Top 10 Mind-Blowing Things That Happened This Week (6/16/17)
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 mind-blowing stories each week. The seven days that took us to the midpoint of June were tumultuous ones, starting with a political earthquake and ending with a horrific assassination attempt on a congressman. But there were other stories happening around the margins, too: stories ranging from the tragic to the historic to the simply bizarre . . .
10 Nobody Won The UK Election
Well, that was unexpected.
When sitting British prime minister Theresa May called a snap election on April 19, everyone thought she was a tactical genius. Her Conservative Party (aka the Tories) were 20 points ahead of the left-wing Labour Party. On the eve of the vote, polls showed the Conservatives increasing their number of seats in the UK’s 650-seat House of Commons from a tiny majority of 330 to a thumping 420. May’s lead looked unassailable.
You can guess where this is going.
In a shock result, the Tories managed to lose 13 seats, leaving them unable to form a government without the help of a third party. Labour, which was supposed to be “crushed” for a generation, won 30 seats—an amazing result given that the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is so left-wing that he makes Bernie Sanders look like Augusto Pinochet.
The craziest part is that this election was unnecessary. There wasn’t meant to be one until 2020. May called it early, expecting a big win to strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations with the EU. Her hubris seems likely to have had the opposite effect . . .
9 The UK Election Results Caused Chaos
Until June 8, the future political story of Britain seemed preordained. May would secure a “hard” Brexit (cutting off all EU immigration but losing market access). Scotland would hold another independence referendum as a consequence and probably leave. Left-wing politics in the UK would be consigned to oblivion.
By June 9, all that had changed.
By losing her government’s majority, May has effectively destroyed all hopes of a hard Brexit. Her party now relies on 13 Scottish Conservative MPs, who all campaigned for a soft Brexit, while her newfound weakness as leader has strengthened the EU’s negotiating hand.
This brings us to the next election upset: Scotland. In 2015, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) won 54 out of 57 Scottish seats, making another referendum inevitable. Leader Nicola Sturgeon time-tabled one for 2019. Then came this election. The SNP lost nearly half their seats, including 12 to the Conservatives, who haven’t had a serious presence in Scotland since 1983. It looks like the United Kingdom will now stay united.
At least, it will on the mainland. Thanks to her party’s poor performance, Theresa May is seeking a deal with Northern Ireland’s fundamentalist Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that will allow her to govern. Unfortunately, this has coincided with a total collapse of NI’s power-sharing government (as we explained here).
The UK government is meant to be a neutral party in resolving such disputes between NI’s Protestant Unionist and Catholic Republican parties. With the DUP propping up May’s government, there are now worries that Westminster neutrality will be compromised, potentially prolonging or worsening the troubled province’s political crisis.
8 Puerto Rico Voted Overwhelmingly For Statehood (Kind Of)
Puerto Rico is in bad shape. This year, the US commonwealth filed for bankruptcy, surpassing Detroit’s record-breaking bust by defaulting on over $70 billion of debt. Unemployment is as high as it was on the mainland in 2009. Nearly half the population lives in poverty.
The island’s status means that this ongoing crisis could turn Puerto Rico into America’s Greece. San Juan can’t devalue its currency because it uses the dollar, and it can’t get a Detroit-style bailout because it’s not a full member of team USA. It’s long been clear that something has to change; the only question has been, “What?”
On Sunday, we got an answer. In a nonbinding referendum, Puerto Ricans voted by 97 percent to become an official US state. This was the fifth such vote in the island’s history, and the second to return a “yes” vote. Note, however, that voter turnout was only 23 percent.
Congress now has the choice to either ignore the result or set out a path for Puerto Rican statehood. Given the island’s Democratic leanings, Republicans are understandably wary of handing the Dems an electoral gift. On the other hand, everyone thought Alaska would be a Democrat stronghold when it finally became a state, so Puerto Rico could yet surprise.
7 We May Have Rediscovered New Zealand’s Greatest Lost Natural Wonder
It’s fair to say that New Zealand is a beautiful country. But even the bewitching landscape we see today has nothing on the archipelago’s greatest lost treasure. In the 19th century, tourists traveled from across the world to witness the terraces of Lake Rotomahana. A series of striking pink and white steps over which warm waters cascaded down, the terraces were known as the “eighth natural wonder of the world.”
Then, in 1886, we lost them. Mount Tarawera exploded with the force of the Vesuvius eruption that flattened Pompeii. 150 people died. Whole villages were buried beneath ash. At Lake Rotomahana, the world-famous Pink and White Terraces were obliterated.
Or were they? This week, a team of researchers made a surprise announcement. They have pinpointed the location they believe the terraces now lie, perfectly preserved under 15 meters (49 ft) of earth. Rather than shattering them, the volcano simply buried them. If the scientists are correct, the terraces could be excavated and this long-lost wonder restored.
6 Gadhafi’s Crazy Son Was Freed
Saif al-Islam Gadhafi was once considered Libya’s best hope. The London-educated son of Colonel Muammar Gadhafi, Saif presented himself as a moderating influence on his father, a well-spoken technocrat who was friends with the British establishment. It was hoped he would succeed the “Mad Dog” and turn Libya into something like a democracy.
The Arab Spring shattered those hopes.
As revolution gripped Libya in 2011, Saif ditched the nice guy act and helped his father murder protestors. When the regime fell, he was captured by an Eastern militia. He was tried in absentia and sentenced to death by the Western government based in Tripoli. He’s spent the last six years in jail. This week, the militia abruptly released him. Saif is now a free man.
The order apparently came from the Russian-backed government controlling Libya’s eastern half, much to the annoyance of the Western-backed Tripoli government. The International Criminal Court swiftly issued a warrant for Saif’s arrest for war crimes, but his whereabouts are currently unknown. He may yet try to become involved in Libya’s fractured politics, threatening whatever stability the country still has left.
5 Japan Passed The Craziest Anti-Terrorism Laws
Apart from the 1995 gassing of the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, Japan has spent its postwar period conspicuously untroubled by terrorism. That hasn’t stopped Shinzo Abe’s government from becoming obsessed by the nonexistent problem, though.
This week, his ruling party forced an “anti-terrorism” bill through the Diet. The bill has worried supporters of civil liberties, because it criminalizes all members of a group should one member commit an offense. (Imagine if you were arrested because a guy at your church group or book club turned out to be a terrorist.) But it wasn’t just guilt by association that was the problem. Some of the things the bill called “terrorism” were insane.
For example, it classifies illegally copying music as terrorism. The same goes for picking mushrooms in conservation areas, using forged stamps, and, craziest of all, “competing in a motor boat race without a license.” If that’s the sort of stuff that Japanese terrorists get up to, we’ll gladly trade.
There may be method behind this madness. Abe is currently facing a possible corruption scandal, and this bill may be his method of deflecting attention.
4 London Suffered A Devastating Tower Block Fire
The blaze that ripped through Grenfell Tower in West London this week couldn’t have come at a worse time. Britain is still reeling from a string of terrorist attacks that have killed over 30 people in three months. The fire is yet another horrific tragedy to strike a country that has suffered so much already.
In this case, terrorism is not thought to have been involved. However, the outcome was still heartbreaking. After a fire started in the Grenfell Tower apartment block, the whole building went up in flames. People were trapped inside as their homes disintegrated around them. At the time of this writing, 17 are confirmed dead, dozens are missing, and at least 30 are still in critical condition, with the death toll sadly expected to rise. It was the worst fire to have struck London in decades.
The cruelest part is how preventable this tragedy was. Tower blocks are designed to be self-contained, fireproof units. If one apartment goes up, the others shouldn’t be affected. But non-fireproof, energy-efficient cladding added to the exterior in 2015 seems to have provided an accelerant, igniting the entire block. The worst part? Concerned residents had warned that the tower didn’t meet fire safety standards back in 2016. The local council ignored them. Those poor people paid with their lives.
3 Catalonia Set A Date For Its Independence Referendum
The Spanish constitution forbids secession. That’s why Madrid has clamped down hard on independence movements for decades. But there is only so long you can keep the lid on a pot that’s boiling over. This week, the province of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital, set the date for an independence referendum. On October 1, voters will be asked if they want to become a republic. The vote threatens to precipitate a Spanish crisis.
A symbolic poll of Catalans in 2014 returned an 80 percent majority for secession from Spain. Madrid ruled the referendum illegal less than a week before it took place and then removed the Catalan president from office when it went ahead. They’ve threatened to block this referendum, too. And their methods of doing so could cause chaos.
Article 155 of Spain’s constitution allows Madrid to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy. They can silence the region’s government, shut down schools and public buildings, and take control of the police. If Catalonia kicks back . . . well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out how mass protests could paralyze the entire economy of Spain’s biggest contributor to their GDP.
2 President Trump Came Under Investigation
Pretty much every week, we’re forced to recount some new woe the White House is suffering. This week is no exception. After testimony from former FBI director James Comey last week suggested President Trump was not personally under investigation, a new report in The Washington Post destroyed any relief the White House may have felt. According to unnamed officials, Special Counsel Robert Mueller is now directly investigating the president for obstruction of justice.
The new probe centers on President Trump’s surprise firing of Comey in early May, a move allegedly undertaken to stop the FBI’s inquiry into the disgraced General Flynn. It also comes at a highly sensitive time. Trump’s advisors are openly mulling over whether to have Mueller fired for his connections to Comey. To add further complications, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has declared that, as the man who appointed Mueller, only he can fire him—meaning any attempt to ditch Mueller could result in chaos at the Department of Justice.
1 A Gunman Finally Took Partisanship Too Far
No matter what side of the political divide we’re on, it’s worth remembering that our opponents are human beings. They’re not evil. They’re not trying to destroy the country. They’re just regular men and women who like regular things, like unwinding with a bit of baseball. Sadly, it can be all too easy to forget this simple fact.
On Wednesday, fervent Bernie Sanders supporter James Hodgkinson wandered up to a practice session for a charity baseball game between congressmen in Virginia. He asked whether Democrats or Republicans were on the field. When told it was the Republicans, he pulled out a gun and opened fire. Four were wounded, with House majority whip Steve Scalise left in critical condition. Had Scalise not been there, things would have been even worse. As the third most important Republican in the House, he was given an armed detail. It was thanks to their presence that the gunman didn’t kill scores.
Hodgkinson was obviously a nut. But it doesn’t change the fact that his violence came from somewhere, and that somewhere was likely the toxic bile swirling round the media. When we consistently portray our enemies as subhuman monsters, we’re inviting “our team” to hurt them. When Jared Lee Loughner shot Gabby Giffords in 2011, people rightly decried the violent rhetoric coming from the right wing. Now the left wing is also capitalizing on rage, and it’s time for the prominent figures who condemned Loughner to practice what they preach.
If outlets, liberal or conservative, insist on ascribing only evil motives to their opponents, this is where we wind up: with a blood-soaked field on the edge of Washington and a father of two fighting for his life. No matter how much you detest what liberals stand for, no matter how much conservatives make you sick, now is the time to realize that these are real people. Good people. People with families and friends and loved ones. People who don’t deserve the horrific fate Scalise nearly suffered. Maybe if we can all bear this in mind, we can stop the poisonous partisan rhetoric that inspires thugs like Hodgkinson in the first place.