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What Happened: November 18, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: Russia vs Europe; Jihad in Burkina Faso; FCC nominations

The Scroll
November 18, 2021

The Big Story

Guest-edited by Sean Cooper

More than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in a 12-month period ending this April, a near 30% rise in the death toll from last year, according to a report released yesterday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though much media attention about the drug crisis has focused on OxyContin, the prescription pill that made billions of dollars for the Sackler family and its manufacturing empire Purdue Pharmaceutical, the drug epidemic and surge in overdoses is currently being driven, in part, by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that accounted for 60% of those deaths. Fentanyl overdoses are increasingly the result of Americans seeking out various illicit prescription drugs, including Xanax and Percocet, which are laced with dangerous amounts of the illegally manufactured fentanyl. As many as two of every five fake prescription pills laced with fentanyl contain enough for a potentially lethal dose, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which last month announced its first Public Safety Alert in six years following the recent flood of illicit pills made abroad into the U.S. market. Biden administration officials said yesterday that they’ll continue to invest in harm-reduction efforts, such as increased access to mental health services and distribution of overdose antidotes like Narcan, but an army of therapists and an opioid rescue kit in every library still doesn’t get to the root of why Americans continue to seek out dangerously potent drugs at a rate unprecedented in the nation’s history.

Check back next week for The Scroll’s analysis of the ongoing drug overdose epidemic.

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Today’s Back Pages: Tablet’s News Editor Jeremy Stern on Putin’s Consolidation of Power Against Minimal European Resistance

The Rest

Gunmen overran a police outpost in northern Burkina Faso on Sunday, killing at least 19 gendarmes and a civilian. The landlocked West African country is experiencing a steady increase in violence from groups linked to ISIS and al-Qaeda. Thousands of Burkinabe have been killed, and more than 1 million have been displaced or simply disappeared in the conflict with Islamic extremists. Last year’s total number of reported missing relatives quadrupled compared to the number of missing persons reported the year prior.

→A software company called Voyager Labs was in negotiations with the Los Angeles police department to utilize the company’s online surveillance products that use algorithms and artificial intelligence to “determine whether subjects have already committed a crime, may commit a crime, or adhere to certain ideologies,” according to public records cited in new reporting from The Guardian. In its sales materials, Voyager purported that its software could intuit a target’s predisposition for future extremist beliefs, citing in one instance a social media user who posted images that revealed “his pride in and identification with his Arab heritage.”

→Further efforts to monetize the surveillance of online behavior continue in Silicon Valley, where start-up company Mem Protocol recently raised $3.1 million in funding from investors that included a16z, the prominent venture capital firm. The start-up offers a social network for users who receive “social credit” points for successfully answering questions, but its real product is the documentation of a user’s network activity, a potentially indestructible profile that would sit on the blockchain and forever follow the person as a reference to be checked by future employers or other online networks controlling access to their membership.

→President Joe Biden’s recent nominations to fill the chair and an open seat on the five-member Federal Communications Commission could give Democrats a needed majority to begin enacting not only Biden’s ambitious agenda to expand the nation’s broadband internet services but also regulations that strengthen FCC control over internet providers. But Biden’s pick for the open seat, Gigi Sohn, has run afoul of conservatives, who fear her advocacy for broadband service regulations could extend to censorship of conservative news content. Last October, Sohn tweeted about the risks of Fox News to American democracy, writing the network was “state-sponsored propaganda.” Sen. Lindsey Graham said this week that he’ll “do everything in my power to convince colleagues on both sides of the aisle to reject this extreme nominee.” However, Sohn has been backed by conservative news network OANN, whose president, Charles Herring, publicly endorsed Sohn last week. According to a report in the Washington Free Beacon, OANN sees Sohn’s outspoken animus for Fox News as a potential boon for OANN’s own business, which competes against Fox for viewership.

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→Guilty verdicts were handed down this week to Philadelphia union labor leader Johnny “Doc” Dougherty and Bobby Henon, the city council member who prosecutors alleged had become a political pawn for the union in exchange for a $70,000 salary at a no-show union gig. Considered one of the more powerful forces in city governance, Johnny Doc made the union into a major political player just as he’s helped dozens of close allies secure both state and local positions over the past two decades. Dougherty submitted his resignation to the union following the verdict, but Henon, who’s continued to serve on the city council, is not legally required to resign until his sentencing in February.

→Amazon Logistics, the Seattle company’s division that oversees package delivery, has defended itself in as many as 119 motor vehicle injury lawsuits this year, which is four times as many lawsuits directed at the company last year, according to a recent Bloomberg analysis. Victims of car crashes caused by Amazon drivers have pointed to the performance surveillance system the company and its logistics subsidiaries use to push drivers to meet Amazon’s intense delivery needs. Though Amazon has said it’s increased spending to reduce accidents on the road, critics say it’s not enough and have raised fears that ongoing supply chain issues and Amazon’s unreasonable expectations will place an even greater burden on drivers this holiday season.

→The Norwegian Institute of Public Health announced that vaccinations will not be recommended for adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15 if that child has already been infected with the novel coronavirus. Because “children and adolescents rarely have a severe COVID-19 disease course,” and since those already infected will have some natural immunity, the institute has advised doctors to administer just one dose to healthy members of the 12-to-15-year-old cohort. Similarly to Britain’s one-shot program for its teenage population, Norway’s Institute of Public Health noted the risks of two vaccine shots for its adolescents: “A second vaccine dose is also linked with a higher risk of pericarditis and myocarditis, especially among young men and boys.”

The Back Pages

backpagesPutin’s Power Play

Tablet’s News Editor Jeremy Stern on Putin’s Consolidation of Power Against Minimal European Resistance

Military mobilization on the Ukrainian frontier and whispers of Russian troop deployments to Belarus have many concerned that the specter of war could be returning to Europe. There are good reasons to be worried: Vladimir Putin has amassed what the NATO secretary general called “an unusual concentration of troops” in Crimea and near Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, which is controlled by Russian-backed separatists. Belarusian forces recently tried to demolish a Polish border fence near Czeremcha while blinding Polish soldiers with stroboscopes and lasers. Thousands of Polish troops have been sent to reinforce the border, where the Belarusian government is depositing thousands of desperate migrants from the Middle East. Armed conflict on the European Union’s eastern reaches is no longer out of the question.

But while Washington and Brussels are (hopefully) girding themselves for any eventuality—including the chance that Poland could trigger NATO’s Article 5 commitment of mutual assistance—it’s worth keeping an eye on the means, short of war, that Putin is using to make Russia the predominant power in Europe.

Dramatic relocations of Russian troops not only keep the West guessing; they also help distract from the soft annexations that are already underway. On Monday, Putin signed a decree removing barriers from Eastern Ukrainian products traded in Russia, creating a de facto customs union over the heads of Kyiv. Hundreds of thousands of Eastern Ukrainians have been granted Russian passports and citizenship, and many voted online in September’s Duma elections. Gazprom owns the gas pipelines that traverse Belarus and Ukraine and feed Europe’s energy network, making the ability of Europeans to heat their homes dependent on the Kremlin, and on acquiescence to its foreign policy.

Meanwhile, as winter approaches, German and other European gas tanks are reportedly running low. Following an announcement that Gazprom booked lower capacity in Europe for next month, commodity traders started warning of upcoming blackouts across the continent. Wednesday’s news that German regulators froze approval for Nord Stream 2—the pipeline designed to remove Ukraine from Europe’s energy network by pumping gas directly from Russia into Germany via the Baltic Sea—isn’t as provocative as some observers have claimed. The decision was a bureaucratic one taken by Germany’s federal network agency, not a political one from the chancellor or parliament. And while it might put the controversial pipeline on hold for a while, it does not represent either a strengthening of German resolve or a reduction in Russia’s options for creating an energy crisis in Europe. Berlin’s impending transition of power from Merkel to Social Democrat Olaf Scholz will not change its role as Moscow’s representative in Brussels.

Nor does Putin have much reason to think he would face stiff transatlantic resistance if he did take more territory by force. Would Emmanuel Macron really send a nonsymbolic number of French troops to Ukraine or French vessels into the Black Sea during election season? Would Joe Biden, having just withdrawn from Afghanistan to “end forever wars,” now risk a continental showdown with a nuclear superpower? Does anyone think a single German troop would be committed to the defense of Donetsk? Of Kiev? Of Czeremcha?

Putin’s assets include not only gas and bullets but also the indecisive and fractured state of the West, which he knows has no leader, no consensus, and no stomach for a fight in the Bloodlands.

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Tablet’s afternoon newsletter edited by Jacob Siegel.

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