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.
This was a week in which hate seemed to go horribly mainstream in American society. It began with the arrest of the suspected mail bomber who had targeted top Democrats last week and progressed to what has been called the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history.
We’ll be covering both awful stories alongside more depressing news from the rest of the world, including a horrific air crash in Asia and the confession of one of Europe’s worst-ever serial killers. Strap yourselves in for an unhappy ride.
Just last week, we reported on the supremely depressing story that some idiot had seen fit to mail pipe bombs to some top Democrats, CNN, and actor Robert De Niro. Barely had that column gone live than we learned the identity of that idiot. Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr. was arrested in Florida Friday morning after investigators found his DNA and fingerprints on one of the envelopes. The 56-year-old bodybuilder now faces up to 48 years in prison.
Sayoc’s motivation seems to have been an insane hatred of anyone who criticized the president. He briefly lived in a white van covered in pro-Trump stickers, and authorities found names and addresses of anti-Trump critics on his computer dating back to July.
However, Sayoc was unhinged long before Trump came on the political scene. Way back in 2002, he threatened to blow up a Florida utility company, saying the explosion would be “worse than 9/11.”
Of course, this being 2018, the Internet couldn’t help but spew conspiracy theories about how Sayoc was a secret Democrat and other ideas so glaringly stupid they could outshine the Sun. It says something of the level of discourse we’ve reached that all sides now automatically assume a terrorist attack on their opponents is a false flag.
You’ve probably never heard of Niels Hoegel, but he may just be one of the worst serial killers Western Europe has ever produced. In 2015, he was jailed for killing two patients at the German hospital where he worked by injecting them with a cocktail of drugs designed to induce cardiac arrest.
Hoegel’s unbelievably pathetic excuse was that he got a rush out of resuscitating people and saving their lives. But it soon turned out that this rush was more of an addiction.
Not long after his initial arrest, a new investigation led to Hoegel admitting he’d killed 30. In turn, this triggered yet another investigation, which included the exhumation of hundreds of bodies. To the mounting horror of German police, it was beginning to look like Hoegel was a serial killer.
This week, he returned to court and made a shocking confession. He had personally killed nearly 100 people. If proven at trial, this grim total would make him Germany’s worst postwar serial killer.
The case brings to mind that of Harold Shipman in the UK, a doctor who is estimated to have killed up to 250 patients. In both cases, severe failings in the health services allowed them to conduct their murderous reigns unchecked.
James “Whitey” Bulger was both one of America’s most notorious mob bosses and horrible proof that undercover operations can go drastically wrong. A Boston gangster turned FBI informer, he was protected by corrupt agents for two decades, allowing him to conduct a spree of gangland murders that went completely unchecked. When the net finally closed in 1995, those same FBI agents tipped him off, allowing him to flee justice for 16 years.
Bulger was finally caught in 2011, by which time he was globally infamous. With Bulger sentenced in 2013 to two life sentences plus five years, it was long known that he would die in prison. No one could guess quite how true that would turn out to be. This week, Bulger was transferred from Florida to a new prison in West Virginia. Barely had he arrived than he was viciously beaten to death in a suspected mob hit.
It is, of course, hard to feel any sympathy for Bulger. He was a man who had flooded Boston with drugs, tortured people for hours, and personally killed at least one woman. Nonetheless, his death seems to show a shocking breach in prison safety, especially given the suspicious timing of his transfer.
After all that death, let’s switch over to the world of politics where words like “bloodbath” are happily meant in a figurative way. And what a bloodbath Sunday’s local elections in Germany’s Hesse were.
Although they technically won, Angela Merkel’s center-right CDU party was given an almighty walloping by the electorate, dropping 11 points on the 2013 vote. The abysmal result led to Merkel stepping down as leader of CDU and announcing she would step down as chancellor in 2021.
Bad as the night was for Merkel, it was an unmitigated catastrophe for her center-left coalition partners, SPD, which recorded their worst result in Hesse since 1946. Honestly? At this stage, we’d be amazed if the current German government survives to the next election.
The vote was interesting in other ways. The populist right-wing AfD pulled down its now-customary 13 percent, marking its entrance into all 16 of Germany’s regional parliaments. Meanwhile, the Greens surged into joint second place with the SPD, following a similarly strong showing two weeks back in Bavaria.
It now looks as if the German antiestablishment vote is splitting between the populist left and right rather than staying with the right.
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern is currently most famous for allowing the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012. Now it may have outdone even that find. This week, scientists working with the LHC’s Compact Muon Solenoid detector announced the existence of mysterious bumps in their data readings. One very real possibility is that they accidentally discovered a brand-new particle.
If it exists—and it could take another year of experiments to confirm or deny—this particle would turn the LHC’s work on its head. At twice the mass of a carbon atom, the ghost particle isn’t predicted in any current models of physics. While we were actively looking for the Higgs boson, this new particle would be the equivalent of going out for a walk and tripping over a real-life space alien.
As a result, theoretical physicists are getting quite excited. But it’s worth remembering that we’ve seen false starts like this before. In 2011, Italian scientists announced they’d accidentally discovered particles that moved faster than light, only for it to turn out to be a fault in the equipment.
Until recently, the president of Sri Lanka enjoyed a host of executive powers more in line with an absolute monarchy than a modern state. Then the 2015 election came along, in which Maithripala Sirisena campaigned alongside Ranil Wickremesinghe on abolishing executive powers.
They won, and Sirisena became president with Wickremesinghe as his prime minister. One of their first acts was to change the law so that the president could no longer fire the prime minister at the drop of a hat.
Care to guess what President Sirisena has now tried to do?
Last week, Sirisena unexpectedly announced that he was firing the entire government and replacing PM Wickremesinghe with his own former mentor-turned-rival, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Understandably upset, Wickremesinghe has refused to leave the PM’s official residence and claims to still lead the government. The result: a constitutional crisis that this week boiled over into violence and riots in the streets.
At the heart of the issue is whether Sri Lanka really has changed since the autocratic days of the civil war. Although Wickremesinghe is fairly unpopular, President Sirisena removing him under his own authority would send a wrecking ball through the updated constitution.
Indonesia already had a bad air safety record before Monday, and now it’s looking even worse. That was the day that a nearly brand-new Boeing 737 Max took off from Jakarta en route to the popular island of Pangkalpinang. Barely had it got to altitude before it plunged into the Java Sea, killing all 189 people aboard.
The crash is the worst global air disaster since terrorists brought down a Russian plane in 2015 and the first major crash in Indonesia since a plane ditched into the sea in 2014, killing 162. More than just the human aspect, though, the crash represents a mystery.
There was no bad weather the day of the flight. The airplane had just been cleared by engineers repairing a previous fault. It wasn’t terrorism. The aircraft was brand-new. So, what happened?
The scary answer is: We don’t know. On Wednesday, the black box was recovered. By Thursday, the likely site of the aircraft’s wreckage below the waves had been located, meaning it will hopefully only be a matter of time before we can make sense of this tragedy.
After nearly a whole year of positive headlines from North Korea, it’s easy to forget just how screwed up the isolated Communist nation still is. While Kim Jong Un makes nice on the world stage with President Trump and South Korea’s President Moon, several hundred thousand remain interred in gulags. This Thursday, a new report by Human Rights Watch revealed a lesser-known nightmare in the DPRK. Ordinary women are being abused on an industrial scale.
The report is stitched together from interviews with 106 female defectors, half of whom fled after Kim Jong Un came to power. They document a society in which effectively every male authority figure is a Harvey Weinstein who can have your entire family sentenced to hard labor if you refuse to have sex with him.
Officials demand sexual favors as bribes, black marketeers use their social status to harass women, and police officers randomly abduct women off the streets for forced sex. So entrenched is power and rape in the society that even minor officials like ticket inspectors can grope passengers with utter impunity.
Sexual harassment is illegal in North Korea, but the laws appear to be unenforced. A chilling reminder that the Hermit Kingdom may be coming in from the cold but still has a long way to go.
Everyone knew it was coming, but it was still major news when it did. On Sunday, Brazilian voters went to the polls for the second round of a presidential campaign that was as vicious as it was surreal. By a margin of 10 points, they pumped for right-wing ex–army captain Jair Bolsonaro. He will be Brazil’s first hard-right leader since the end of the dictatorship in 1985.
Bolsonaro’s rhetoric brings to mind a generation of Latin American autocrats who had seemed to vanish. He supports the police killing more criminals. He has made violently homophobic and racist speeches and called one woman too ugly to rape.
The last two weeks of the campaign were marked by attacks on Brazil’s large black minority, the daubing of swastikas on college buildings, and incidents such as a man wearing a “Bolsonaro for president” shirt slitting a female journalist’s throat.
Not that the violence has all been one way. Bolsonaro himself was stabbed at a rally, nearly fatally. After that, he effectively campaigned from the hospital.
Unfortunately, Brazil’s system didn’t really leave voters with any other alternative. Bolsonaro was running against the incumbent Workers’ Party (PT), which spent 13 years running Brazil’s economy into the ground and has now had two leaders jailed on corruption charges. It was clear that PT was due to fall this election. It’s just a shame who replaced them.
It was meant to be one of the safest countries on Earth for Jews. As anti-Semitic hate crime increases in Europe, the US was supposed to be one of the few nations that had gotten it right. A place where Jewish worshipers needn’t live in fear of their lives.
That all changed Sunday when 46-year-old white supremacist Robert Bowers walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire with an AR-15. As he screamed about killing all the Jews, he gunned down 11 congregation members and left two others, plus four responding police officers, badly wounded. In terms of body count, it was the worst anti-Semitic hate crime in US history.
The attack was an awful tragedy and one that left the entire world stunned. Neo-Nazi hate crimes in the US have traditionally targeted African-Americans and other minorities. (See the 2015 Charleston church shooting and the 2012 Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin.) Horrible as these were, it at least seemed like anti-Semitism was rarer in the states or less visceral than other forms of racism. Now we know that was a lie.
Bowers seems to have been motivated by online conspiracy theories that Jewish groups were plotting to destabilize America, a theory as utterly dumb as it is patently ridiculous. Yet this is the world we apparently now live in, a world in which 11 innocent people must die just because one idiot paid too much attention to racist message boards. We can only pray that this dreadful attack encourages some soul-searching among those responsible for these stupid theories.