Saturday, the 8th of August

Talking Points

Mourners laid wreaths at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park . PHOTO: Getty
  1. Japan marked 75 years since the US atomic blast killed 140,000
  2. Sri Lanka's Rajapaksa's celebrated a landslide election victory
  3. Hong Kong reeled at the suggestion of mainland virus testers
  4. The Philippines plunged into recession amid the virus threat
  5. Manhattan's District Attorney pursued Trump for insurance fraud
  6. Deutsche Bank handed investigators Trump's financial records
  7. Anti-trust regulators probed Google's purchase of Fitbit
  8. ISIS freed hundreds of prisoners in a Jalalabad attack
  9. The global coronavirus toll crossed 700,000
  10. A report found the climate change death toll will outstrip all viruses

Deep Dive

Devastation in Beirut. PHOTO: AFP

A terrible industrial accident has befallen Beirut. Well over one hundred lives have been lost and several thousand more were wounded. The city lies in disarray. Who is to blame?

A catastrophic blast

The footage is other-worldly: thick smoke belching from warehouses by the Mediterranean, the orange crackle of smaller explosions, and finally a colossal blast. From the vantage points of apartment balconies, nearby freeways, and even aboard a jet ski off the coast, Lebanese onlookers captured light and fury as 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated, sending a supersonic blast wave blossoming outwards in every direction. That over-pressurised wall of air levelled nearly everything it touched within several hundred metres of the blast site. It rocked buildings kilometres away like an earthquake, and shattered windows 10km afield. Much of the city centre was left in ruins as a mushroom cloud rose like a spectre above the capital.

Explosions of this intensity are rarely seen outside of war , so intense that they are indeed rarely seen inside of wars either. Those closest to the source of the blast, a team of 10 firefighters sent to douse the warehouse fire, were near enough vaporised. The ferocity of the blast transformed the warehouse and everything around it into millions of tiny fragments that flew outwards faster than the speed of sound. The attendant blast wave of white air followed the rules of fluid dynamics, filling and rupturing every space it touches, which in the human bodies are the lungs, eyes, and ears. At time of writing there have been 145 confirmed deaths (though this number is certain to climb) and a further 5,000 injuries. Shockingly, at least 250,000 have been made homeless.

What could've caused such devastation? An errant missile from one of the Israeli drones that ominously circle the Lebanese capital? A Hezbollah truck bomb? Could it be linked to the UN-backed investigation into the killing of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in an enormous 2005 truck bombing – which was due to reveal its findings on Friday? No. In a city where bombed-out towers stand as a continual reminder of past violence, the source was a much more contemporary threat to Lebanon: incompetence and negligence .

A shattered grain elevator

The story has come together extraordinarily quickly: a Russian-owned vessel the Rhosus (sailing under a Moldovan flag) stopped in Beirut while carrying a load of ammonium nitrate from Georgia to Mozambique. Port officials found the ship to be unseaworthy and the owner was unable to pay port fees. The crew were stranded aboard the Rhosus for months before being allowed to return home – their cargo taken ashore for safekeeping . There it sat for years, thousands of tons of material that can be used for either fertiliser or explosives (see: Timothy McVeigh), bulging out of mouldering sacks. Port authorities have been quick to produce multiple requests that were submitted to Beirut judges for permission to either sell the ammonium nitrate, or donate it to the Lebanese Army, or to a local explosives manufacturer. But no permission was forthcoming, and the paper trail shows this damning written plea from 2016:

"In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it..."

Naturally, Lebanon's leaders have leapt into action with fingers pointing in all directions. 16 people have been arrested so far and President Michael Aoun has promised "the harshest punishment" for those found responsible. But the people of Beirut are already on the streets , filling similar scenes to those that have plagued the country for four years. Shock calcified into anger within a day of the blast. And if you ask those currently protesting who is really to blame , the uniform answer is Lebanon's political class. The grain elevator will explain why.

Rising above the flattened port is the country's major grain elevator . Standing, yes, but with its precious contents spilling out of shattered silos. 85% of the country's grain supply destroyed in a split second. You don't need to be a mezze aficionado to know how central khubz (flatbread) is to the national diet. Lebanon produces next to nothing for export and is forced to rely on imports for most items, including foodstuffs. The huge trade deficit and sky-high levels of government debt ought to have precipitated a currency flight and collapsed the value of the Lebanese pound (which is pegged to the US dollar). But for decades they didn't - because Lebanese banks continued to lend to the government at enviable interest rates , and the diaspora continued to contribute a hefty remittance.

As it happens, a venn diagram of Lebanon's political class and its banking class traces a perfect circle. Those within it have done very well for themselves out of this arrangement. But in 2016, when remittances slowed, the house of cards collapsed. The central bank came up with an extremely questionable series of lending agreements that critics argued amounted to a Ponzi scheme. Capital began flowing out of the country and every day Lebanese were left unable to access US dollars and stuck with increasingly undervalued pounds. The economic crisis struck hard, and widening protests against the government eventually ejected Prime Minister Saad Hariri from power. But Lebanon's rulers today are left with a blasted capital, a cratered economy, an incensed population, an immediate food shortage , and, don't forget, a pandemic.


Lord Ram returns to Ayodhya. PHOTO: AP

Victory and defeat in Modi's India

This week Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took part in an internationally-broadcast bhoomi pujan (groundbreaking ceremony) at the site of the future Ram temple at Ayodhya . The premier was flanked by the firebrand Yogi Adityanath of Uttar Pradesh and Moghan Bhagwat, the leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The presence of the the latter, chief of a national volunteer paramilitary force of Hindu nationalists, marks a turning point for Indian politics. With the imprimatur and endorsement of Modi (whose party draws heavily from the ranks of the RSS), the return to Ayodhya signals the completion of a decades-long project.

In 1992 the 150,000 members of the RSS and its affiliates marched on Ayodhya to raze the Mughal-era Babri Masjid which they believe had been built on top of the birthplace of the Hindu Lord Ram. Some 2,000 people – mostly muslims – were killed in the ensuing riots. Through the interceding years the RSS has moved from a radical fringe group to the national centre, and it is impossible to see the celebration of this week's temple groundbreaking without the attendant message of a Hindutva vision for India. Modi himself called the groundbreaking the 'dawn of a new era'.

Coincidentally, the new era started on the same day that Kashmiris marked the first anniversary since their autonomy was stripped from them. A year of imprisoned leaders, internet and movement restrictions, curfews, warrantless arrests, and even extrajudicial killings. In anticipation of unrest, the Indian security forces had ratcheted up their presence on the streets and shut off phone and internet connections to prevent even the suggestion of dissent .

The RSS and Modi's new era does not bode well for India's 200m muslims.

Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia in 2007. PHOTO: AFP

The House of Borbòn scotched

Juan Carlos and his family have had a chequered relationship with the Spanish people . Having done their best to crush the First Spanish Republic, the House of Borbón-Anjou were shown the same treatment in 1931 when a popular revolt instituted the Second Spanish Republic. They kept their distance for some years before hitching their wagon to Francisco Franco and his band of Catholic fascists. Juan Carlos himself was waiting to assume the title of king when Franco finally dropped off the perch in 1975. Thankfully, he had learned some of the lessons of the 1930's and helped steer Spain towards democracy. This earned him the prestige of a great leader, and he was thus lionised by the establishment and press alike.

And all that goodwill acted as a shield against the public secret of his multiple lovers and inexplicably luxurious lifestyle. In fact, the political establishment worked assiduously to keep a buffer between their wayward monarch and his people. Yes, Juan Carlos managed to enjoy himself greatly, although a particularly ill-advised elephant hunting trip in 2012 went a long way to sealing his abdication. But since then, with the help of some Swiss bankers, many have begun asking Juan Carlos about a certain $100m bribe he received from Saudi Arabia's own monarch. Those questions in recent years have grown into investigations, and this week Juan Carlos did as any monarch would do when asked for accountability: he pulled a runner , leaving his son King Felipe to pick up the pieces.

The Best of Times

A local man showing off a rhododendron. PHOTO: William J Baker / RBG Kew

Natural wealth beyond imagination

99 botanists around the world have been trawling through plant samples from New Guinea in the first major attempt to catalogue local species. They've counted 13,500 species – nearly two thirds of them endemic – meaning the Oceanic state is home to the greatest plant diversity on the planet. And the work has not stopped there; much of New Guinea (home to the Indonesia state of West Papua and the independent Papua New Guinea) has yet to be fully explored. It's believed another 4,000 plant species are awaiting discovery on this ecologically rich island.

When the trail goes cold...

Follow the guano .

The Worst of Times

Vorayuth's Ferrari. PHOTO: The Telegraph

Red Bull gives you impunity

In 2012 an heir to the Yoovidhya $13b Red Bull fortune was involved in a deadly accident in one of Bangkok's upmarket neighbourhoods. Vorayuth 'Boss' Yoovidhya hit a police officer on his motorbike and dragged him 100m down the road to his death. He fled the scene though police quickly tracked down the smashed Ferrari and discovered its owner at home with a substantial blood-alcohol reading and traces of cocaine in his system. The playboy billionaire was quickly charged, though the case dragged to a halt in the courts, and has since become a painful reminder of the impunity of Thailand's richest families. Vorayuth fled the country in 2017, though Thais remain committed to seeing some semblance of justice – this week they forced the authorities to reopen a previously shelved investigation.

My way or the Huawei

One of the most important threads in the news concerns the relationship between states and technology giants. Given that life is increasingly lived online, questions of power and influence are hardly second-order. In the space of just over a week Donald Trump has delivered an ultimatum to TikTok (sell up or shut down) and then try to shake down the potential buyer (Microsoft) for a finder's fee. He's also wiped 10% off Tencent's share price by talking up a ban on WeChat. It's a move that Trump's former business partner and head of the Genovese crime family, "Fat Tony" Salerno, would've approved of.

Weekend Reading

The image

It works! Three Micronesians travelling between islands were blown off course and drifted 190km in the Pacific this week. Their three-day ordeal came to an end when an Australian army helicopter searching for them spotted their large SOS on an uninhabited island. Photograph supplied by the Australian Defence Force.

The quote

"This is a clear signal that Powder River Basin coal production isn't coming back and the multi-year decline that was prevalent before the pandemic will continue long after the virus is gone. It's time for Wyoming leaders to think about what comes next for our communities, coal miners, and our revenue streams."

Shannon Anderson of the Powder River Basin Resource Council – which takes in the colossal but struggling North Antelope Rochelle Mine – sounds a warning from the heart of coal country.

The numbers

$66 billion

- A significant chunk of Argentina's "impossible" national debt has been restructured under a much-needed agreement with creditors. The Latin American nation has been in recession for two years and defaulted on several missed payments. It is a step out of the mire that toppled president Mauricio Macri last year.

48 minutes

- A global study of more than three million employees found their pandemic work days have actually increased in length by nearly an hour . The average number of meetings has gone up, as have the number of emails sent. If you find yourself as one of those who is working an extra four hours a week please make sure you are paid for it.

The headline

"Americans are planting mystery seeds the government has warned against" The Guardian . Are there folk tales out there about planting mysterious seeds of unknown provenance? Does it end well?

The special mention

Vale, John Hume. A towering figure of Northern Irish peace process who showed that reconciliation without the buy-in of all belligerents is no reconciliation at all. You ought to read this powerful tribute to him.

A few choice long-reads

Tom Wharton