Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
The Miami Herald on conspiracy theories surrounding the death of wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein, including a retweet by President Donald Trump:
Now that Jeffrey Epstein is dead and gone, the conspiracy theorists have come out of the woodwork. That’s to be expected, but the president of the United States should not be among them.
Unfortunately, he is. It’s a shame — though he is clearly unfamiliar with the concept — that President Trump has used the suicide of the financier, with whom he was once friends, to attack his enduring nemeses — Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Worse, he’s looking to mine political capital by exploiting the unending pain that Epstein — a serial predator awaiting trial in New York on sex-trafficking charges — caused scores of girls and young women.
Hours after Epstein’s death, conservative actor and comedian Terrence K. Williams tweeted:
“Died of SUICIDE on 24/7 SUICIDE WATCH ? Yeah right! How does that happen #JefferyEpstein had information on Bill Clinton & now he’s dead I see #TrumpBodyCount trending but we know who did this! RT if you’re not Surprised #EpsteinSuicide #ClintonBodyCount #ClintonCrimeFamily.”
Then, just as Williams asked, the president irresponsibly retweeted the unfounded comment to his 63 million followers. We know the president lies. We know he doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good rant to his base. But his perpetuation of this outrageous Twitter bleat still is alarming.
Epstein’s death was the perfect time for a president to have expressed empathy for the victims. If he had, of course, Trump would have opened himself up to accusations of hypocrisy given the sexual-assault allegations several women have made against him.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway tried to explain away the president’s retweet on “Fox News Sunday,” saying he “just wants everything to be investigated.”
As should we all. However, the president is undercutting the investigation that his own Justice Department announced over the weekend.
Since Epstein’s death, we have learned that he was not still on a suicide watch, under which he was placed after an apparent attempt to kill himself last month. Once he was removed from suicide watch, he should have had a cellmate, but didn’t.
Also, prison guards at the Manhattan jail were supposed to check on him every 30 minutes on the Friday when he died, but instead didn’t check on him for hours, according to the New York Times.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Monday vowed to get to the bottom of how Epstein’s death occurred. “We are now learning of serious irregularities at this facility that are deeply concerning,” he said.
Barr sent a welcome message to Epstein’s victims. “Any co-conspirators should not rest easy,” he said.
We should wait for answers on how Epstein’s life ended. The results of an autopsy by New York City’s chief medical examiner should also shed light on how he died.
Still, an onslaught of conspiracy theories was born after Epstein died, and the fantasies are still alive and flourishing on social media. The president, however, should refrain from jumping into the fray.
The Washington Post on China’s response to Hong Kong protests:
Hong Kong’s political battleground has expanded. Protesters who in June demanded cancellation of an extradition bill that would make it easier for suspects to be transferred to mainland China are now asking for greater democracy and an investigation of police brutality. The demonstrators have shifted tactics, too, from sprawling marches to smaller, unpredictable flash-mobs, as well as intrusions such as the airport protest on Monday that led to massive flight cancellations. China’s leadership has misread the situation from the start. Time to get this right.
China gained control over Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, pledging autonomy for a city that has come to define capitalism and freedom in Asia. Gradually, China has been whittling down those liberties, including by suppressing the “Umbrella Movement” in 2014, refusing to allow direct elections for chief executive, kidnapping five Hong Kong booksellers and attempting to impose the extradition bill. When protests erupted over the extradition proposal, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam should have immediately canceled it. Instead, Ms. Lam, more sensitive to the demands of her overlords in Beijing than to the values that underlie Hong Kong’s success, tried to sidestep the issue with some obfuscation. It didn’t work.
Another miscalculation was to assume that the protests would simply flare out. The protests are a political groundswell, a reflection of genuine popular anger and commitment to democracy. But authorities treated the protesters as “terrorists” and “rioters,” a law enforcement problem to be handled by the Hong Kong police, who have repeatedly overreacted, including this weekend when they fired tear gas into a subway station and were discovered using undercover officers to infiltrate the demonstrators. In response, some protesters have turned more violent, unwisely resorting to vandalism, throwing bricks and a petrol bomb, and disruption.
Yet another mistake of the Chinese authorities has been to roll out the boogeyman that the protests are inspired by foreigners. China’s state media have trotted out the ghost that seems to frighten all authoritarians, calling the protests a “color revolution” instigated by the United States. The charge seems almost comical given President Trump’s lack of sympathy for democracy movements anywhere in the world. But it speaks volumes about paranoia in the Communist Party that holds a monopoly on power in China. This protest movement is very much indigenous to Hong Kong and its people.
Lately, there have been dark hints of a stronger crackdown by the military. But repeating the catastrophe of Tiananmen Square would be terribly counterproductive; hopefully China’s leaders understand as much. They might be hoping to slowly strangle the protest movement without violence and without giving an inch. This would be yet another miscalculation because the pent-up demands of this summer won’t go away.
The right answer for President Xi Jinping and for Ms. Lam, if she remains in office, is to open serious negotiations with the protesters on their demands, which are quite reasonable. Cinching the noose ever tighter, as the Chinese government has done in recent weeks, is the pathway to a dead end that could harm both Hong Kong and mainland China economically as well as politically. A cliff looms, and China’s leaders should turn back before it is too late.
The New York Times on an incident at Russia’s missile test site:
Nearly as soon as an explosion ripped through the Nenoksa Missile Test Site in northern Russia on Thursday (Aug. 8), briefly raising radiation levels in the region, the Kremlin went into crisis mode. That, to anyone familiar with the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, means clamping down on information, insisting that nothing really bad happened, that it happens everywhere and that the government is in full control.
This time, thank Heaven, the radiation leak appears not to have threatened residents in the region, and no increases were registered in neighboring Finland or Norway. But the pathetic, inchoate evasiveness of Russian authorities proved once again that the Kremlin is far more concerned with covering its behind than telling its people or the world what happened and how great the risk it carried.
When city authorities in nearby Severodvinsk reported the brief spike in radiation levels soon after the explosion, sending panicked people in search of iodine, which protects the thyroid gland against absorbing radiation, Moscow’s reaction was to take the information off the city’s website. Initial reports were only of a “liquid fueled rocket engine” blowing up, with assurances that such accidents were a normal risk in the important research that was underway and that such mishaps had occurred also in the United States and Japan. The five scientists who perished, Russians were proudly informed, were great heroes who would receive major decorations and their families many rubles.
Oh, and yes, officials noted two days later, the scientists had been “involved in servicing isotope power sources on a liquid fuel engine.” That was followed by a lot of scientific jargon (the research involved “the creation of sources of thermal or electric energy using radioactive materials, including fissile materials and radioisotope materials”) but no concrete information about what the poor scientists — who according to some reports were flung into the White Sea by the blast — had been working on.
Sorting through what hints were available in the statements, United States intelligence officials said one project potentially involved in the blast was the development of a nuclear-powered cruise missile capable of evading American missile defenses on very long flights, known to NATO as the Skyfall and to Russia as the Burevestnik. President Vladimir Putin had bragged of such a weapon in his annual state of the nation address in 2018.
If that’s what it was, the setback in the testing program would be a serious blow to Mr. Putin at a time he is facing weekly demonstrations in Moscow by tens of thousands of Russians irked by the exclusion of opposition politicians from the race for the Moscow City Council, and more broadly by the erosion of living standards. A nuclear accident in a costly arms program that he publicly embraced is not what Mr. Putin needs.
The folly of the accelerating post-Soviet Cold War is a major issue in itself, as is Mr. Putin’s illusion, carried over from the Soviet Union, that military might, however prohibitively costly and unnecessary, equals national greatness. Secrecy is critical to any arms race to keep the adversary off balance, and Moscow has always been obsessive about shrouding its military programs from view.
Yet the Kremlin should have understood with brutal clarity after Chernobyl that there can be no secrecy surrounding a nuclear accident, no matter how great or small, no matter how clandestine its source. Thousands of lives might have been saved at Chernobyl with prompt warnings.
Fortunately, the accident on the White Sea was no Chernobyl, and it will most likely pose no further threat to people’s lives. And the real threat to Mr. Putin is not the failure of a missile test, nor whatever light it shed on Russian nuclear weapons programs that Mr. Putin himself so publicly announced. The greatest danger is that the government’s instinctive lies and denials will only make the Russian public, and the world, even less likely to believe in anything Mr. Putin or his minions say or do when the next crisis hits.
The Wall Street Journal on a bill to increase election security:
The media’s latest hot take is that Republicans — in particular the dastardly Senator Mitch McConnell — are blocking bipartisan legislation to protect the nation’s elections. Reality, as usual, is more complicated. Consider the Securing America’s Federal Elections Act, or the Safe Act, which the Democratic House passed in June.
The core of the Safe Act is a pile of federal money, $600 million in the first year, to help states upgrade their voting systems. The bill would standardize and tighten election rules. All votes for federal office would have to be cast via paper ballots. A portion of this audit trail would then need to be manually checked for every election. Voting machines — presumably devices that assist in marking paper ballots — could not be manufactured outside the U.S. or connected to the internet.
Some of these ideas may have merit, but others have trade-offs. Running elections has been a state responsibility, and there are legitimate questions about further federalizing it. The Safe Act says post-election audits would be fully paid for by Washington — assuming Congress appropriated enough funds. If states think free money for new voting equipment is around the corner, they may quit upgrading themselves.
Paper ballots aren’t perfect, as Florida has shown. Last year in Broward County thousands of voters didn’t fill in the ovals for U.S. Senate, probably due to a poorly designed paper ballot that tucked this race beneath the panel with the voting instructions. If a recount means examining all paper ballots by hand, the Safe Act could slow final results.
Many electronic voting machines also create a physical paper trail. A dozen or so states still have some purely electronic machines, but often they are already in line to be phased out. Compared with hard ballots, digital devices with a paper backup may be easier for disabled voters to use, while adding flexibility. In Indiana, many voters aren’t locked to a specific polling place. They can cast a ballot at any “vote center” in their county, since electronic machines can display each election permutation, with every local candidate for dogcatcher.
The bill trots out liberal hobbyhorses. “All paper ballots used in an election for Federal office,” it says, “shall be printed in the United States on recycled paper manufactured in the United States.” Oklahoma’s top elections official testified in June that given the sensitivity of his ballot scanners, “if we were required to use recycled paper, it would actually run the risk of causing false readings.”
Or how about this Safe Act sleeper provision: “To the greatest extent practicable, an eligible State which receives a grant to replace a voting system under this section shall ensure that the replacement system is capable of administering a system of ranked choice voting.”
A few places, notably Maine and San Francisco, have rolled out this alternative balloting. Rather than mark a single favorite candidate, voters are asked to designate their preferences in numeric order, say, Nos. 1 through 5. (Or 25, as the Democratic presidential primary may have it.) Ranked-choice voting has proponents, but in the U.S. it’s still an experiment, and it hardly justifies a federal mandate.
Republicans in the House tried to amend the Safe Act but were voted down. One suggestion was to delete the recycled paper provision. Another would have required “a 25% funding match from states, which would force states receiving funds to have their own skin-in-the-game,” as Illinois Congressman Rodney Davis wrote.
A third Republican proposal was to ban “ballot harvesting,” which is when third-party canvassers go around collecting absentee votes. As election security, this is a no-brainer. Mail-in ballots should not be handled en masse by partisan actors. Many states already ban ballot harvesting. This year North Carolina threw out a House election because a GOP consultant allegedly went door to door amassing ballots, some of them unsealed.
Yet California allows ballot harvesting. “We certainly had that going on here,” the Orange County registrar said last November, “with people dropping off maybe 100 or 200 ballots.” Paid partisan staff can march around California taking possession of votes. This is a recipe for fraud and general mistrust.
When the Safe Act finally passed the House, a single Republican supported it. This allows the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, to pitch the bill as “bipartisan.” He recently asked to pass it by unanimous consent, as if it were immaculately conceived and impervious to debate. “There are only two inferences, neither good,” Mr. Schumer said. “One is, the Republican side doesn’t care about interference in our elections. And the other is, they want it because maybe they think it will benefit them.”
Come on. This isn’t a good-faith try at getting something done. It’s a crude attempt to whack Republicans with a political club.
The Khaleej Times on the United Arab Emirates’ call for peace:
As Syria’s woes continue and the death toll over the past eight years rises past 465,000, there are more than a million injured and maimed and the ongoing conflict has forced about 12 million people – that is half the country – into refugee status as the turmoil spreads in the region. Against this canvas the UAE’s call for immediate talks to end the strife in Yemen is salutary and should be instantly heeded by all those who wish to sue for peace.
Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, makes a strong argument for the return of peace and a united front against the Houthi militia and other aligned terrorist groups. In recent times the UAE’s voice on the international stage is one of sound reason and aimed always at creating and encouraging dialogue instead of picking up the gun. The respect it has gained in the comity of nations for its sensible and balanced advisories and its willingness to play intermediary when asked has had impact globally. The world listens to this calming influence.
The UAE has been quoted as following a foreign policy which is robust and instrumental in not just seeing peace as a means to an end but the end result in itself. Whether it is the issue of Palestine, the conflict in Syria, the current tanker war or even the Indo-Pakistan equation, the UAE believes firmly that no one should ever be afraid to negotiate and sit at the table. This priority is reflected in the fact that while the world celebrates a day (November 16) for tolerance, the UAE is the country that has dedicated a whole year to this pursuit. And what makes its stance with the olive branch so definitive is that it backs its overtures with action and aid and tangible support giving its words heft and depth. No wonder the world listens.
And it should listen now with like-minded nations in the region coming together as a singular entity to spike the guns in Yemen and de-escalate the situation. The security and safety of the population is the highest priority. It is not going to be easy and the realist element in the UAE’s approach takes the difficulty of the task at hand into account. But if everyone gets on the same page and creates a consolidated front to help the legal government in Yemen it will send out a message of intent and be a major step towards stopping the Houthi movement and bringing in a much needed stability in the country.
The Los Angeles Times on laws to combat domestic terrorism in the U.S.:
After a shooting spree in El Paso, allegedly by a man who railed against the “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” even President Trump, who has used similar language, acknowledged that racism, bigotry and white supremacy are “sinister ideologies” that “must be defeated.” Trump was only confirming what law enforcement officials realized long ago: Violent white supremacists pose a major threat comparable to that presented by foreign terrorists and their U.S. sympathizers.
Legislation was introduced in Congress in March that calls for the establishment of domestic terrorism units in the Justice and Homeland Security departments and the FBI as well as the creation of a Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee. But some have called for more sweeping legislation to ensure that the FBI could investigate domestic terrorism as aggressively as it does terrorism with international connections. Congress needs to proceed cautiously on any such proposals.
Domestic terrorism motivated by racial or religious hatred is undoubtedly a pressing problem. Michael C. McGarrity, the FBI’s assistant director for counterterrorism, told the House Homeland Security Committee in May that “there have been more arrests and deaths caused by domestic terrorists than international terrorists in recent years” and that racially motivated extremists were responsible for “the most lethal incidents.”
It’s also true that, while federal law contains a definition of domestic terrorism, there is no statute that makes all domestic terrorism a federal offense with prescribed penalties. This week the FBI Agents Association, representing more than 14,000 active and former agents, reiterated its call for such a statute.
But Congress could run into constitutional problems if it seeks to combat suspected domestic terrorism using the same legal tools employed against foreign terrorist groups. Besides, it’s not clear that the laws already on the books prevent the FBI from aggressively investigating violent white supremacists or other domestic terrorists, or that they unduly hamper the U.S. Justice Department in prosecuting them.
David Cole, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told The New York Times that proposals for a new domestic terrorism law “tend either to be duplicative of laws that already exist or expansive in ways that violate 1st Amendment rights of speech and association.” An analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School notes that “there are already dozens of federal statutes carrying severe penalties that are available to investigators and prosecutors pursuing these crimes.”
For example, acts of domestic terrorism motivated by racial or religious hatred can be prosecuted under the federal hate-crime statute and other laws. Robert Bowers, accused in the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that killed 11 people, was charged by the Justice Department with hate crimes as well as other offenses including 11 counts of “obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death,” a crime that can lead to the death penalty.
Although federal law lacks a catchall criminal offense of domestic terrorism, Robert Chesney of the University of Texas Law School points out that several federal terrorism-related statutes, including one dealing with the use of explosives, apply in cases of home-grown violent extremism. Timothy McVeigh, who perpetrated the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building that killed 168 people and injured several hundred more, was convicted of federal charges including use of a weapon of mass destruction and murdering federal agents.
Those who are calling for a new domestic terrorism statute argue that there are still gaps in federal law, including the inability of the Justice Department to prosecute some acts of domestic terrorism committed with some categories of firearms. Congress should determine whether that is actually a problem, but it needs to do so in a deliberative way.
Congress also needs to recognize that some approaches to the investigation of foreign terrorism raise constitutional questions when applied to domestic activities. For example, it’s a crime for Americans to provide “material support or resources” to designated foreign terrorist organizations. But criminalizing support for domestic political groups, however extreme, could threaten speech protected by the 1st Amendment and the designations themselves might be subject to a constitutional challenge. Testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee, Deputy Assistant Atty. Gen. Brad Wiegmann acknowledged that “picking out particular groups (whose views) you say you disagree with … is going to be highly problematic.”
Some advocates of new federal legislation admit that their purpose is to send a message that Congress and the nation deplore terrorist acts by white nationalists as much as they do acts of violence committed by Islamic extremists. That is an important message, and one that Trump has been shamefully slow to embrace. But legislation is about more than symbolism; it has practical consequences.
The best way to demonstrate that the federal government is serious about terrorism by white nationalists, anti-Semites and other bigots is for the Justice Department and the FBI to make full use of the ample authority they already possess.
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