If you've been following the news of the weekend, all I can say is: "Step back from the ledge." Whew. I can't remember when I have spent as much time on international news that was so unrelentingly brutal and depressing. Even local news here in the NYC area was horrendous: a horrific bus crash that claimed 15 lives was played up in Grisly-detail font bold by local tabloids that shall remain nameless. That terrible accident was accompanied by reports of the slayings of two area police officers in the line of duty.
Like everyone else, I have been pretty much glued to the flatscreen and computer monitor watching images coming out of Japan and am now obsessively tracking the recovery there as well as the countdown to arma-meltdown at three (!) nuclear reactors on its northern coasts. Let's hope the proponents of the current "nuclear renaissance" are likewise paying attention.
I've also been following the accumulating setbacks for Gaddiffi-opposition forces in Libya and the surprise intervention of troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Bahrain. By Sunday evening it didn't seem like the international news could get any worse when I stumbled upon reports of the cold-blooded murder of a settler family, including a 3-month old infant, a toddler and an 11-year old boy and their parents, near the West Bank city of Nablus. The cruelty of the slayng of the Fogel family in the settlement of Itamar Friday night defies characterization. I know this is a region that has endured its share of brutality and injustice over the years, but it is surely hard to imagine the depravity of a mind capable of such an act of violence on a sleeping infant (not that it is any easier to understand the violence against the other victims). Today mourners rioted against Palestinian targets around the West Bank as the family was buried in Jerusalem and in reaction to the murders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has reverted to form, announcing plans for a 500 unit expansion of settler housing. Here is Haaretz's take on that decision.
This could be whistling in the dark, but in a perhaps foolish quest for any hopeful, even good-ish news today, the best I could turn up was a small indication that Pakistan's Minister for Religious Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti did not die in vain. Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik has been excoriated in the Pakistan press because of security lapses that led to Bhatti's assassination and the February slaying of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer—both had been leading efforts to amend Pakistan's notorious basphemy law. Reuters reports today that Malik now believes Pakistan politicians should be able to reach a cross-party consensus on preventing the misuse of the blasphemy laws, as proposed by Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, head of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) religious party. According to Reuters: "Fazl-ur-Rehman ... has been a vocal defender of the blasphemy laws. However, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper quoted him as saying last week that 'if a law is being misused against minorities we are ready to discuss this.' In a follow-up commentary, Dawn called it "a climbdown from his customary hardline position.'"
In other, if not good, than at least interesting news, China Premier Wen Jiabao, perhaps with a wary eye on the popular uprisings scorching the status quo in the Middle East and North Africa, has once again said China needs to carry out political reforms, suggesting that China's economic achievements of the last 30 years could be lost without "institutional" changes. The BBC reports that Wen made his comments at a press conference at the end of China's annual parliamentary session in Beijing. He could have easily ducked a question about the necessity for political reform. Instead he said: "Without political restructuring, economic restructuring will not succeed and the achievements we have made in economic restructuring may be lost."
Wen added that change would have to come slowly—and under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party—and denied that there were parallels between China and the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Wen apparently did not spell out the reform he evisioned. People can currently vote for their own village leaders in China. According to the BBC, the premier held out the possibility that direct elections could be extended beyond this limited level.
"If we are to address the people's grievances we must allow the people to supervise and criticize the government," he said.
Wen would have much institutional inertia and party hostility to overcome to move the middle kingdom even slightly toward liberal democracy. We will have to wait and see. In the meantime, if you feel the need to be more proactive, visit Caritas or Catholic Relief Services to see what you can do about the suffering in Japan.