Blockchain isn’t about democracy and decentralisation – it’s about greed

Blockchain isn’t about democracy and decentralisation – it’s about greed
Cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin result in the concentration of wealth, not greater equality
By Nouriel Roubini
Oct 15 2018
https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/oct/15/blockchain-democracy-decentralisation-bitcoin-price-cryptocurrencies

With the value of bitcoin having fallen by about 70% since its peak late last year, the mother of all bubbles has now gone bust. More generally, cryptocurrencies have entered a not-so-cryptic apocalypse. The value of leading coins such as Ether, EOS, Litecoin and XRP have all fallen by over 80%, thousands of other digital currencies have plummeted by 90%-99%, and the rest have been exposed as outright frauds. No one should be surprised by this: four out of five initial coin offerings (ICOs) were scams to begin with.

Faced with the public spectacle of a market bloodbath, boosters have fled to the last refuge of the crypto scoundrel: a defence of “blockchain,” the distributed-ledger software underpinning all cryptocurrencies. Blockchain has been heralded as a potential panacea for everything from poverty and famine to cancer. In fact, it is the most overhyped – and least useful – technology in human history.

In practice, blockchain is nothing more than a glorified spreadsheet. But it has also become the byword for a libertarian ideology that treats all governments, central banks, traditional financial institutions, and real-world currencies as evil concentrations of power that must be destroyed. Blockchain fundamentalists’ ideal world is one in which all economic activity and human interactions are subject to anarchist or libertarian decentralisation. They would like the entirety of social and political life to end up on public ledgers that are supposedly “permissionless” (accessible to everyone) and “trustless” (not reliant on a credible intermediary such as a bank).

Yet far from ushering in a utopia, blockchain has given rise to a familiar form of economic hell. A few self-serving white men (there are hardly any women or minorities in the blockchain universe) pretending to be messiahs for the world’s impoverished, marginalised and unbanked masses claim to have created billions of dollars of wealth out of nothing. But one need only consider the massive centralisation of power among cryptocurrency “miners,” exchanges, developers and wealth holders to see that blockchain is not about decentralisation and democracy; it is about greed.

For example, a small group of companies – mostly located in such bastions of democracy as Russia, Georgia and China – control between two-thirds and three-quarters of all crypto-mining activity and all routinely jack up transaction costs to increase their fat profit margins. Apparently, blockchain fanatics would have us put our faith in an anonymous cartel subject to no rule of law, rather than trust central banks and regulated financial intermediaries.

A similar pattern has emerged in cryptocurrency trading. Fully 99% of all transactions occur on centralised exchanges that are hacked on a regular basis. And, unlike with real money, once your crypto wealth is hacked, it is gone forever.

Moreover, the centralisation of crypto development – for example, fundamentalists have named Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin a “benevolent dictator for life” – already has given lie to the claim that “code is law,” as if the software underpinning blockchain applications is immutable. The truth is that the developers have absolute power to act as judge and jury. When something goes wrong in one of their buggy “smart” pseudo-contracts and massive hacking occurs, they simply change the codeand “fork” a failing coin into another one by arbitrary fiat, revealing the entire “trustless” enterprise to have been untrustworthy from the start.

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Humanity is ‘cutting down the tree of life’, warn scientists

Humanity is ‘cutting down the tree of life’, warn scientists
More than 300 mammal species have been eradicated by human activities, say researchers
By Damian Carrington
Oct 15 2018
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/15/humanity-is-cutting-down-the-tree-of-life-warn-scientists

Humanity’s ongoing annihilation of wildlife is cutting down the tree of life, including the branch we are sitting on, according to a stark new analysis.

More than 300 different mammal species have been eradicated by human activities. The new research calculates the total unique evolutionary history that has been lost as a result at a startling 2.5bn years.

Furthermore, even if the destruction of wild areas, poaching and pollution were ended within 50 years and extinction rates fell back to natural levels, it would still take 5-7 million years for the natural world to recover.

Many scientists think a sixth mass extinction of life on Earth has begun, propelled by human destruction of wildlife, and 83% of wild mammals have already gone. The new work puts this in the context of the evolution and extinction of species that occurred for billions of years before modern humans arrived.

“We are doing something that will last millions of years beyond us,” said Matt Davis at Aarhus University in Denmark, who led the new research. “It shows the severity of what we are in right now. We’re entering what could be an extinction on the scale of what killed the dinosaurs.

“That is pretty scary. We are starting to cut down the whole tree [of life], including the branch we are sitting on right now.” Ecosystems around the world have already been significantly affected by the extermination of big animals such as mammoths, he said.

The new research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, did not simply add up the number of lost species, as this fails to capture how unique each species is in evolutionary terms.

Instead, the researchers added up the amount of time each lost species had spent evolving since it emerged, a measure called phylogenetic diversity. There are hundreds of species of shrew, for example, but just two species of elephant. Losing elephants would therefore be like chopping a large branch off the tree of life, said Davis, whereas losing a shrew species would be like trimming off a small twig.

From the rise of modern humans to the year 1500,2bn years of evolutionary history was lost due to mammal extinctions, the researchers calculated. Since 1500, another 500m years has been lost. If the current high rate of extinctions continues for 50 years, a further 1.8bn years of phylogenetic diversity will disappear, the scientists found.

There are still many mammal species left, but all of these would have to evolve for 5-7m years into the future to get back to the level of diversity present before modern humans arrived, the researchers estimated.

Davis said each lost species had its own intrinsic value, but the loss of the most distinct creatures was most damaging: “Typically, if you have something that is off by itself, it does some job that no other species is doing.”

The losses are already affecting ecosystems, he said, particularly the vanishing of “megafauna”. These huge creatures roamed much of Earth until humans arrived and included giant cats, deer, beavers and armadillos.

“We are now living in a world without giants,” said Davis. “So the seeds of big fruit are not dispersed any more because we don’t have mammoths or gomphotheres or giant ground sloths eating those fruits.” Another example, he said, is the widespread loss of wolves. This means smaller predators like coyotes thrive and more birds are killed, radically changing food chains.

Davis said the estimated recovery times for phylogenetic diversity are conservative: “We have no reason to assume we will ever be able to bring extinction rates back down to normal background levels.” The team only looked at mammals, as they are well studied, but extinctions in other animals are just as high.

The new work did allow the researchers to identify highly endangered species with long evolutionary histories, Davis said: “This highlights species we should try to save and could help us prioritise conservation.” The black rhino, the red panda and the indri – a large lemur – are among those highlighted.

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The Pentagon’s Push to Program Soldiers’ Brains

The Pentagon’s Push to Program Soldiers’ Brains
The military wants future super-soldiers to control robots with their thoughts.
By MICHAEL JOSEPH GROSS
Nov 2018 Issue
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/11/the-pentagon-wants-to-weaponize-the-brain-what-could-go-wrong/570841/

I. Who Could Object?

“Tonight I would like to share with you an idea that I am extremely passionate about,” the young man said. His long black hair was swept back like a rock star’s, or a gangster’s. “Think about this,” he continued. “Throughout all human history, the way that we have expressed our intent, the way we have expressed our goals, the way we have expressed our desires, has been limited by our bodies.” When he inhaled, his rib cage expanded and filled out the fabric of his shirt. Gesturing toward his body, he said, “We are born into this world with this. Whatever nature or luck has given us.”

His speech then took a turn: “Now, we’ve had a lot of interesting tools over the years, but fundamentally the way that we work with those tools is through our bodies.” Then a further turn: “Here’s a situation that I know all of you know very well—your frustration with your smartphones, right? This is another tool, right? And we are still communicating with these tools through our bodies.”

And then it made a leap: “I would claim to you that these tools are not so smart. And maybe one of the reasons why they’re not so smart is because they’re not connected to our brains. Maybe if we could hook those devices into our brains, they could have some idea of what our goals are, what our intent is, and what our frustration is.”

So began “Beyond Bionics,” a talk by Justin C. Sanchez, then an associate professor of biomedical engineering and neuroscience at the University of Miami, and a faculty member of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. He was speaking at a tedx conference in Florida in 2012. What lies beyond bionics? Sanchez described his work as trying to “understand the neural code,” which would involve putting “very fine microwire electrodes”—the diameter of a human hair—“into the brain.” When we do that, he said, we would be able to “listen in to the music of the brain” and “listen in to what somebody’s motor intent might be” and get a glimpse of “your goals and your rewards” and then “start to understand how the brain encodes behavior.”

He explained, “With all of this knowledge, what we’re trying to do is build new medical devices, new implantable chips for the body that can be encoded or programmed with all of these different aspects. Now, you may be wondering, what are we going to do with those chips? Well, the first recipients of these kinds of technologies will be the paralyzed. It would make me so happy by the end of my career if I could help get somebody out of their wheelchair.”

Sanchez went on, “The people that we are trying to help should never be imprisoned by their bodies. And today we can design technologies that can help liberate them from that. I’m truly inspired by that. It drives me every day when I wake up and get out of bed. Thank you so much.” He blew a kiss to the audience.

A year later, Justin Sanchez went to work for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s R&D department. At DARPA, he now oversees all research on the healing and enhancement of the human mind and body. And his ambition involves more than helping get disabled people out of their wheelchair—much more.

DARPA has dreamed for decades of merging human beings and machines. Some years ago, when the prospect of mind-controlled weapons became a public-relations liability for the agency, officials resorted to characteristic ingenuity. They recast the stated purpose of their neurotechnology research to focus ostensibly on the narrow goal of healing injury and curing illness. The work wasn’t about weaponry or warfare, agency officials claimed. It was about therapy and health care. Who could object? But even if this claim were true, such changes would have extensive ethical, social, and metaphysical implications. Within decades, neurotechnology could cause social disruption on a scale that would make smartphones and the internet look like gentle ripples on the pond of history.

Most unsettling, neurotechnology confounds age-old answers to this question: What is a human being?

II. High Risk, High Reward

In his 1958 State of the Union address, President Dwight Eisenhower declared that the United States of America “must be forward-looking in our research and development to anticipate the unimagined weapons of the future.” A few weeks later, his administration created the Advanced Research Projects Agency, a bureaucratically independent body that reported to the secretary of defense. This move had been prompted by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite. The agency’s original remit was to hasten America’s entry into space.

During the next few years, arpa’s mission grew to encompass research into “man-computer symbiosis” and a classified program of experiments in mind control that was code-named Project Pandora. There were bizarre efforts that involved trying to move objects at a distance by means of thought alone. In 1972, with an increment of candor, the word Defense was added to the name, and the agency became DARPA. Pursuing its mission, DARPA funded researchers who helped invent technologies that changed the nature of battle (stealth aircraft, drones) and shaped daily life for billions (voice-recognition technology, GPS devices). Its best-known creation is the internet.

The agency’s penchant for what it calls “high-risk, high-reward” research ensured that it would also fund a cavalcade of folly. Project Seesaw, a quintessential Cold War boondoggle, envisioned a “particle-beam weapon” that could be deployed in the event of a Soviet attack. The idea was to set off a series of nuclear explosions beneath the Great Lakes, creating a giant underground chamber. Then the lakes would be drained, in a period of 15 minutes, to generate the electricity needed to set off a particle beam. The beam would accelerate through tunnels hundreds of miles long (also carved out by underground nuclear explosions) in order to muster enough force to shoot up into the atmosphere and knock incoming Soviet missiles out of the sky. During the Vietnam War, DARPA tried to build a Cybernetic Anthropomorphous Machine, a jungle vehicle that officials called a “mechanical elephant.”

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Military Leaders Are Starting To Freak Out Over Russia’s Information Warfare Dominance

Military Leaders Are Starting To Freak Out Over Russia’s Information Warfare Dominance
By PAUL SZOLDRA
Oct 9 2018
https://taskandpurpose.com/russia-information-war/

Russia has become so good at information warfare that American and allied military leaders are (rightfully) starting to freak out about it.

“The Russians are really good at this. Better than us,” UK Army Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney said at the AUSA Conference, according to Defense One. “We saw a very clever, assiduous information campaign aimed at discrediting the campaign of the coalition [in Iraq and Syria]. And I would argue [that] in many of our nation’s capitals, we didn’t realize we were being played.”

As was the case during the 2016 election, Russia is sometimes better at stoking division among ordinary Americans than your uncle at Thanksgiving dinner — through the coordinated use of bot networks, fake social media profiles, and production of misleading or partisan content that gets widely shared.

Moscow has also carried out similar campaigns in Ukraine, Georgia, and elsewhere. Its efforts at influence can shape perceptions, while also having surprising effects on the battlefield.

As Tom Ricks wrote about in his column earlier this year, Russia’s military has carried out some eye-opening operations that combine information ops, cyber, and good old-fashioned targeting.

“The Russians are adept at identifying Ukrainian positions by their electrometric signatures,” Army Col. Liam Collins wrote in the August issue of Army Magazine.

“In one tactic, soldiers receive texts telling them they are ‘surrounded and abandoned.’ Minutes later, their families receive a text stating, ‘Your son is killed in action,’ which often prompts a call or text to the soldiers. Minutes later, soldiers receive another message telling them to ‘retreat and live,’ followed by an artillery strike to the location where a large group of cellphones was detected.”

Meanwhile in Syria, Russian military operations are sometimes being conducted for the sole reason of getting photos or videos that can later be used against their enemies, according to Gedney.

“This is not a battle that can be fought by public affairs writing lines to tape,” Gedney said. “It’s got to be be operationalized down into a genuine multi-domain battle.”

To be fair, the U.S. does carry out its own information and cyber operations. But as Army Cyber Command’s Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone testified earlier this year, most are being done at the tactical level.

Russia spends between $400 million and $500 million per year on foreign information efforts, while the U.S. spends about $20 million, according to a paper published by the Army War College, leaving Washington “far behind.”

It’s a fact that most top leaders realize and can’t really ignore. Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, listed information warfare among just two other capabilities where NATO “urgently” needs to modernize during an interview in January (the others were cyber and missile defense).

Put simply, Russia seems to be playing chess, while the U.S. is trying to figure out how to set up the board to play checkers.

The War College paper recommended a national counter information strategy and center, technological solutions to fight back against fake news, and the pursuit of international partnerships to go after things like Russia’s “troll factories.”

Similarly, retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, while Russia uses its skills to attack the foundations of democracy, the U.S. could respond with its own “tools to attack their foundations of autocracy.”

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Donald Trump’s Absentee Presidency

Donald Trump’s Absentee Presidency
The New York billionaire seems unable to comfort the nation in times of tragedy or celebrate its moments of triumph.
By TODD S. PURDUM
Oct 14 2018
https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/10/trump-doesnt-comfort-or-celebrate-nation-very-well/572914/

It is a poignant paradox of Donald Trump’s ubiquitous presidency—all tweets, all the time—that a leader who prides himself as omnipresent in digital public discourse is so often absent from national life in the hundred human ways in which the country has come to expect its presidents to perform.

Latest case in point: After Hurricane Michael devastated parts of Florida’s Panhandle, Trump played host at the White House to Kanye West, who—in a ten-minute monologue in the Oval Office—dropped the F-bomb and praised Trump’s “Make American Great Again” cap as a hyper-masculine talisman that made him feel “like a guy that could play catch with his son.”

But think about it: Have we ever seen Trump play catch with his own 12-year-old son, Barron? Without question, the president dotes on his children, especially his daughter, Ivanka. But he’s an absentee father to the nation, or at least a majority of the nation. There have been no warm and fuzzy photos of Trump shopping for books or gifts, as Barack Obama and Bill Clinton did with their daughters. No images of him poring over a photo album, as Abraham Lincoln famously did with his son Tad, or tending his stamp collection, as FDR did.  No visible evidence of the easy relaxation with friends and family that has become a standard part of presidential iconography.

And the absence is broader. Trump can’t readily cheer the nation in moments of triumph (championship sports teams boycott his White House). He doesn’t tenderly comfort the nation in times of tragedy (he tosses paper towels to hurricane victims, and does a double fist pump on the anniversary of 9-11). He doesn’t read books, talk movies or go to the theater, and is unwelcome at even the Kennedy Center Honors over which presidents have presided for nearly 40 years. This reality is striking, and sad: When it comes to those personal rituals of the modern presidency that Americans have long since taken for granted, Donald J. Trump is the man who isn’t there.

He plays no games of touch football on the lawn at Mar-a-Lago, a la the Kennedys in Palm Beach or Hyannis Port. No family rounds of speed golf or horseshoes, and no mountain biking, as with the Bushes at Kennebunkport or Crawford. No horseback riding or brush-clearing, as with Ronald and Nancy Reagan in the mountains above Santa Barbara. No snorkeling, as with Obama and his girls at Oahu’s Hanauma Bay. He doesn’t toast his own English muffins like Jerry Ford. No romping with Buddy the dog or Socks the cat, those pet denizens of the Clinton years. Even that loneliest of loners Richard Nixon enjoyed bowling in the White House alley, and liked to hit the beach in wingtips, sometimes with his wife Pat by his side.

No, Trump does none of this. Perhaps the most striking image of him with his family came last winter, when he charged up the steps of Air Force One in a rainstorm in West Palm Beach, an umbrella shielding his own head, with Barron and his wife, Melania, scrambling wet and unprotected behind him to get in the door of the plane. In Israel, in Italy, in Florida and on the White House lawn itself, Melania has repeatedly appeared to pull her own hand away when the president reached out to hold it.

Trump doesn’t eat out in any restaurants except his own. Not for him a plebian trip to Ray’s Hell Burger, the Arlington institution where Barack Obama took Russian president Dmitri Medvedev in 2010 for a burger with cheddar, hot peppers and sautéed onions and mushrooms. Nor a visit to Filomena, the homey Italian kitchen in Georgetown, where Bill Clinton memorably chowed down with Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany. No date nights with Melania at the Bombay Club or the Blue Duck Tavern.

Trump doesn’t offer ready consolation in moments of national tragedy. After Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico, the president tossed paper towels to a crowd and later bragged about his administration’s “incredible unsung success” at relief efforts that were widely criticized as inadequate. Marking the 17th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in Pennsylvania last month, he tweeted about the prowess of his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, on the day of the attacks, and allowed himself a double-fist pump at the Johnstown airport, a gesture that seemed out of keeping with the solemn mood of the occasion.

Trump is just as challenged in celebrating happy occasions.  A White House meeting with the 2018 Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles had to be called off when it became clear that only about ten team members planned to show up. Last year, Trump withdrew an invitation to the NBA’s Golden State Warriors after their star point guard Stephen Curry had expressed reluctance to go. “Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team,” Trump tweeted. “Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!”

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A New Study Shows White Families Getting Four-Fifths of Trump’s Tax Cut

[Note:  This item comes from friend Robert Berger.  DLH]

A New Study Shows White Families Getting Four-Fifths of Trump’s Tax Cut
Experts warn that last year’s tax law will “supercharge” racial disparities.
By HANNAH LEVINTOVA
Oct 13 2018
https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2018/10/trump-tax-cuts-race-racial-impact-disparity/

Under President Donald Trump’s tax cuts, white Americans are the big winners, and the existing wealth gap between them and minority households will continue to grow. That’s the conclusion of a new report released this week on the racial implications of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the bill championed by Trump and passed by congressional Republicans in December 2017.

The report, from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) and the nonprofit Prosperity Now, is the first quantitative analysis of its kind. While a number of previous reports have noted that the vast majority of the $1.5 trillion doled out to taxpayers and businesses by the cuts will go to the wealthiest Americans, this newest study highlights how that dynamic affects minority families. After estimating taxes under the law for white, black, Latino, and Asian households across various income brackets, the authors conclude the law will “supercharge” existing racial disparities in wealth “to an alarming extent.”

“Households of color have less income and have less wealth than white households, in large part due to centuries of systemic racism,” says Meg Wiehe, ITEP’s deputy director and one of the report’s authors. “So inevitably a tax cut that’s so expensive and so tilted to the top is furthering not just income inequality—it’s also furthering racial inequity in income and in wealth.”

The authors found that nearly 80 percent of the $275 billion in tax cuts to individual households will go to white families—even though whites make up just two-thirds of taxpayers. In dollar terms, white families will get about $218 billion in tax cuts, while black households will see about $14 billion and Latinos about $18 billion.

Black and Latino families make up about 22 percent of the US population, but account for nearly 30 percent of America’s poorest families, the authors note. As the benefits of the overall tax cuts skew toward the wealthiest Americans, the cuts end up disproportionately privileging white families.

The average annual tax cut received by white households, $2,020, is more than double the average cuts black and Latino families will receive. Asian families, who have the highest average income of any group, will receive the highest average tax cut, at $2,560. But low-income Asian families will see the least benefit from the 2017 tax cuts, even lower than their black and Latino counterparts: just $70 per household.

The report also shows how even among the very wealthiest households in America—the top 1 percent—white families still do better. Immigrants and people from less affluent backgrounds who become rich are more likely to have fortunes rooted in income from work, but the law further entrenches tax advantages favoring income from investments, and also expands tax exemptions on estates, inheritances, and gifts. “The bill was designed to benefit wealth over work,” Wiehe says.

Just last month, the House voted to approve a package of additional reforms, including an extension of individual tax cuts enshrined in the original 2017 law. While unlikely to pass the Senate, the report’s authors point out that the move shows that Congress, if it so wanted, could rework the cuts to target benefits to lower- and moderate-income families—shrinking the racial wealth divide. The authors suggest expanding estate taxes or reforming breaks tied to homeownership so they better serve lower-income families.

“As Congress continues to discuss enacting more tax cuts,” the authors write, “we should be creating a tax system that is fair and equitable, that provides the most wealth-building support to those who need it most, that reflects true American values and that helps close the racial wealth divide.”

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As America’s Élite Abandons a Reckless Saudi Prince, Will Trump Join Them?

As America’s Élite Abandons a Reckless Saudi Prince, Will Trump Join Them?
By Robin Wright
Oct 14 2018
https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/as-americas-elite-abandons-a-reckless-saudi-prince-will-trump-join-them

Last spring, Jeff Bezos, the Amazon.com founder and the richest man in modern history, hosted the young Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in Seattle. The Saudi press posted photos of Bezos in an open-necked shirt and the prince, having shed his Saudi robes, in a Western suit and dark-red tie. Both men beamed as they talked business and investment opportunities. Bezos was among the prosperous and powerful Americans who met the crown prince during a three-week road show, which took him from Harvard to Hollywood and Houston. Along the way, the crown prince also schmoozed with Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, both former Presidents Bush, former President Bill Clinton, Kobe Bryant, Michael Bloomberg, Morgan Freeman, Henry Kissinger, Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, and Richard Branson, among others. He wooed Google, Apple, Disney, Lockheed, Snapchat, and AMC.

During Prince Mohammed’s stop in Washington, where he brokered billions of dollars in arms deals, President Trump said that Washington’s relationship with the House of Saud was “probably as good as it’s really ever been, and I think will probably only get better.” At each stop, M.B.S., as he’s widely known at home, was heralded as a reformer in one of the world’s most authoritarian states—and possibly even the face of the future Middle East.

The bizarre disappearance of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has abruptly transformed the image of the desert kingdom and its crown prince, who has become its de-facto leader since his appointment, in June, 2017. On Sunday, the Washington Post, which Bezos owns, ran a full-page ad with a picture of the consulate’s front door. “On Tuesday, October 2 at 1:14 p.m. Washington Postcolumnist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Consulate of Saudi Arabia,” it read, at the top. “He has not been seen since. DEMAND ANSWERS,” it said at the bottom.

Khashoggi may have accomplished in his disappearance—and possible death—what he had tried to do for the past year from exile, in Washington: hold the kingdom, and specifically its reckless crown prince, accountable for its misdeeds. The grisly prospect that he was dismembered by a hit squad dispatched from Saudi Arabia, as Turkish officials have reported, has revolted some of those who just months ago competed to fete M.B.S.

“In his early days, the crown prince was gaining a public image, in significant circles of U.S. public opinion, as a radically different leader from the conservative elderly monarchs of Saudi yore,” Paul Salem, the acting president of the Middle East Institute, told me. “But a darker narrative was also gaining ground, based on his arrest of women activists, business leaders, and silencing critics. The Khashoggi affair has solidified the negative narrative in wide cross-sections of U.S. public opinion.”

Trump’s response has been mixed. On CBS’s “60 Minutes” on Sunday, the President pledged “severe punishment” of Saudi Arabia if it is found responsible for Khashoggi’s abduction or death. “There’s something really terrible and disgusting about that, if that was the case, so we’re going to have to see,” he told Lesley Stahl. “It’s being looked at very, very strongly. And we would be very upset and angry if that were the case. As of this moment, they deny it, and they deny it vehemently. Could it be them? Yes.” He vowed that the United States is “going to get to the bottom of it, and there will be severe punishment.” On Saturday, though, Trump said he would not pull out of billions in arms deals with the kingdom. “It’s the best equipment in the world, but, if they don’t buy it from us, they’re going to buy it from Russia or they’re going to buy it from China or they’re going to buy it from other countries,” he said.

Trump has long had close business ties with the Saudis, beginning in the nineteen-nineties. When his real-estate business was in trouble, he sold his yacht and a stake in the Plaza Hotel to a Saudi royal. He also sold Manhattan real estate to Saudi investors and, before becoming President, explored opening a hotel in the port city of Jeddah. Since Trump took office, Saudi Arabia has been the central player in his foreign policy. His first stop on his first foreign tour as President was in its capital city, Riyadh, where he was feted with pomp and ceremony. His son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, has developed particularly close ties with M.B.S. and personally promoted him as a reliable American partner in the region.

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