election, or even really because of Donald Trump. I share this because if this can happen to me—a privileged white woman—three times in ten years, how bad must it be for those who are not as privileged?”
Internal Feud at Tata Sons, the Indian Conglomerate, Spills Out Into the Open
Tata Sons, one of India’s most venerable companies, is in the midst of a very public corporate feud.
At issue is the ousting this week of Cyrus Mistry, the company’s chairman, by the board. He was replaced on an interim basis by his predecessor, Ratan Tata, who ran the company from 1991 to 2012. The news was unexpected and has dominated the headlines of Indian media. Part of the reason for this is not only the company’s size ($103.5 billion in revenues), but the Tata family’s outsized influence on the Indian consciousness for nearly 150 years. The Tata name dominates salt, steel mills, cars, and luxury hotels, and its global acquisitions in the late 1990s and early aughts—Tetley Tea, Jaguar Land Rover, Corus Steel—were a matter of pride for many Indians.
Although Mistry was the company’s first chairman in nearly eight decades to come from outside the Tata family, he was by no means an outsider. His family, a major Tata shareholder since the 1930s, owns about 18 percent of the company; his sister is married to Ratan Tata’s half-brother, Noel; and he was Ratan Tata’s handpicked successor to become chairman.
But Mistry did not take his firing well and his letter to the Tata Sons board, of which he remains a member, was leaked to the media. In it he claimed he was a “lame duck” figure, said the group faced about $18 billion in write-downs, and raised enough questions about the financial health of the Tata Group’s various holdings that it got India’s financial regulators interested. On Thursday, Tata Sons, the holding company that owns the Tata Group, responded, calling the leak “unseemly and undignified,” and Mistry’s claims “unsubstantiated and malicious.”
“It has taken everyone by surprise,” J. N. Gupta, a former executive at India's markets regulator and now managing director at Stakeholders Empowerment Services, told the BBC. “Nobody would have thought such things could happen at Tata.”
A Judge Awards a Historic Settlement in the Philadelphia Amtrak Crash
A Pennsylvania judge has approved a historic—possibly the largest ever—settlement for victims of the 2015 Amtrak passenger train crash just outside Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured about 200 others.
U.S. District Court Judge Legrome Davis for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania awarded plaintiffs a $265-million settlement. It’s believed to be the largest ever, because last year Congress raised the settlement cap on a single rail accident from $200 million to $295 million. Lawyers arrived at this lower price because they believed it would be the maximum allowed once future inflation is accounted for because the settlement will likely drag out for years in litigation.
The Amtrak train crashed May 12, 2015, as it passed through Philadelphia. More than 240 passengers rode the train that day, and it crashed after it entered a curve at 106 miles per hour, more than double the recommended speed. The National Transportation Safety Board released a report in May that found the driver, Brandon Bostian, became distracted while listening to radio chatter of another train struck by a rock. Bostian then lost track of his own train’s location and speed. As my colleague David Graham has written, such a tragedy might have been avoided if that portion of the track were outfitted with positive train control, a technology that automatically regulates the speed of trains.
Amtrak has declined to comment on the settlement’s amount.
U.S. Charges Dozens for Multimillion-Dollar Call-Center Scam
The U.S. Department of Justice charged Thursday more than 60 people and entities in India and the U.S. for allegedly taking part in a multimillion dollar international scheme extorting tens of thousands of people of more than $300 million.
The defendants, including 24 people in the U.S. and 32 people and five call centers in India, were charged with conspiracy to commit identity theft, false impersonation of an officer of the United States, wire fraud, and money laundering. One of the defendants was also charged with passport fraud.
Here’s how the Justice Department says the scam works: Potential victims received calls from an operator located in call centers in Ahmedabad, India. These operators, impersonating officials from the Internal Revenue Service or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, would threaten potential victims with “arrest, imprisonment, fines or deportation” if they did not pay an immediate fine, often for a fictitious tax violation. Once the victim pays the fine, the U.S.-based collaborators would launder the funds through prepaid debit cards or wire transfers using stolen or fake identities.The defendants also allegedly offered victims short-term loans or grants, asking them for good-faith deposits in order to receive the funds.
In one case, the Justice Department says, a victim from Hayward, California, lost $136,000 after receiving multiple calls over a 20-day period from purported IRS agents demanding payment for alleged tax violations.
“Today’s actions will not only bring a sense of justice to the victims in this case, but this significant investigation will also help increase awareness of this type of fraud,” Peter Edge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations said Thursday in a statement.
He added: “To potential victims, our message today is simple: U.S. government agencies do not make these types of calls, and if you receive one, contact law enforcement to report the suspected scam before you make a payment.”
SeaWorld Makes a Wetsuit for a Featherless Penguin
An Adelie penguin at SeaWorld has been outfitted with a custom-made wetsuit after she lost some of her feathers.
The wardrobe department at the Orlando theme park sewed the suit for Wonder Twin, who became unable to regulate her body temperature after experiencing some feather loss. Adelie penguins, which are only found in Antartica, can experience this condition in the wild, where it could prove harmful.
Wonder Twin now swims, eats, and sleeps in the suit, which keeps her warm:
Users on social media are swooning over the suit, which is good news for SeaWorld. The company has been trying to repair its public image since the controversial 2013 documentary Blackfish claimed that the park’s orcas suffered in captivity. SeaWorld announced last November it would stop its orca performance shows, and said in March it would end orca-breeding programs.
Twitter to Cut 9 Percent of Its Global Workforce, Kill Vine
Updated at 12:38 p.m. ET
Twitter announced that it is killing off Vine, its video app.
“Today, we are sharing the news that in the coming months we’ll be discontinuing the mobile app,” Twitter and Vine said in statement.
Twitter, which bought Vine in late 2012, launched it in 2013. The app played six-second video on a loop, but never quite developed a broad following.
Our original post:
Twitter said Thursday it will cut 9 percent of its 3,860-strong global workforce in a bid to becoming profitable in 2017.
Additionally, Twitter, in its third-quarter results, announced better-than-expected earnings. It earned 13 cents per share on revenue of $616 million, up 8 percent year over year. Analysts surveyed by Thompson Reuters expected Twitter to post earnings of 9 cents per share on $606 million in revenue.
The company also said the number of active monthly users was up 3 percent to 317 million. There was also a 7 percent increase, the company said, in its number of daily active users. Advertising revenue was $545 million, up 6 percent year-over-year. Of this, 90 percent was mobile-advertising revenue, the company said.
Twitter was reportedly courted by several major companies, including Salesforce and Google, but no formal offer was made to buy the social-media giant.
News of the job cuts and the better-than-expected results pushed Twitter’s stock up more than 3 percent in pre-market trading.
Humans on Track to Kill Off One-Third of World's Wildlife by 2020
If you care about wild animals or wild habitats, prepare to be depressed. A new report on the status of wildlife populations—the most comprehensive to date—by the Zoological Society of London and the World Wildlife Foundation found a 58 percent decrease in Earth’s animal population from 1970 to 2012—and humans are to blame.
Researchers analyzed 14,000 populations of 3,700 vertebrate species that are regularly used to measure conservation efforts. They found huge population drops across animals in all different types of environments. They also predicted the planet will have lost more than one-third of its animal life by 2020.
Animal populations in river and lake environments were the most affected; they fell by 81 percent since 1970. Major factors included excessive water use, pollution, and dams. Globally, the largest cause of wildlife depletion is owed to habitat loss from farming and logging by humans. But hunting is also to blame. Humans are currently eating more than 300 mammal species into extinction, according to an earlier report.
Humans now dominate nearly all landmass, with just 15 percent reserved for protection. The new report suggested that wildlife loss will cause increase human conflict due to “the risk of water and food insecurity and competition over natural resources.”
There is a bit of good news. Some species have seen their numbers rebound after human intervention. The report cited tigers as an example, as well as pandas, which were recently removed from the endangered-species list.
Indian officials said 35-year-old Mahmood Akhtar, a staffer in the Pakistani High Commission’s visa section, was arrested outside the gates of the Delhi zoo Wednesday after being caught exchanging sensitive documents for cash with two Indian men, who were also arrested, Pakistani newspaper Dawn reports. Akhtar was later released and told he had 48 hours to leave the country.
New Delhi accused Akhtar of misusing his consular status to gather intelligence. Pakistani officials rejected the accusation, and condemned “the detention and mishandling of Pakistan High Commission Staff,” a move they said violates the 1961 Vienna Convention, which guarantees their agents diplomatic immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of the state where they are serving.
Using diplomatic missions as a cover for espionage, however, isn’t unheard of in India and Pakistan. As A. S. Dulat, the former special director of India’s Intelligence Bureau, toldThe New York Times Thursday: “It’s been like that between India and Pakistan of late, everything is getting hyped.”
He added: “Let me put it this way: If it was a Chinese or Russian or American, they would not bother too much.”
Hype or not, this incident is the latest salvo in the deterioration of relations between the two neighbors. Last month, India blamed a deadly attack on an army base in Indian-administered Kashmir on Pakistan, though Islamabad denied the claim. Shortly thereafter, India said it launched a series of “surgical strikes” on Pakistani-administered Kashmir in retaliation, but Islamabad denied that, too.
U.S. Calls Off the Search for a Lost Chinese Sailor Out to Break a World Record
The U.S. has called off its search to find a Chinese sailor trying to break the world record for crossing the Pacific Ocean alone on a boat.
Guo Chuan’s team noticed his ship had slowed and tried to contact him Tuesday, but were unable reach him by satellite phone or through the internet. Three years ago, Guo became the first Chinese sailor to circumnavigate the globe on a non-stop solo sail. On October 18, Guo left San Francisco, with hopes to reach Shanghai in 20 days—a speed that would break the current record by a day. The ship was a 97-foot red-colored trimaran with text on the sails that read: “Peace and Sport.”
The U.S. Coast Guard dispatched a helicopter and airplane to find Guo, whose boat had slowed around the Hawaiian islands. On Thursday rescuers found Guo’s boat drifting hundreds of miles away from the U.S. island chain. They found his lifejacket on the ship, but Guo was not aboard. Searchers also found a broken sail, something that could have led to Guo slipping off if he had tried to repair it. Guo had previously told a reporter with Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, his greatest fear was the thought of falling off the boat and into the ocean.
Brigham Young University, the Mormon-owned school in Utah, will no longer investigate students who report themselves as victims of sexual assault for simultaneously violating the school's strict honor code that prohibits activities like drinking alcohol and premarital sex. The school will accept 23 changes recommended by an internal advisory council, an inquiry that began after several sexual-assault victims said the school opened an honor-code investigation against them after they reported abuse.
Some of the victims toldThe Salt Lake Tribune the changes satisfied them. The biggest difference comes in the form of amnesty for students who report sexual abuse. The school’s sexual-assault investigation office—the Title IX office—will also no longer share victims’ names with the honor-code department, and the two will no longer share physical space. BYU said it will hire a victim’s advocate, publicize resources for victims, and report to the Mormon church how local clergy leaders respond to reports of abuse. This was one aspect of the policy changes still being criticized, because critics said the recommendations did not go far enough to monitor how Mormon clergy, especially bishops in the church, would handle reports of sexual abuse because those leaders communicate frequently with the school.
Awareness of BYU’s policies began in April, when Madi Barney, a former student, told people at a campus rape conference she’d been sexually assaulted and investigated by the school. Her story generated protests and a petition online to change the policy. She also filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, which opened an investigation on the school in August. BYU is the third school in Utah to be investigated for similar claims. Sexual assault on campus has gained nationwide attention—with nearly 200 colleges under investigation.
The U.K.’s Office of National Statistics said Thursday the country’s economy grew 0.5 percent in the three months after the Brexit vote to leave the European Union. The number, though preliminary, is better than the 0.3 percent growth forecast by economists.
Growth was driven solely by the services sector, which grew 0.8 percent. All other sectors of the U.K. economy shrank in the July-September period. Growth in the previous quarter was 0.7 percent.
“The economy has continued to expand at a rate broadly similar to that seen since 2015 and there is little evidence of a pronounced effect in the immediate aftermath of the vote,” the agency said.
The data are expected to lower expectations that the Bank of England, the country’s central bank, will cut interest rates next week.
At issue is the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). Twenty-seven of the EU’s member states wanted the deal with Canada to go ahead, citing potential trade benefits. But Belgian law mandates that any such agreement must have a buy-in from all of the country’s regions. Earlier this week, the deal looked dead when Charles Michel, the Belgian prime minister, said Wallonia, the Brussels city government, and the French community had rejected CETA.
Wallonia, the French-speaking region of 3.6 million people, expressed fears CETA would degrade consumer, labor, and environmental protections, while granting excessive power to multinational corporations.
Details of the deal Michel secured with the French-speaking region haven’t yet been made public, and they will have to be approved by other EU members for CETA to go into effect. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had been due in Brussels Thursday to sign CETA, but canceled the trip after it appeared there would be no agreement. There’s no word yet on when—or whether—he’ll reschedule.
The great “convergence” of the mid-20th century may have been an anomaly.
It may be time to stop talking about “red” and “blue” America. That’s the provocative conclusion of Michael Podhorzer, a longtime political strategist for labor unions and the chair of the Analyst Institute, a collaborative of progressive groups that studies elections. In a private newsletter that he writes for a small group of activists, Podhorzer recently laid out a detailed case for thinking of the two blocs as fundamentally different nations uneasily sharing the same geographic space.
“When we think about the United States, we make the essential error of imagining it as a single nation, a marbled mix of Red and Blue people,” Podhorzer writes. “But in truth, we have never been one nation. We are more like a federated republic of two nations: Blue Nation and Red Nation. This is not a metaphor; it is a geographic and historical reality.”
Stores are stocked with copycat designs. It’s a nightmare.
As best as I can tell, the puff-sleeve onslaught began in 2018. The clothing designer Batsheva Hay’s eponymous brand was barely two years old, but her high-necked, ruffle-trimmed, elbow-covering dresses in dense florals and upholstery prints—bizarro-world reimaginings of the conservative frocks favored by Hasidic Jewish women and the Amish—had developed a cult following among weird New York fashion-and-art girls. Almost all of her early designs featured some kind of huge, puffy sleeve; according to a lengthy profile in TheNew Yorker published that September, the custom-made dress that inspired Hay’s line had enough space in the shoulders to store a few tennis balls.
Batsheva dresses aren’t for everyone. They can cost more than $400, first of all, and more important, they’re weird: When paired with Jordans and decontextualized on a 20-something Instagram babe, the clothes of religious fundamentalism become purposefully unsettling. But as described in that cerulean-sweater scene from The Devil Wears Prada, what happens at the tip-top of the fashion hierarchy rains down on the rest of us. So it went with the puff sleeve. Batsheva and a handful of other influential indie designers adopted the puff around the same time, and the J.Crews and ASOSes and Old Navys of the world took notice. Puff sleeves filtered down the price tiers, in one form or another, just like a zillion trends have before—streamlined for industrial-grade reproduction and attached to a litany of dresses and shirts that don’t require a model’s body or an heiress’s bank account. And then, unlike most trends, it stuck around.
Everything seems to be falling apart. The Russians are occupying a neighboring state. A foreign crisis is causing spikes in the price of oil. Inflation is the worst it’s been in some 40 years. A Democratic president is facing the lowest approval ratings of his term and has openly admitted that he knows the public is in a foul mood. A virus is on the loose and making a lot of people sick.
Even the music charts are a mess, a horrid stew of disco and wimp-rock hits.
I’m sorry, did you think I was talking about 2022? I was actually reminiscing about 1979, the year I turned 19, when the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan, the Iranian revolution led to another round of oil shocks, inflation reached its worst levels since World War II, President Jimmy Carter was at 30 percent approval, and, yes, an influenza epidemic broke out.
The Supreme Court majority’s undead constitutionalism is transforming right-wing media tropes into law.
The Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, allowing state governments to force women to give birth, is the result of decades of right-wing political advocacy, organizing, and electoral victory. It is also just the beginning of the Court’s mission to reshape all of American society according to conservative demands, without fear of public opposition.
Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson contains a classic Alito disclaimer—an explicit denial of the logical implications of his stated position. In this case, Alito declares that “nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion,” even as he argues that when it comes to rights “not mentioned in the Constitution,” only those “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” are protected. If you’re asking yourself who decides which rights can be so described, you’re on the right track.
I thought I was writing fiction in The Handmaid’s Tale.
In the early years of the 1980s, I was fooling around with a novel that explored a future in which the United States had become disunited. Part of it had turned into a theocratic dictatorship based on 17th-century New England Puritan religious tenets and jurisprudence. I set this novel in and around Harvard University—an institution that in the 1980s was renowned for its liberalism, but that had begun three centuries earlier chiefly as a training college for Puritan clergy.
In the fictional theocracy of Gilead, women had very few rights, as in 17th-century New England. The Bible was cherry-picked, with the cherries being interpreted literally. Based on the reproductive arrangements in Genesis—specifically, those of the family of Jacob—the wives of high-ranking patriarchs could have female slaves, or “handmaids,” and those wives could tell their husbands to have children by the handmaids and then claim the children as theirs.
Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, never had the abortion she was seeking. She gave her baby girl up for adoption, and now that baby is an adult. After decades of keeping her identity a secret, Jane Roe’s child has chosen to talk about her life.
Nearly half a century ago, Roe v. Wade secured a woman’s legal right to obtain an abortion. The ruling has been contested with ever-increasing intensity, dividing and reshaping American politics. And yet for all its prominence, the person most profoundly connected to it has remained unknown: the child whose conception occasioned the lawsuit.
Roe’s pseudonymous plaintiff, Jane Roe, was a Dallas waitress named Norma McCorvey. Wishing to terminate her pregnancy, she filed suit in March 1970 against Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade, challenging the Texas laws that prohibited abortion. Norma won her case. But she never had the abortion. On January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court finally handed down its decision, she had long since given birth—and relinquished her child for adoption.
Now is the time for gratitude and profound humility about what comes after Roe.
The entire legal and cultural ethos of the pro-life movement can be summed up in two sentences: A just society protects all life. A moral society values all life.
Justice is thus necessary but not sufficient for a culture of life. The pro-life movement should greet the reversal of Roe v. Wade with a spirit of gratitude. The people of this country have, for the first time in almost 50 years, an opportunity to enact laws that truly protect the lives of unborn children. But the movement should also show a profound humility and absence of malice toward their political opponents.
After all, the simple truth is that if the pro-life movement wants to end abortion, it has to do much more work than merely banning abortion. Indeed, if it reacts with too heavy a hand in the aftermath of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the movement can ultimately defeat its very purpose.
What would it have been like to live in Babel in the days after its destruction? In the Book of Genesis, we are told that the descendants of Noah built a great city in the land of Shinar. They built a tower “with its top in the heavens” to “make a name” for themselves. God was offended by the hubris of humanity and said:
Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.
The text does not say that God destroyed the tower, but in many popular renderings of the story he does, so let’s hold that dramatic image in our minds: people wandering amid the ruins, unable to communicate, condemned to mutual incomprehension.
The past two and a half years have been a global crash course in infection prevention. They've also been a crash course in basic math: Since the arrival of this coronavirus, people have been asked to count the meters and feet that separate one nose from the next; they’ve tabulated the days that distance them from their most recent vaccine dose, calculated the minutes they can spend unmasked, and added up the hours that have passed since their last negative test.
What unites many of these numbers is the tendency, especially in the United States, to pick thresholds and view them as binaries: above this, mask; below this, don’t; after this, exposed, before this, safe. But some of the COVID numbers that have stuck most stubbornly in our brains these past 20-odd months are now disastrously out of date. The virus has changed; we, its hosts, have as well. So, too, then, must the playbook that governs our pandemic strategies. With black-and-white, yes-or-no thinking, “we do ourselves a disservice,” Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at George Mason University, told me. Binary communication “has been one of the biggest failures of how we’ve managed the pandemic,” Mónica Feliú-Mójer, of the nonprofit Ciencia Puerto Rico, told me.
The sky was moonless and overcast, leaving no stars to steer by. Alone at the helm in the middle of the Arabian Sea, somewhere between Oman and India, I could see nothing in the ink-black night save for our ship’s dimly lit compass rolling on its gimbal mount as we heaved and swayed through three-meter seas. But half an hour into my shift, the sails above me began to glow, as if the moon had risen. But there was no moon, nor any stars or other ships. The light, it seemed, was coming from below and growing in intensity. Soon the entire ocean was glow-stick green, but muted, as if the light were shining through a sea of milk.
It was August 2010, and I’d been sailing for more than two months by then, volunteering with the NGO the Biosphere Foundation to deliver the Mir, a ketch built in 1910 it had recently acquired in Malta, to the ship’s home port in Southeast Asia. During the voyage, I’d grown accustomed to the usual “sea sparkle” caused by dinoflagellates that ignite when the water is agitated, causing ribbons of light to twist off the Mir’s bow. But this was not that. This was the whole of the ocean, as far as I could see, glowing a uniform, opaque green. Despite the compass still wheeling in its mount, the light in the water created an optical illusion, making the sea appear perfectly calm, as if we were gliding through phosphorescent skies rather than roiling seas.