10 Mind-Blowing Things That Happened This Week (3/16/18)
Keeping up with the news is hard. So hard, in fact, that we’ve decided to save you the hassle by rounding up the most significant, unusual, or just plain old mind-blowing stories each week.
The big story this week was the continuing fallout from the likely Russian assassination attempt in Britain last Sunday. As London made threats, Moscow laughed, underlining that we may now be entering a new and unpredictable Cold War (or possibly a hot one). We’ll give you the lowdown on all the possible ramifications below, along with a look at the rest of the week’s generally less terrifying news.
10 Russia And The UK Prepared To Go Toe To Toe
Novichok. That’s the name of the deadly nerve agent used against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia last Sunday—the first nerve gas attack in Europe since World War II. The attack took place in a sleepy part of Britain’s West Country. It left both victims in the hospital in critical condition along with a policeman who was injured attending to them.
Novichok was produced by the Soviet Union and later inherited by Russia. The fact that it was used in the UK attack would be bad news for Moscow even if the Kremlin had responded by claiming the nerve agent was stolen. Instead, Russian diplomats in Britain indulged in a nudge-wink series of denials and sarcastic tweets. Theresa May’s government concluded that the blame must lie solely with Putin.
London has now expelled 23 Russian diplomats in what looks set to become a major international incident. Moscow has promised to retaliate, and the Russian ambassador to the UN has even blamed British spies for the poisoning. There is now real potential for this to spin out of control. It may be that the Cold War era has finally returned.
9 London Announced An Inquiry Into 14 Russia-Linked Deaths
Continuing with the feeling that scary events are underway, British home secretary Amber Rudd announced this week an inquiry into the previously closed deaths of 14 people on UK soil, all of whom had links to Russia. Former Met commissioner Ian Blair raised the alarm on Tuesday that the Kremlin may have systematically been offing dissidents and anti-Putin exiles in Britain.
On the list are likely to be Boris Berezovsky, a leading Putin critic and friend of poisoned defector Alexander Litvinenko, who was found hanged in suspicious circumstances in 2013. He is likely to be joined by Nikolai Glushkov, whose death on Monday is already being investigated by UK counterterrorism police. Should it turn out that the Kremlin has been killing exiles with impunity, things could turn ugly.
The UK is a member of NATO. Article 5 of the defense treaty states that an attack on one is an attack on all. Were the UK to activate Article 5 in the face of Russian aggression, everyone from France to the US to Germany to Canada would be obliged to get involved.
8 The US Secretary Of State Was Fired
While London was in turmoil, Washington was collapsing into its usual chaos as the government lost yet another high-ranking official. On Tuesday, President Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson via tweet, replacing him with CIA director Mike Pompeo. Tillerson now joins an ignominious list of former secretaries of state who barely lasted out the one-year mark.
Tillerson’s firing came shortly after he condemned Russia for the UK nerve gas attack, but it seems unlikely the two were related (despite what the press might tell you). Tillerson has been at loggerheads with Trump for months. The two showed open contempt for one another. Tillerson’s replacement, Pompeo, is also no Putin fan, having called Russia a “major threat” to the US. Hardly the statement of a Kremlin stooge.
Tillerson’s record at the State Department was dismal, to say the least. He can list no significant achievements, bar presiding over a collapse of morale. Whether Pompeo—a notorious hawk on most issues—can improve things remains to be seen.
7 We Lost The Greatest Mind In A Generation
It’s a testament to the incredible strength of Stephen Hawking that we’re not writing this obituary some 50 years ago. As a young man, Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and given a handful of years to live. This week, over half a century later, he finally died, having revolutionized physics in the meantime. To call him a hero would be an understatement.
Hawking’s achievements were remarkable. After he lost the use of his hands, he’s said to have developed a greater ability than anyone else in history to imagine complex topological images in his head for solving equations. He upended our ideas on black holes and the formation of galaxies.
He was one of the first to link Einstein’s work with that of quantum physics, giving us a whole new way of seeing the universe. Plus, he totally bossed every single pop culture appearance he made—from The Simpsons to The Big Bang Theory.
Hawking’s death marks the passing of one of the finest minds modern humanity has produced. Suddenly, the universe seems a whole lot smaller.
6 A New Unabomber May Have Come To Texas
For two decades, Ted Kaczynski spread fear through America with his parcel bombings, killing three and injuring 23. Now, almost 20 years after the Unabomber was jailed, his ideological cousin may have come to Austin. This week, two parcel bombs exploded at houses in the city, killing a teenager and injuring two women. They followed a similar bombing on March 2 that killed a man.
The identity of the victims has led some to suggest that the bombings could be a serial hate crime. Both of the dead and one of the injured were African-American, while the other injured was Latina. At present, police in Austin are being very careful about not directly linking the crimes.
However, the evidence is already there. All three bombs were delivered at night by hand and left outside people’s doors. Experts have said all three bombs had similar designs.
If this is a case of domestic terrorism, it may be a while yet before anyone is caught. Kaczynski spent almost 20 years on the run.
5 A Former Guerrilla Became The Presidential Candidate Of Colombia’s Left
In the 1980s, M-19 was Colombia’s second biggest rebel group after FARC. They were notorious for the Palace of Justice siege, in which nearly 100 people died. They were alleged to have ties to Pablo Escobar and committed kidnappings, murders, and robberies. And, this week, one of their former leaders became the favorite to win Colombia’s presidential race.
Gustav Petro was actively involved with M-19, becoming part of the central region leadership. He had been jailed by the time of the Palace of Justice siege and was instrumental in encouraging the group’s disarmament. But it’s long been alleged that he had ties to murky crimes and what was effectively terrorism.
On Sunday, he won a primary to become the official presidential candidate of Colombia’s mainstream left. Unless there’s an upset, he’ll face right-wing senator Ivan Duque in July, a matchup Petro is tipped to win.
Petro’s previous term in office as mayor of Bogota was beset by corruption scandals and a recall vote which he badly lost. How the world will react if he becomes Colombian president is anyone’s guess.
4 Slovakia Saw Its Biggest Protests Since The Fall Of Communism
If you were in Bratislava last Friday, you would have witnessed the biggest protest that pint-sized Slovakia has seen since the fall of Communism. Over 50,000 people took to the streets, demanding an end to government corruption following the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak, allegedly at the hands of the Italian Mafia. The protests were just the latest in a series of shock waves that have hit the Slovak government since the murder.
Kuciak was killed shortly before he could publish a story alleging high-level government ties to the ‘Ndrangheta. His death was the first murder of a Slovak journalist since independence and triggered an outpouring of grief across the country. Three government ministers were forced to resign, and police quickly arrested seven Italians whom Kuciak had named in his article.
However, their subsequent release without charge was like throwing gas onto the fire of public anger. As a result of these mass protests, interior minister Robert Kalinak has resigned and the future of Prime Minister Robert Fico hangs in the balance.
Are people angry enough for Kuciak’s killers to actually be brought to justice? Only time will tell.
3 The Senate Voted To Partially Repeal The Dodd-Frank Act From The Financial Crisis Era
As the last tremors of the financial crisis of 2008 fade away, there have been slow moves across the globe to ease some of the strict banking rules implemented in its wake. One of the biggest came this week as the US Senate voted to partially repeal the Dodd-Frank Act.
Designed in 2010 to stop another financial meltdown, the act forced banks of all sizes to adhere to strict financial controls. If it passes the House, the Senate bill would roll back most of those controls for small and medium-sized lenders.
Supporters of the move say the act has been strangling growth by placing onerous regulations on small community lenders. Opponents say the Dodd-Frank Act has given consumers greater protections and given us all a far sturdier financial system.
If the bill clears the House, it will be the strongest signal yet that policymakers consider the financial crisis era over.
2 Africa May Be About To Lose Its Only Female Leader
Mauritian president Ameenah Gurib-Fakim is the only female head of state in the whole of Africa. That may soon change and not because some charismatic woman is poised to win an election.
Last week, the tiny island nation saw Gurib-Fakim’s office embroiled in a corruption scandal relating to personal purchases using charity money. On Monday, it was announced that she would resign. The tenure of the last woman leader in Africa was over.
Or was it? On Wednesday, the story took a strange turn when an embattled Gurib-Fakim appeared in public to declare that she would not step down and would instead fight the allegations.
What happens now is anyone’s guess. Gurib-Fakim is reasonably popular and feted abroad. However, she also has shady ties to the allegedly ultra-corrupt Angolan businessman Alvaro Sobrinho and is accused of using her influence to try to get him off fraud charges.
1 Pennsylvania’s Special Election Went Down To The Wire
Twenty points. That’s the number by which Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional district in 2016. During this week’s special election, GOP candidate Rick Saccone tried to pull off the same feat.
He called himself “Trump before Trump.” He hit talking points that resonated in Pennsylvania in 2016. For Pete’s sake, he was running in a district that’s been considered deep red since the early 2000s.
Yet, a strong win was the last thing that Saccone pulled off. At the time of this writing, the race remains too close to call, but Democratic candidate Conor Lamb is leading by over 600 votes. Several networks have already called a Democratic victory.
As FiveThirtyEight points out, even if Saccone squeaks over the line, it’s still worrying for his party. Democrats have overperformed in every special election this cycle by an average of 17 points. If that advantage were replicated in the upcoming November midterms, it could spell disaster for the Republicans.
Still, that may not happen. Lamb, like Doug Jones in Alabama, ran on an avowedly centrist platform, ditching standard Democratic talking points for more moderate ones. Instead of campaigning for his party, Lamb ran for the people of his district: pro-gun, pro-tariff, pro-union, pro-religion and antiabortion (though he said he wouldn’t impose his views through legislation), anti–Nancy Pelosi, anti cuts to Social Security and Medicare, pro-Dreamers, and pro–border security.
As a new politician, he doesn’t have a voting record to bash and he was smart enough to deliberately avoid national media interviews. He repeatedly stressed that he wants to work with both parties to get legislation passed. He stayed away from anti-Trump statements and liberal Democratic PACs.
Meanwhile, Republican groups for Saccone barraged the district airways with ads linking Lamb to Nancy Pelosi. People in the 18th district don’t really care about Pelosi. The ads rarely mentioned Saccone, so they gave the unknown young Lamb a lot of name recognition for free. (However, Lamb does come from a local political family. For example, his uncle, Michael Lamb, is Pittsburgh’s city controller.)
Interestingly, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in the 18th. But there was a lot of anti-Hillary sentiment there during the 2016 presidential election. Not from Russia. From local Democrats, including liberal Democrats. Meaning the voters, not the politicians. Nobody was listening . . . until Conor Lamb.
Finally, Lamb is expected to lose the job in about six months. Pennsylvania is redistricting, and the 18th Congressional district is likely to disappear. Some pundits believe that Saccone is probably assured of victory in his new district. Lamb will face more competition in his. For now, Lamb deserves to bask in his almost or soon-to-be win. But it begs the question: Would his upset victory spell trouble for the GOP . . . or does it signal nothing at all?