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 events each month. And, boy, did last month give us plenty to write about.
In a month that’s traditionally dominated by seasonal goodwill, December 2016 managed to be a nonstop cavalcade of depressing, terrifying, and world-changing news. Like a snapshot of the year as a whole, it featured terror attacks, political upheaval, humanitarian disasters, and celebrity deaths by the bucketload. Here’s what was happening while you were busy chowing down on turkey:
10 A Horrifying Assassination Pushed Us Closer To World War III
On December 19, Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, stood up to give a speech at an art gallery in Ankara. Seven minutes later, he was dead, assassinated by a Turkish police offer who shouted, “Don’t forget Aleppo,” as he opened fire. The incident was captured in a graphic video.
If you were playing “causes for World War III” bingo, the assassination would be a full house. The murder came at a time of tension between Russia and Turkey. In late 2015, Turkey blew a Russian fighter jet out of the sky. The two countries are at loggerheads over Syria, where Russian bombing of civilians is shoring up the ailing Assad regime.
As a NATO member, Turkey could pull Europe and the US into any potential conflict. This web of alliances has eerie parallels with the situation in 1913. The next year’s assassination of an Austrian archduke was enough to send the planet spiraling into war.
9 Major Terror Attacks Rocked Three Continents
December 10–11 marked one of the bloodiest 24-hour periods for terrorism in recent memory. In Turkey, a car bomb was detonated next to a group of police officers guarding the Besiktas soccer stadium, killing 38 and wounding 166. The attack was claimed by Kurdish separatist group Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), an offshoot of the notorious PKK.
Only hours later, 12 kilograms (26 lb) of TNT were detonated inside a Coptic Cathedral in Egypt, killing 25 women and children. The attack, one of the worst on Egypt’s Christians in years, was claimed by ISIS.
Yet it was a later attack in Germany that generated the most headlines. As the Russian ambassador was dying in Ankara, an ISIS-inspired migrant hijacked a truck, killed its Polish driver, and rammed it into a Berlin Christmas market, killing 12. After two near misses over the summer, this represented ISIS’s first fatal attack on German soil. We can only pray it’s the last.
8 Global Politics Went Nuts
It says something about December 2016 when, at any other time, all these major political changes would get their own entry here, but we simply don’t have space. So, in extremely truncated form, here’s how politics went nuts last month:
First, French president Francois Hollande announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2017. This is the first time a French president has voluntarily stepped down after a single term in modern history, but the story was quickly trumped by New Zealand’s prime minister John Key (pictured above) unexpectedly resigning after eight years in office. Meanwhile, half a world away, South Korea voted to impeach its president.
Back in Europe, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi resigned after losing a referendum, while on the same night, Austria rejected its first far-right presidential candidate, electing his Green party–backed rival instead. Finally, in South America, Argentina indicted former President Cristina Fernandez on corruption charges. And we haven’t even gotten to the big political story from Africa yet . . .
7 The Gambia Voted Out Its Crazy Dictator
For 22 years, The Gambia has been ruled by a man crazier than a sack full of meth-addicted cats. Yahya Jammeh claims that he can cure AIDS, includes “admiral of Nebraska” among his titles, says Allah told him to rule “for a billion years,” thinks witches are cursing him, and has promised to execute gay tourists to his country. When he announced elections after decades of despotic rule, no one expected him to lose.
But he did. Adam Barrow, a former store security guard, took 45.5 percent of the vote to Jammeh’s 36.7 percent. Immediately, things went nuts.
Although Jammeh conceded defeat, he later claimed that the election was rigged. The country’s army, which initially swore loyalty to the incoming Barrow, switched allegiance back to Jammeh. At the time of this writing, Jammeh is refusing to step down. The West African Regional Group (Ecowas) has said that it will send in troops to enforce the election result if Jammeh is still in power by January 19.
6 Trump Set A Collision Course With China
Donald Trump may still only be US president-elect, but already he’s pushing Obama firmly off the world stage. At the start of the month, the incoming president took a phone call from Taiwan’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen. Since Nixon visited China in the 1970s, it has been US policy to have only informal ties with Taiwan, officially recognizing it as a province of China. Needless to say, Beijing hit the roof.
From the Chinese perspective, this was kind of like Xi Jinping unilaterally deciding to recognize the Confederacy. To Beijing, there’s no question about whether Taiwan is part of its territory. It just is, same as the Florida Keys are part of the US. When Trump followed up by appointing China hawk Peter Navarro to his trade team, Beijing threatened retaliation.
So far, all this is just diplomatic posturing. But it signals that Washington and Beijing are gonna be at loggerheads from January 20. Where this will lead, no one really knows.
5 We Finally Got an Ebola Vaccine
In 2013, West Africa became the epicenter for the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history. 11,300 people died, while over 28,000 suffered a sickness most of us can’t even begin to imagine. Since then, the outbreak has rumbled on, claiming lives even as the worst of the emergency is over.
Until now. Following on from work done in 2015, scientists finally completed the world’s first major trial of an Ebola vaccine. 5,837 people in Guinea who were at risk of infection were given the shot. Not a single one of them got infected.
By contrast, the no-vaccine control group of 4,507 saw 23 cases of the virus. In other words, the new vaccine appears capable of stopping one of the nastiest diseases known to man in its tracks. Scientists still don’t know how long it protects people for. But in the Ebola-affected areas of West Africa, this vaccine could mean the difference between life and death.
4 Fake News Became Frighteningly Real
“Fake news” could be the phrase of 2016. Over the year, dozens of sites sprang up, claiming everything from Hillary Clinton assassinating her rivals to Donald Trump having been born in Pakistan. But it wasn’t until December 5 that it became frighteningly real. That was the day an armed gunman entered the Comet pizza joint in Washington, DC, and opened fire.
The Comet had spent most of the year being targeted by fake news stories claiming that Clinton campaign chief John Podesta was running a child sex ring from its back rooms. The gunman read these stories and set out to investigate for himself. Although he discharged his rifle, no one was hurt, thankfully.
The incident showed just how crazy fake news has become in the US. Future national security adviser General Mike Flynn, for example, had retweeted the Comet story as fact. In the febrile, post-election atmosphere, such stories are enough to set some on a path to violence.
3 The UN Voted To Condemn Israeli Settlements
For many years, the UN has routinely called votes condemning Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. The US has just as routinely used its veto to torpedo these motions, standing by the Jewish state. Then came December 2016. For the first time in history, the US abstained from a vote. The Israelis could only look on as a UN motion passed to officially condemn their government.
The vote was originally brought by Egypt, which dropped it when President-Elect Trump intervened on Israel’s behalf. An identical motion was then brought by New Zealand, Malaysia, Senegal, and Venezuela. In what was seen as retaliation for Trump’s interference, Obama ordered the US representative to abstain, giving the vote a clear path.
The diplomatic ramifications are enormous. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told New Zealand the vote was “a declaration of war.” US-Israeli ties hit their lowest point in decades. How this will affect the peace process remains to be seen.
2 Yet More Beloved Celebrities Died
We ended last month’s roundup by uneasily noting the number of dead celebrities in 2016 and praying we wouldn’t have to cover any more deaths in December. No such luck. After a year that had already killed off innumerable childhood heroes, December 2016 seemed determined to finish the job.
First to go was singer George Michael. Aged 53, the star passed away on Christmas Day, amid rumors of a devastating heroin addiction. One day later, comedian Ricky Harris joined him in the afterlife, dead at 54. The day after that, Richard Adams, author of the children’s classic Watership Down, died at age 90.
The biggest death of all also came on December 27: Following a heart attack, Carrie Fisher—aka Princess Leia—passed away at 60. For Star Wars fans, it was almost like witnessing the destruction of Alderaan firsthand. Then, the very next day, Fisher’s mother, actress Debbie Reynolds, also died. She was 84.
1 Aleppo Fell
In years to come, the name “Aleppo” will carry as much weight as Rwanda or Sarajevo. After four years in rebel hands, the ancient Syrian city fell to the Assad regime. As Russian bombers roared overhead, Iranian-backed militias marched into the city alongside regime forces. Rebels hunkered down among civilians. ISIS joined the fray. Aleppo became a moral black hole.
To read the reports is to enter a world without humanity. Russian bombs targeted civilian districts, mutilating women and children. Civilians fleeing rebel areas were executed on the spot. Dozens of children were burned alive. Scores of women committed suicide to save themselves from being raped. Hundreds were herded into brutal internment camps. Many miles away, the regime celebrated victory by dropping Sarin gas on surrounding villages.
The international stage acted with indifference. Although the UN vaguely condemned the war crimes committed by regime forces and rebels alike, no one stood up and said “enough.” No one came to save Aleppo’s children. As in Bosnia, as in Rwanda, the world simply sat back and watched as evil quietly triumphed.
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