Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Perspective: Picking stories that will matter to our future selves

It's hard to see history in the making. Viewed through the long lens of time, which of today's major news stories will prove to have been pivotal? For fun, we once again pick an event for each month of the year that will seem significant when our future selves look back with hindsight's clear vision.


Hiroo Onoda dies at 91. Don't remember him? He was an Imperial Japanese Army officer who remained at his jungle post on an island in the Philippines for 29 years after 1945, refusing to believe that World War II was over. Caught in a time warp, Onoda believed, as the New York Times put it, that the emperor was a deity and the war a sacred mission. He survived on bananas and coconuts until finally going home in 1974 to a world of skyscrapers, television, jet planes, pollution and atomic destruction. As the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches next summer, there has been a surge in interest among young Japanese about the war that their nation has long tried to forget. Driving this pursuit into the past is anxiety about China's rise — it now is the world's largest economy. As the United States continues to try to pivot toward the Pacific Rim, the death of Onoda — and the meaning of his life — is symbolically and materially important.


It's hard to remember that it was only earlier this year — at the unfortunately too warm Winter Olympics at Sochi — that Putin's Russia appeared to want to make a good impression on the world. Soon would come the annexation of Crimea and the threats that destabilized Ukraine. By year's end, Russia was an outcast, and the ruble was collapsing as oil prices plunged. The world order continues to shift in seismic ways. Just before the year was out, President Barack Obama announced that the United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, once a client-state of the old Soviet Union. The new-old Russia wants to matter. Perhaps we'll soon see in what ways it does.


You can track the exact location of your iPhone, but it's possible to lose an entire airliner and its passengers. Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 simply disappeared. After the conspiracy theories and breathless cable TV coverage died down, the mystery remained. How can a modern airliner simply vanish? The incorrect assumptions that airliners are constantly tracked might lead to changes in air-to-ground communications. But meantime, the fleets looking for the missing jet have gone home. And despite the best guess that the wreckage is deep on the Indian Ocean seabed, no one actually is sure.


While many may think of the Ebola outbreak in western Africa and the fears it produced in the United States, little noticed was this news out of Equatorial Guinea: The World Health Organization documented three new polio cases, the first in this African nation in 15 years. Health officials have vastly reduced the worldwide incidence of polio. But in a year in which misinformation about Ebola was so widespread that it became PolitiFact's Lie of the Year, it's worth remembering WHO's simple statement about polio: "There is no cure for polio, it can only be prevented." Don't let anti-vaxxers persuade you otherwise.


The U.S. Justice Department accuses five members of the Chinese People's Liberation Army of hacking into the computer networks of Westinghouse Electric, U.S. Steel Corp. and other companies. Their unit is based in Shanghai and — surprise — they didn't surrender, so don't expect anything official to come of it. But later in the year, the Chinese were accused of hacking into websites of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the National Weather Service, and the U.S. Postal Service. At year's end came the Sony hack with the United States for the first time accusing a foreign government (North Korea, of course) of a cyberattack; Sony initially pulled the disputed movie The Interview from theater release. Cyberwarfare — whether public or private — will only become a bigger concern in the years ahead.


In all honesty, who had really heard of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria? Suddenly, it's everywhere in the news, going on the offensive — using both terror tactics and Twitter — and takes over large swaths of territory. Soon its terrorists would behead American journalists, commit atrocities and become a household name by the acronym of ISIS. The United States is forced to reconsider its Mideast strategy.


Eric Garner, asthmatic and unarmed, dies — saying "I can't breathe" — after police officers wrestle him down, apparently for selling single cigarettes. Despite video of the incident, a grand jury declines to indict the officer who had him in a neck hold. His is one of several cases that once again raise the question of differential treatment of black men by the police. It also begins to accelerate a building movement toward putting body cams on police officers, even though the video in this case brought no indictment.


Michael Brown, also unarmed and also black, is shot dead in Ferguson, Mo. The case of the teenager goes national before Garner's, starting protests that continue to this day. A national discussion on race — which seems to come up time after time but then fades — might actually be reaching critical mass with events this year, but it would be more productive if people weren't talking so much just among themselves.


More computer hacking. The FBI investigates a leak in Apple's iCloud storage — apparently a brute force attack that generated password after password until one of them worked — exposing nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton, among others. Unless you are somehow completely off the grid, a lot of your personal information is out there — okay, maybe not nude photos — but you still have expectations of privacy on supposedly secure sites. What does "secure" mean anymore? The answer isn't as certain as it once seemed. Our bubble of presumed privacy becomes ever smaller.


A stand-up comedy routine by Hannibal Buress brings up old accusations that Bill Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted many, many women. But this time, in a viral world of social media, the allegations don't die. Some celebrities might exude a chumminess that makes them feel like friends, but in the end, you don't really know them at all. Such is the case with Cosby. No matter what the truth is, there has been a profound shift in the public's view of him. That raises an ongoing question: Can — and should — we try to separate the art from the artist and value them independently of each other? Or not?


For all the wrong reasons, a badly handled Rolling Stone opus about rape on campus becomes news itself when it becomes clear that the reporting is shot through with holes. The good news, however, is that the flawed story forces a national discussion about sexual assault on campus. And after filtering out the noise, the signal still came through loud and clear that rape is vastly underreported and campuses have a long way to go to sort out the issue, whether that means moving toward a "yes means yes" culture or making investigations of sexual assault the sole province of the police or some other solution altogether.


For the first time in more than 40 years, NASA sends a spacecraft designed to carry astronauts out of low Earth orbit. Though it was only an unmanned test, the Orion capsule's first flight points the eventual way toward Mars. Meantime, on Mars, the Curiosity Rover found evidence suggesting that Mars may once have had large, long-lasting lakes above ground. That means that one of the building blocks of life — water — was more widely available on the Red Planet than previously thought. That raises an enticing prospect just as NASA is thinking about sending astronauts there — though any mission is years away. Did we mention that the Europeans managed to land a space probe on an asteroid? Space, still the final frontier, had an interesting year — and a once-again promising future.