Thursday, May 24, 2018

After the Santa Fe Shooting, We Still Resist the Idea of the “Ordinary” Terrorist

In the macabre monotony of school shootings, the one on May 18th, in Santa Fe, Texas, in which ten people were killed, stands out in a small way. When several news outlets published stories suggesting that the shooter may have targeted one of his victims, Shana Fisher, because she spurned his advances, it was clear that a new possibility for understanding school shootings had taken hold. The story has come under scrutiny, but, according to this narrative, young men may decide to commit acts of terror because they feel humiliated by sexual rejection. This possibility of making sense of terror also emerged in the wake of the vehicle-ramming attack that killed ten people in Toronto, on April 23rd, and brought the incel movement to prominence.
We as a society have moved this much closer to understanding that acts of terror are committed by ordinary people. That’s good news for the general cause of inhabiting an evidence-based reality in relationship to terrorism. But the conversation remains tied to the misguided idea that acts of extreme violence can be explained, understood, and prevented.
Terrorism experts never tire of stressing that terrorists are normal—usually not afflicted by any recognized psychiatric disorder. Indeed, apparent mental health is the one trait that terrorists seem to share. The reason that experts have to constantly reiterate this point is that it’s hard to absorb, and harder to retain. We resist the idea that terrorists are not pathological; that they are regular people who commit horrific acts of violence for petty human reasons is in itself terrifying. Something that causes as much damage and distress as a school shooting or a vehicular attack demands an explanation beyond quotidian grievances. One longs to imagine incels as an organized movement with a clear agenda. In this respect, the public understanding evolves to match the incels’ desire to be seen as more than a bunch of losers who gripe about women on the Internet. As with other kinds of terrorism, the cycle is self-perpetuating: men reach for violence to compensate for their sense of powerlessness, public recognition of their horrifying might inflates their sense of importance, inspiring others to follow suit, and the violence and the fear escalate in concert.
In another respect, the drive to identify reasons for committing extreme violence runs opposite to the very logic of terrorism. I am using the term “terrorism” in its broadest possible meaning, to denote acts of violence intended primarily to terrify. This works only when the violence is unpredictable—when it’s senseless. This is as true of state terror and political terrorism as it is of a school shooting—especially one perpetrated by the shy kid who never seemed to say a word about girls. It is so frightening precisely because most of these shy, unpopular kids who are ignored and spurned by others will never hurt a fly. Nor will most other people, including most of those who claim to want to blow up the world, whether because they are not getting enough sex or because they want to live in a caliphate.
The illusion that terrorism can be understood, predicted, and therefore prevented undergirds the gun debate. The Democratic consensus line on gun control is that people have the right to own guns, but we should keep guns out of the wrong hands. There is an emerging agreement that men who have committed domestic violence shouldn’t have guns, and it is true that a history of domestic violence is that rare and overlooked trait that many terrorists share. But it is by no means predictive: most domestic abusers will not attack random others. And there will always be the regular boys with ordinary grievances who seem like they wouldn’t hurt anyone. Saying that they shouldn’t have guns would be like saying that no one should have guns. Which is, of course, exactly what needs to be said.

Big Discovery in a Tiny Mammal-Like Skull Found Under a Dinosaur’s Foot

In 2006 a team of paleontologists in Utah were examining the fossils of a large dinosaur when they discovered beneath its foot a tiny skull unlike anything they had seen in the area.

Now, scientists have found that the fossilized cranium belonged to an ancient relative of modern mammals that once scurried around North America some 130 million years ago. The new species, called Cifelliodon wahkarmoosuch, is a member of an extinct group of animals known as the haramiyids, which some researchers think bridged the transition between reptiles and mammals.

The finding, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, shows that haramiyids spread much farther across the globe and in a later time period than previously thought.

“When I first saw the specimen I was stunned,” said Simone Hoffmann a paleontologist from New York Institute of Technology who was not involved in the paper. Dr. Hoffmann, who wrote a perspective that accompanied the study, said she was surprised to see a haramiyid fossil among the thousands of dinosaur specimens found in North America from the Cretaceous period.

In the 1900s scientists had uncovered teeth and jawbones from haramiyids in parts of Eurasia that dated back to the Jurassic and Triassic periods, more than 145 million years ago. Then around 2014 and 2015, researchers found skeletons and soft tissue of haramiyids in China, sparking a debate about where the group belongs on the evolutionary tree. Some argue that its place is within the mammal family, while others have said that it exists just outside that classification.

“It’s a mystery group,” said Zhe-Xi Luo, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago and an author on the paper.

If haramiyids are mammals, then the group pushes back the birth of mammals to about 220 million years ago. But if they are not, mammals date to only about 185 million years ago. Dr. Luo said he and his colleagues place the haramiyids at the doorstep of mammals — close but just outside.

Scientists think haramiyids were diverse and possibly occupied similar ecological niches, eating insects, plants or meat. There is evidence that some of the creatures could glide like flying squirrels and others could swim.

An artist’s rendering of Cifelliodon wahkarmoosuch. Its fossilized skull was found under a dinosaur’s foot by paleontologists in Utah.CreditJorge A. Gonzalez

Adam Huttenlocker, a paleobiologist at the University of Southern California and lead author on the paper made the link that the fossil found in Utah belonged to a haramiyid. The team performed CT scanning of the skull, which showed that its brain was small, and it likely had a good sense of smell.

Though most furry creatures during the Mesozoic Era — which spanned the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods — were about the size of a shrew or mouse, Cifelliodon was about as big as a rabbit or hare, and weighed about 2.5 pounds.

“For a Mesozoic proto-mammal it was pretty huge,” said James Kirkland, a paleontologist from the Utah Geological Survey who first found the skull. “It was like a godzilla proto-mammal.”

The skull the team found only had one tooth, which they said was similar to a fruit-eating bat’s teeth. But that lonely tooth was important, said David Krause, a paleontologist from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science who co-wrote the accompanying perspective.

“That tooth is now largely responsible for extending the geographic range of the group to an entire new continent — North America — and to a significantly later time than is typical for haramiyidans,” said Dr. Krause.

Dr. Hoffmann added that despite the new finding, she is undecided on whether haramiyids belong inside or outside of the mammal group.

“We still need more fossils to tell that,” she said.


An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a paleontologist. She is Simone Hoffmann, not Hoffman.

Nicholas St. Fleur is a science reporter who writes about archaeology, paleontology, space and other topics. He joined The Times in 2015. Before that, he was an assistant editor at The Atlantic. @scifleur Facebook


After Cancellation of the North Korea Summit, Look Out

Nicholas Kristof
Opinion Columnist

President Trump on Wednesday.CreditTom Brenner/The New York Times

Now we enter a more dangerous period in relations with North Korea.

President Trump topped a particularly inept diplomatic period by canceling his summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. The previous policy of maximum economic pressure on North Korea may no longer be viable, so the risk is that Trump ends up reaching for the military toolbox.

As every president since Nixon — except for Trump — has realized, the military options are too dangerous to employ. That’s even more true today, when North Korea apparently has the capacity to use nuclear, chemical and biological weapons against Seoul, Tokyo and perhaps Los Angeles. Yet Pentagon officials seem deeply nervous that Trump doesn’t realize this and has a Kim-like appetite for brinkmanship in ways that create risks of a cataclysm.

It was at least a relief that Trump, in canceling the summit, didn’t slam the door on diplomacy. “I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting,” he wrote Kim in a letter, in a tone more of regret than anger. He added: “Some day, I very much look forward to meeting you.”

Trump apparently canceled both because of recent North Korean belligerent rhetoric, including denunciations of Vice President Mike Pence, and because it grew clear that North Korea wasn’t planning on giving up its nuclear weapons any time soon. There was some political risk that Trump would look foolish reaching a general agreement with North Korea that was much less significant and onerous than the one he tore up with Iran.

The Trump statement leaves open the possibility that South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has been the crucial figure in the peace process, can put Humpty Dumpty together again, so that a meeting could be held later this year. Indeed, if the cancellation now leads to working-level talks between American and North Korean officials, that would be progress.

The risk, though, is that we’re back to confrontation.

I hope that North Korea will respond to Trump’s letter in similarly measured, calm terms. But no one has ever made money betting on North Korean calmness.

North Korea could decide to create a new crisis, perhaps by conducting a missile test or an atmospheric nuclear test. If such an atmospheric test were conducted in the northern Pacific, that could send radiation toward the U.S. and would be perceived in Washington as a great provocation.

Likewise, the U.S. could respond to new tensions by sending B-1 bombers off the coast of North Korea. If North Korea scrambled aircraft or fired antiaircraft missiles, we could very quickly have an enormous escalation.

So look out. We may be headed for a game of chicken, with Trump and Kim at the wheel. And all the rest of us are in the back seat.

In any case, it will be difficult for Trump to return to his policy of strangling North Korea economically. China has already been quietly relaxing sanctions, and South Korea may not have the stomach for strong sanctions either. Kim has met with the leaders of both China and South Korea in recent months, building ties and reducing his isolation, and I expect he’ll continue the outreach to both countries.

Some Republicans have praised Trump for his North Korea diplomacy, and there’s been talk about him winning a Nobel Peace Prize. That was always ludicrous, and his North Korea policy is in fact a fine example of ineptitude.

Here’s what actually happened.

Trump’s jingoistic rhetoric didn’t particularly intimidate North Korea, but it terrified South Korea, which feared it would be collateral damage in a new Korean War. So President Moon shrewdly used the Olympics to undertake a careful peace mission to bring the U.S. and North Korea together, flattering each side to make this happen (Moon is a world-class Trump flatterer, and other leaders around the world have noted his success). This was commendable on Moon’s part; he’s the one who genuinely did have a shot at the peace prize.

As I wrote at the time, however, it was a mistake when Trump rashly accepted the idea of a summit without any careful preparations. The risk of starting a diplomatic process with a summit is that if talks collapse at the top, then it’s difficult to pick up at a lower level. That’s precisely what ended up happening, and this dynamic creates greater risk than ever of military conflict.

With different aides, Trump might have pulled it off. While Trump and his fans were always deluded about the possibility that North Korea would hand over its nuclear weapons any time soon, there was some possibility of a general statement about starting a dialogue about denuclearization. North Korea would destroy some intercontinental ballistic missiles, tensions would drop, and we’d all be better off even if denuclearization never actually happened. Yes, Trump would have been played, but the world would still have benefited from the peace process.

Yet John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, spoke up in ways calculated to unnerve the North Koreans, by talking about the Libya model. When you cite as a model a country whose leader then ended up being executed by his own people, that’s not usually persuasive to another dictator. On my most recent visit to North Korea, in September, officials cited the Libyan experience as one reason they needed to hold on to their nuclear weapons.

North Korean leaders themselves responded to Bolton’s comments with harsh, over-the-top rhetoric, including the comment about Pence. This was a major miscalculation on their part, escalating the ineptitude and helping to kill the summit.

While the North Koreans didn’t get the summit they wanted with Trump, they have managed the process quite well. They used the rush of diplomacy to rebuild ties with Beijing and start discussions about economic integration with South Korea, and to moderate their international image. They’ve also created something of a wedge between Washington and Seoul, as was apparent in the response to Trump’s cancellation by a South Korean government spokesman: “We are attempting to make sense of what, precisely, President Trump means.”

In weighing the risks ahead, commentators sometimes note that Kim is rational and doesn’t want to commit suicide. That’s true, but doesn’t particularly encourage me. Rational actors regularly make awful decisions. Saddam Hussein wasn’t suicidal, and neither was George W. Bush, but they both acted in ways in Iraq that were catastrophic.
Both Trump and Kim would still like to make a summit happen. So I’m hoping for the best, but fearing for the worst.

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Every 202,500 Years, Earth Wanders in a New Direction

It happens every 405,000 years. The Earth’s orbit gradually changes shape from almost circular to slightly elliptical over a period of 202,500 years, and then starts returning to form over the next 202,500 years — like a metronome swinging side to side.

Right now, we are in an almost perfectly circular orbit around the sun, and soon — within some thousands of years, that is — we will start moving toward the elliptical.

This happens because of the Earth’s gravitational interactions with other planets, especially Jupiter and Venus — Jupiter because it is very large, and Venus because it is very near.

In new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists tracked the orbital cycle by analyzing a 1,700-foot-long rock core drilled in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.

The 405,000-year cycle, they found, has held uniform into the very distant past — back to at least 215 million years ago.

So the scientists linked the climate cycles of the Northeast sediments with the accurate uranium-lead dates from the Arizona core. The timing matched: the variations in both showed that the 405,000-year cycle has been going on precisely as scientists had calculated.

What does knowing this mean? The lead author of the study, Dennis V. Kent, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Rutgers University, said that it will give scientists a much more accurate method of dating prehistorical events — the dates of fossils, for example.

“The dream is have a framework independent of the fossils that you can plug the fossils into and see more interesting things — the coexistence of disparate forms, or of similar forms widely separated in location. Now we can place things more accurately in time rather than depending on the fossils to tell us what the time is.”

“And this is an interesting time,” he added. “Dinosaurs and mammals first appeared 252 to 201 million years ago.”

A headline in an earlier version of this article misstated the number of years it takes Earth to change directions. It is 202,500, not 202,500 million.
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page D4 of the New York edition with the headline: 202,500. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


Trump Pulls Out of North Korea Summit Meeting with Kim Jong-un

CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times
By Eileen Sullivan
WASHINGTON — President Trump has notified Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, that he has canceled their much-anticipated meeting, which was set for June 12.

In a letter dated Thursday to Mr. Kim, the American president said he would not attend the summit due to “tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement.”

He was referring to recent comments from a North Korean official who described Vice President Mike Pence as “ignorant and stupid.”

In an interview on Monday with Fox News, Mr. Pence said relations with North Korea “will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong-un doesn’t make a deal.”

He was referring to the fate of the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the former Libyan dictator. Colonel Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program in 2003 in the hope of negotiating with the West, but was killed by rebels in a 2011 uprising after his government was weakened during military action from the United States and its European allies.

A portion of Mr. Trump’s letter canceling the meeting.

When it was noted that the comparison could be interpreted as a threat, Mr. Pence replied, “Well, I think it’s more of a fact.”

On Thursday, in a statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui of North Korea cited “unlawful and outrageous acts” by top American officials.

Ms. Choe said that Mr. Pence had made “unbridled and impudent remarks that North Korea might end like Libya.” And she added that she would recommend to Mr. Kim that he should reconsider what would have been a historic summit.

The decision to scrap the meeting, which was scheduled to be held in Singapore, is the latest turn in the relationship between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim. Just last fall, the two leaders had exchanged threats to launch nuclear wars against each other’s countries.

Mr. Trump has hinted over the past week, that the summit may or may not take place. He has said it would be good for North Korea if it did.

“I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is only that dialogue that matters,” Mr. Trump wrote to Mr. Kim. “Some day, I look very much forward to meeting you.”

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