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.
Following a week bracketed by acts of wanton violence in Charlottesville and Barcelona, this week felt immeasurably calmer. But while savagery was thankfully absent from the headlines, there were still plenty of important stories unfolding across the globe.
10 We Discovered The Barcelona Attacks Were Nearly So Much Worse
Last Thursday, a van sped along Barcelona’s crowded Las Ramblas thoroughfare targeting pedestrians. Later that night, a car driven by five men wearing fake suicide vests plowed into people in the town of Cambrils. By Friday morning, 15 were dead and 130 injured.
It was only this week that we discovered how lucky the world had been. Had the Spanish terrorism cell responsible for the carnage been more competent, the death toll would have been so much higher.
Twenty-four hours before the Barcelona attack, a fireball vaporized a house in the town of Alcanar. At the time, it was assumed to be a gas explosion. It was only after the events on Las Ramblas that anyone took a closer look and discovered that the house was a bomb factory.
The terrorists had succeeding in making viable bombs. They planned to put on suicide belts, convert trucks into car bombs, and attack major Catalan landmarks. Barcelona’s iconic Sagrada Familia cathedral was to have been destroyed, potentially killing hundreds.
Thankfully, fate or God (or, ironically, Allah) intervened. A mistake accidentally blew up the bomb factory, killing two terrorists and leaving the survivors to improvise far less deadly vehicle attacks.
9 The Maldivian Army Occupied Parliament
In its entire history, the tiny Indian Ocean island nation of the Maldives has had just a single democratically elected leader. Mohamed Nasheed was elected in 2008 after the country became a multiparty democracy. He was deposed in 2012 in what he claimed was a coup.
His successor, Abdulla Yameen, took power in 2013 and instantly pulled the island back to its autocratic ways. He tore up human rights, took control of courts and the media, cracked down on dissent, and made money laundering a national sport.
This week, he went even further. When the opposition party tried to stage an impeachment vote against the speaker of the House, a close Yameen ally, the president ordered the troops in. The Maldivian army occupied the parliament, making a vote impossible.
This isn’t the first time that Yameen has obstructed lawmakers from doing their jobs. Just last month, opposition MPs were locked out of parliament to stop an earlier impeachment vote. But this is the first time that the army has physically sent in soldiers to stop lawmakers with threats of force. It could be a long time before we see democracy return to the Maldives.
8 Two Icons Of American And British Entertainment Died
Although on the surface they were very different, there was a strange similarity between Jerry Lewis and Bruce Forsyth, both of whom sadly died this week (aged 91 and 89, respectively). Both were old-school variety performers and comedians who went on to become film stars. Both did remarkable works raising money for charity. And both became objects of ridicule before finally taking their places late in life as national treasures in their countries.
Whom you’re more familiar with probably depends on where you’re from. Jerry Lewis was a constant presence on American screens, appearing in telethons and movies ranging from The Nutty Professor to Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. (Lewis also made the never-seen, so-awful-it’s-wonderful, “lost” film The Day the Clown Cried). “Brucie” Forsyth, meanwhile, was Britain’s king of light entertainment, flitting between game shows and reality TV with professional ease.
Neither Lewis nor Forsyth did very well with the critics, but both were loved by the masses and both were certainly icons. With their deaths, TV on both sides of the Atlantic suddenly got just that little bit duller.
7 The US Experienced Its First Coast-To-Coast Total Eclipse In Nearly A Century
The last time the US experienced a coast-to-coast Great American Solar Eclipse was back in 1918. World War I was still underway, Woodrow Wilson sat in the White House, and the British Empire ruled half the planet. This week, America finally got another. Ninety-nine years after the evening skies darkened impossibly early over Oregon, another full solar eclipse swung across the contiguous United States. The entire country went eclipse mad.
If you were one of the 12.2 million people lucky enough to live along the line of totality (the point from which the Moon appears to completely cover the Sun), you likely spent a couple of precious minutes on Monday gaping up at the ghostly halo overhead. If you were one of the 200 million Americans within driving distance, chances are you at least wanted to make an effort to go see it. For most Americans, this was the only eclipse they’d ever seen.
If you were one of those unlucky enough to be stuck somewhere completely eclipse free, don’t panic. Another total eclipse is scheduled across the USA for April 8, 2024. It’ll be interesting to see if it becomes an equally big news event.
6 Twin Stabbing Rampages Shook Finland And Russia
In the aftermath of the Barcelona attacks, two more terrorist incidents were lost beneath the wave of reports coming from Spain. On Friday, a failed Moroccan asylum seeker took a knife and started stabbing women in the Finnish city of Turku. Two died, and another eight were injured. A day later, a frenzied axe-and-knife attack in the Siberian city of Surgut left eight wounded. Both attacks were subsequently linked to ISIS.
While the combined death and injury tolls were far lower than those in Spain, the random stabbings shook both nations to their cores. Finland, in particular, had never had a murder or attack linked to Islamist extremism before, and the bloodshed in Turku was both surprising and chilling.
For those in Russia—previously targeted when ISIS bombed the St. Petersburg metro—the idea that terrorism could seep into such an out-of-the-way place as Surgut was deeply unsettling.
Both incidents are grim reminders that terrorism may get worse in Europe before it gets better. Now that ISIS’s caliphate is collapsing, many fighters are returning to their home countries with the knowledge and mindset to cause death on a massive scale.
5 Angola Voted For Its First New Leader In Nearly 40 Years
Angolan president Jose Eduardo dos Santos was one of the longest-serving dictators out there. The elderly autocrat came to power in 1979, survived a bruising civil war that lasted until 2002, oversaw a massive oil boom and bust, and instituted one of the most corrupt regimes in Africa (which is saying something). This week, Angolans did something that most of them would probably never have dreamed was possible. They voted for a new leader.
While we’d love to tell you that incoming Angolan president Joao Lourenco was an anti–dos Santos candidate who triumphed unexpectedly, the sad truth is that dos Santos retired voluntarily. The tyrant announced in 2016 that he’d step down after the 2017 election, and Lourenco was his chosen successor.
While the official vote tally hasn’t yet been released, Lourenco and his party have still declared victory, which is a legit, if depressing, thing to do when you’re the new head of an autocratic state.
Despite his close links to his predecessor, Angola watchers are cautiously optimistic that Lourenco might at least crack down on graft and start tackling the country’s abysmal poverty problems.
4 We Discovered The Last US Defector To North Korea Had Died
Watching the video of Ted and James Dresnok announcing their father’s death is a surreal experience. The two look as American as apple pie . . . until you realize that they’re speaking Korean with heavy Northern accents and wearing military fatigues of Kim Jong Un’s murderous regime.
That’s because their father, James Joseph Dresnok, was one of only six Americans who defected to North Korea after the Korean War. By chance, he became the last one standing, outliving four of the others. (The fifth, Charles Robert Jenkins, defected back from North Korea in 2004 and is still alive.)
This week, his two sons confirmed the rumors that Dresnok had died of a stroke last November. Their report ended the bizarre story of America’s small number of postwar defectors to the Hermit Kingdom.
Dresnok was an odd figure who seemed to take perverse pride in his life in Pyongyang and openly flaunted his loyalty to the Kim regime. Having crossed the DMZ to avoid a court martial at age 21, he later said that he wouldn’t return for a billion dollars. He certainly got his wish.
3 A Tanker Crash Left 10 American Sailors Missing Or Dead
It was the second deadly crash between a US Navy ship and a tanker in three months. On Monday, the USS John S. McCain collided with a merchant vessel off the coast of Singapore, tearing open the hull of the McCain.
The collision followed the crash of the USS Fitzgerald in June 2017, which left seven sailors dead. The death toll on the McCain may be even worse. At the time of this writing, one crewman has been confirmed dead, while nine more remain missing.
This is the fourth crash involving US vessels in the last year, although only the Fitzgerald collision was also fatal. Following it, the US Navy ordered an extremely rare global “operational pause.” Meanwhile, those in charge scrambled to figure out what was causing their ships to go flying into one another like drunkards at a crowded bar.
The obvious answer may be that the navy is simply overworked. Ships are being sent to monitor North Korea and China, bomb ISIS, and be on standby in the Middle East even as enormous budget cuts have smashed navy spending power. When your resources are stretched so thinly, perhaps tragic accidents become inevitable.
2 India Prepared For Mass Violence Following A Guru’s Rape Trial
Ram Rahim Singh is the most powerful Indian you’ve never heard of. A spiritual guru and leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda social organization (which its detractors call a cult), he claims to have up to 60 million followers and has vast political clout in India.
He’s also linked to some truly shady stuff, including the mass castration of followers, the murder of a journalist, and accusations that he raped two female believers. While the murder case is still being investigated, the verdict in a decade-long trial on the rape charges is to be announced this Friday. Already, two Indian states are in lockdown over fears that there could be violence.
Over 150,000 of Singh’s followers have traveled to court to await the verdict. As a result, Punjab and Haryana are now crawling with soldiers. Mobile data has been turned off. Gatherings and firearms have been made temporarily illegal. Hospitals have reserved beds for casualties. A cricket stadium has been converted into a makeshift prison.
If Singh is found guilty, Friday may turn into a day of bloodshed in these Indian states. For now, the country simply watches and waits.
1 The US Committed More Troops To Afghanistan (Again)
On October 7, 2001, US forces invaded Afghanistan. Their goal: to defeat the Taliban, kill Osama bin Laden, bring democracy to Afghanistan, and get back out again.
Fast-forward 16 years, and only one of those goals has been achieved. The Taliban are still a potent force. Democracy is still a distant mirage. US soldiers are still fighting and dying in Afghanistan. This week, the White House committed yet more troops to the ungovernable nation. The longest war in US history continues to have no end in sight.
The announcement came as a surprise, given President Trump’s previous musings on the subject. The president said as much in his speech announcing the troop surge. He explained that it went against his instincts but his military advisers had talked him round. Thanks to their efforts, 4,000 US soldiers will now be sent into Afghanistan’s renewed civil war.
The troop push comes at a precarious time. Afghanistan has been plagued by suicide bombings and attacks linked to both the Taliban and ISIS, while Al-Qaeda remains a threat. Whether committing more US troops to this morass will change things for the better remains to be seen.