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U.S. weighs sending 5,000 troops to Eastern Europe to counter Russia

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U.S. weighs sending 5,000 troops to Eastern Europe to counter Russia

Soldiers of Poland, Britain, US and Romania take part in military exercises at the military training ground in Bemowo Piskie, Poland on Nov. 18, 2021.

Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images

Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is considering sending as many as 5,000 U.S. troops to Eastern Europe, a U.S. official confirmed to NPR, in what would be a step-up in American military involvement in the region amid growing fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. troops could be headed to Romania and Poland, or possibly Bulgaria or Hungary. No final decision has been made but the troops have been told to be ready to move, the official said.

U.S. service members could be drawn from their existing posts elsewhere in NATO countries in Europe. Some of the troops would also likely come from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C.

The New York Times, which first reported the news of planned troop movements, said senior Pentagon officials laid out a number of options for President Biden on Saturday.

Among them, sending 1,000 to 5,000 troops to Eastern European countries and the Baltics, “with the potential to increase that number tenfold if things deteriorate,” according to the Times.

There are no plans to send more Americans into Ukraine itself, according to the paper.

The Biden administration has held back on more aggressive actions, for fear of inciting a Russian invasion.

So far, U.S. aid to Ukraine has largely come in the form of military equipment. A Biden administration shipment of aid — close to 200,000 pounds of “lethal aid” including ammunition — arrived in Ukraine on Sunday. In October, the U.S. sent Ukraine 30 Javelin anti-tank guided missile systems.

There are already more than 150 U.S. military advisers in Ukraine, the Times reported, though they are far from any potential front lines and would likely leave the country quickly after a Russian invasion.

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Last week, Biden said he had warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that his country’s invasion of Ukraine would cause Washington to send more troops to the region.

“We’re going to actually increase troop presence in Poland, in Romania, et cetera, if in fact he moves,” Biden said in a news conference, pointing out that the two countries are NATO members.

Ukraine is not a NATO member, and Russia has demanded that it never become one.

Russia has stationed over 100,000 troops near the Ukraine border, threatening an imminent assault on the country. Russia has rejected that it has such plans in store.

While Ukraine boasts mighty military power, Russia’s bigger, more modern army would likely give it the upper hand should the country invade.

The State Department earlier Sunday ordered the departure of diplomats’ families from Ukraine, in a move that officials assured did not signify waning support for the country.

Tom Bowman contributed reporting.

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State Department orders families of embassy staff to leave Ukraine

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State Department orders families of embassy staff to leave Ukraine

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks as he greets embassy staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv on Jan. 19. The State Department is ordering family members of embassy staff to leave.

Alex Brandon/Pool via AFP via Getty Images

Alex Brandon/Pool via AFP via Getty Images

The State Department ordered the family members of staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, to leave the country, as fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine grow.

The department is also allowing the departure of nonessential embassy employees, it said in an updated travel advisory issued on Sunday evening.

Citing a “continued threat of Russian military action,” the State Department said that “U.S. citizens in Ukraine should consider departing now using commercial or other privately available transportation options.”

Russia currently has more than 100,000 troops stationed near the Ukrainian border.

In a briefing call, senior State Department officials did not specify any reasons behind the timing of the new travel advisory, but repeatedly emphasized the Biden administration’s comments last week that a Russian invasion could happen at any moment.

The department would not say how many Americans or embassy staff are in Ukraine.

“There are reports Russia is planning significant military action against Ukraine,” the advisory read. “The security conditions, particularly along Ukraine’s borders, in Russia-occupied Crimea, and in Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine, are unpredictable and can deteriorate with little notice.”

Any Russian military action in Ukraine, the department said, would severely impact the embassy’s ability to assist U.S. citizens in departing the country as well as other consular services.

A senior U.S. official said on Sunday that the U.S. is conducting the drawdown “out of an abundance of caution,” and that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions remain unknown.

U.S. officials say it’s possible that Russia could mount a “false flag” operation to justify an invasion.

The travel advisory comes a day after the U.K. said it had intelligence that Russia was plotting to install a pro-Kremlin leader in Ukraine.

Russia denies it is planning to invade Ukraine.

The news also follows Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday in which they failed to come to a diplomatic agreement on the Ukraine crisis, but left the door open to continue talks.

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Ukraine crisis deepens after U.K. says Russia may try to install a pro-Kremlin leader

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Ukraine crisis deepens after U.K. says Russia may try to install a pro-Kremlin leader

People rallying in patriotic support of Ukraine hold a 500 meter long ribbon in the colors of the Ukrainian flag outside St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery on Unity Day on January 22, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The situation along the Russia-Ukraine border remains tense, as Russia has amassed an estimated 100,000 troops just across the divide while Ukraine’s outnumbered military prepares to defend itself against a possible invasion.

Adding to the turmoil, the British government revealed details on Saturday of what it called an alleged Russian plot to install a pro-Kremlin leader in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

The U.K. Foreign Office said it also had information that Russian intelligence services remained in contact with several former Ukrainian politicians, including an ex-prime minister.

“The information being released today shines a light on the extent of Russian activity designed to subvert Ukraine, and is an insight into Kremlin thinking,” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said in a statement.

“This is very much part of the Russian toolkit,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. “It runs the gamut from a large, conventional incursion or invasion of Ukraine to these kind of destabilizing activities in an attempt to topple the government, and it’s important that people be on notice about that possibility.”

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the allegations “disinformation” and “nonsense” in a tweet on Saturday and said it was another example of Western nations escalating tensions around Ukraine.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former senior intelligence officer, told NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday that it’s fair to question the details of the U.K. report, but that interfering in Ukraine’s government is consistent with what Russia appears to want to accomplish in the region.

“What Russia wants is to have some autonomy in the East that would give Russia a veto over Ukraine’s foreign policy, and they’re looking for a guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO,” Kendall-Taylor said. Doing so would likely require toppling the government of Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky government, she said, “and/or securing a demanding military position that can help Russia extract those demands from Kyiv and the United States and NATO.”

Last week the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned four Ukrainians, including two sitting members of parliament, for engaging in “Russian government-directed influence activities to destabilize Ukraine.”

People are preparing for conflict but hoping for peace

NPR’s Central Europe Correspondent Rob Schmitz reports that the mood in Kyiv is one of “patient resolve,” with restaurants full and children sledding on snow-dusted hills. It’s not that citizens are naive about the possibility of a military incursion, but rather that Ukrainians have said they’ve adjusted to life under the constant threat of Russian aggression.

“We have been living in a state of war for the last seven years going on eight now,” Lesia Vasylenko, a Ukrainian member of parliament, told NPR.

“Physically, psychologically, emotionally, it would be impossible if all of us up to now would be still stressed, would be concerned 24/7 and showing signs of anxiety. You would see a different Ukraine then,” she said.

Russia has said it has no plans to invade Ukraine, but the build-up of Russian troops along the border has prompted the U.S. to provide Ukraine with increased military aid for national defense.

A nearly 200,00-pound shipment of “lethal aid” approved by President Biden, including ammunition for Ukraine’s front-line troops, arrived in the country over the weekend, the U.S. Embassy said.

Blinked said on CNN that the U.S. has given Russia “two paths” through the current crisis. “There’s the path of diplomacy and dialogue,” he said, “but there’s also a path of its renewed aggression and massive consequences that we have been building now for many weeks.”

Pope Francis has called for an international “day of prayer for peace” on Wednesday, urging politicians to find a nonviolent solution to the crisis and expressing concern over the security of Europe.

Meanwhile the head of the German navy has resigned after saying that Ukraine would not be able to regain the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014, and suggesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin deserved “respect,” according to the Associated Press.

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Buckingham Palace removes Prince Andrew’s titles in wake of sexual assault lawsuit

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Buckingham Palace removes Prince Andrew’s titles in wake of sexual assault lawsuit

Sarah McCammon speaks to Sonia Sodha from ‘The Guardian’ about the sexual abuse lawsuit against Prince Andrew and its impact on the institution of Britain’s royal family.

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New Zealand adds new COVID restrictions as omicron spreads

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New Zealand adds new COVID restrictions as omicron spreads

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks about the COVID-19 situation while visiting New Plymouth on Thursday. New Zealand is among the few remaining countries to have avoided any outbreaks of the omicron variant — but Ardern said the nation would tighten restrictions as soon as one was detected.

Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald via AP

Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald via AP

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealanders are set to face new COVID-19 restrictions after nine cases of the omicron variant were detected in a single family that flew to Auckland for a wedding earlier this month, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Sunday.

The so-called “red setting” of the country’s pandemic response includes heightened measures such as required mask wearing and limits on gatherings, and the restrictions will go into effect on Monday.

Ardern stressed that “red is not lockdown,” noting that businesses can remain open and people can still visit family and friends and move freely around the country.

“Our plan for managing omicron cases in the early stage remains the same as delta, where we will rapidly test, contact trace and isolate cases and contacts in order to slow the spread,” Ardern told reporters in Wellington on Sunday.

New Zealand had been among the few remaining countries to have avoided any outbreaks of the omicron variant, but Ardern acknowledged last week that an outbreak was inevitable given the high transmissibility of the variant.

The country has managed to contain the spread of the delta variant, with an average of about 20 new cases each day. But it has seen an increasing number of people arriving into the country and going into mandatory quarantine who are infected with omicron.

That has put strain on the quarantine system and prompted the government to limit access for returning citizens while it decides what to do about reopening its borders, angering many people who want to return to New Zealand.

About 93% of New Zealanders aged 12 and over are fully vaccinated and 52% have had a booster shot. The country has just begun vaccinating children aged between 5 and 11.

The family from the Nelson-Marlborough region attended a wedding and other events while in Auckland, with estimates suggesting they came into contact with “well over 100 people at these events,” Ardern said.

“That means that omicron is now circulating in Auckland and possibly the Nelson-Marlborough region if not elsewhere,” she added.

The move to the red setting also impacts Ardern personally. The prime minister was planning to get married next weekend, but as a result of the new restrictions the celebration will be postponed.

“I just join many other New Zealanders who have had an experience like that as a result of the pandemic and to anyone who’s caught up in that scenario, I am so sorry,” she said.

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Kiribati and Samoa implement rare lockdowns after travelers test positive

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Kiribati and Samoa implement rare lockdowns after travelers test positive

Tarawa atoll, Kiribati, is pictured in 2004. The Pacific island nations of Kiribati and Samoa have announced rare COVID-19 lockdowns after dozens of international travelers tested positive for the virus.

Richard Vogel/AP

Richard Vogel/AP

Kiribati and Samoa both implemented COVID-19 lockdowns on Saturday after international arrivals brought the virus with them, a rarity for the remote Pacific island nations.

This is the first pandemic lockdown in Kiribati, which had previously reported only two COVID-19 cases — both were people on a fishing ship in May 2021 who isolated on board. The country reopened its borders to international travel earlier this month for the first time in nearly two years.

Its government announced on Tuesday that 36 out of 54 passengers on a flight from Fiji had tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival, despite being vaccinated and testing negative three times during the pre-departure quarantine period. They were escorted to a quarantine center for further monitoring and testing. One of the frontline workers stationed outside the quarantine center also tested positive.

On Friday, the government confirmed a new case, this time from someone uninvolved with the quarantine center.

Based on the newest case, “there is now an assumption that COVID-19 is now spreading in the community on South Tarawa and Betio,” the government wrote on Facebook.

South Tarawa is part of Kiribati’s capital and home to about half of its population, or some 63,000 people.

A 24-hour curfew went into effect on Saturday and it’s not clear how long the lockdown will last.

Residents can only leave their homes to access emergency or essential services including hospitals, police departments, grocery stores and banks. Essential providers can only operate during certain hours, public transportation will not run, social gatherings are banned and travel between the outer islands is prohibited.

The government also urged residents to get vaccinated. Only about 53% of adults had received two doses as of late December, according to Radio Kiribati.

In Samoa, officials announced a 48-hour lockdown after 15 out of 73 passengers who arrived on a Wednesday flight from Brisbane, Australia, tested positive.

Samoa had previously confirmed just two COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization. Some 62% of its population is fully vaccinated.

Between Saturday and Monday, all residents except for essential workers are required to stay at home and off the roads. Businesses, schools and restaurants will be closed, travel is prohibited and mass gatherings are banned.

Agafili Tomaimano Shem Leo, the chairman of the National Emergency Operation Center, said that the “day dreaded by authorities for COVID-19 to invade Samoa is here,” according to the government statement.

“Our country is in a national emergency and our security is under siege from COVID-19,” he said, urging members of the public not to be complacent.

The government said that failure to comply with lockdown restrictions could result in a $2,000 fine.

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90 tons of U.S. military aid arrives in Ukraine as border tensions with Russia rise

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90 tons of U.S. military aid arrives in Ukraine as border tensions with Russia rise

Members of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a city park in Kyiv. Tensions remain high between Ukraine and Russia as the United States and its NATO allies have tried to intervene diplomatically.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Continued tensions between Ukraine and Russia have led to the U.S. providing 90 tons of military aid that arrived in Ukraine, as roughly 100,000 Russian troops remain stationed along the border.

The shipment is part of the additional $200 million of “lethal aid” approved by President Biden in late December and includes ammunition for Ukraine’s frontline defenders, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv tweeted. Overall, the U.S. has provided $650 million in defense equipment and services to Ukraine in the last year — the most it has ever given that country, according to the State Department.

“The United States and its allies and partners are standing together to expedite security assistance to Ukraine,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a tweet on Friday. “We are utilizing all available security cooperation tools to help Ukraine bolster its defenses in the face of Russian aggression.”

And it comes after Blinken visited Kyiv and met with his Kremlin counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in Switzerland earlier this week.

“We didn’t expect any major breakthroughs to happen today,” Blinken said at a news conference following his meeting Friday with Lavrov in Geneva. “But I believe we are now on a clear path in terms of understanding each other’s concerns and each other’s positions.”

Russia has continued to insist on a written guarantee that Ukraine won’t join NATO. Blinken said he made the U.S. position clear, which is to “stand firmly with Ukraine in support of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Blinken said that any military action on Russia’s side would “be met with swift, severe, and a united response from the United States and our partners and allies.” Russia has denied any intention of invading.

Biden clarified his message after news conference

In his lengthy news conference Wednesday at the White House, Biden seemed to complicate the message from his own Secretary of State, saying that if Russia committed a “minor incursion” there might be a divide among NATO allies on how to respond to the aggression.

“I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades. And it depends on what it does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do,” Biden said.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy swiftly responded on Twitter saying, “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations.”

On Thursday, Biden clarified his stance saying any invasion would be met with a “severe and coordinated” economic response.

“If any — any — assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion,” Biden said. “Let there be no doubt at all that if [Russian President Vladimir] Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price.”

Blinken reiterated the president’s stance in a tweet Saturday, after a conversation with Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly.

“We remain committed to diplomacy but are ready, in coordination with NATO Allies and partners, to impose severe costs for further Russian aggression,” he said.

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New Yorkers want gun violence to end. A controversial police unit returns to help

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New Yorkers want gun violence to end. A controversial police unit returns to help

New York City Mayor Eric Adams says he is bringing back a controversial police unit to investigate gun violence. The previous unit was disbanded in 2020 after years of complaints over excessive force and racial profiling.

Seth Wenig/AP

Seth Wenig/AP

An 11-month-old girl was struck by a stray bullet that hit the parked car she was in on a street in the Bronx Wednesday. Last night, two police officers were shot, one fatally, as they checked out a domestic dispute call in Harlem. The suspected gunman also was killed.

These cases, and those of hundreds of others over the past year, have frustrated residents and police alike. They want the gun violence to stop.

New York City mayor and former cop, Eric Adams, has vowed to put an end to it. Among his strategies: reinstating the controversial plainclothes police unit. It’s special anti-crime street unit with officers dressed as civilians.

“The plainclothes anti-gun unit is going to zero in on guns and gangs. We’re going to use precision policing to identify the gang members, the crews,” he said. “We’re going to target them.”

For many New Yorkers, this is a welcome response to the shootings which, feel out of control.

But plainclothes police are also a sensitive subject here. The unit was dismantled in 2020, after its tactics being declared unconstitutional. Residents and civil rights advocates had complained for years that the unit used excessive force and that it targeted people of color who it found “suspicious.”

“The anti-crime unit was primarily tasked with doing these stops. And they would do them violently,” says Jenn Borchetta, a managing director at the legal non-profit Bronx Defenders. “They would throw people against walls. I mean, we have one client who is 13 years old who was thrown against the hood of a car. Just for crossing the street.”

The peak of the “stop-and-frisk” era, as it was known, was 2011. NYPD stopped over 680,000 people. Only 9% of them were white. The vast majority, an estimated 88%, hadn’t committed any crimes.

Not just civilians and advocates felt “stop-and-frisk” was problematic

For many communities, it created a sense of living in constant danger, Borchetta says. “It was Black and brown people who every time they left their homes, they felt they were going to get jumped.”

NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk was later ruled unconstitutional.

It wasn’t just civilians and advocates who felt it was a problematic practice.

“I think most patrol officers who worked then, if they’re going to be honest, they’re going to say, they felt that pressure,” says Professor Keith Ross, at John Jay college. Ross is a former NYPD plainclothes officer.

“I think in the early inception of these programs, police did feel empowered because they felt like they were making a difference in the communities that they worked with,” he says. “But eventually, well, you don’t really feel like you’re helping people.”

Ross blames an excessive emphasis on productivity, on constantly making arrests. “You have productivity goals,” he recalls “and if you don’t meet those goals, eventually you’re going to be disciplined.” Which, he says, led to people who shouldn’t have been targeted, suddenly getting picked up for misdemeanors.

One big question about these policies is: Did they work?

According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, or NYCLU, of the nearly 700,000 NYPD stops in 2011, 780 guns were seized.

A study by NYU and Columbia found there was a small reduction in crime.

That leads to another question: What was the cost?

Amadou Diallo’s murder became symbolic of the NYPD plainclothes excesses.

Courtesy of the Diallo Family.

Courtesy of the Diallo Family.

Several high-profile killings in NYC over the years involved plainclothes police

Many point to the case of Amadou Diallo.

Diallo was a 23-year-old Guinean immigrant living in the U.S. In 1999, he was stopped by plainclothes police. They said he fit the description of a rapist in the area.

Officers fired 41 shots. He was shot 19 times and killed.

Officers said he was reaching for a gun.

He was reaching for his wallet. He didn’t have a gun.

All officers involved in the shooting were later acquitted at trial.

The Diallo case resonated with many in New York who wanted the unit shut down. But there would be other high profile killings over the years involving plainclothes police: Eric Garner, Sean Bell, and Saheed Vassell.

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: Kadiadou Diallo, the mother of Amadou Diallo.

Henny Ray Abrams/AFP via Getty Images

Henny Ray Abrams/AFP via Getty Images

Shawn Williams stands next to a picture of his son, Antonio. He was shot at 15 times and killed by plainclothes officers in the Bronx in 2019

Jasmine Garsd/NPR/Jasmine Garsd/NPR

Jasmine Garsd/NPR/Jasmine Garsd/NPR

“Bringing back the plainclothes unit is wrong”

In 2020, the unit was disbanded, amidst widespread protests locally and nationally over police brutality.

Kadiatou Diallo, Amadou’s mother, says bringing the unit back now, is wrong. She’s skeptical the force can change.

“You cannot just change, rebrand, and retrain people who have been doing something not good,” she says.

She wants the mayor “to be a son, to be a father, to understand” the grief of families who have lost loved ones to gun violence and to encounters with police.

The mayor, Adams, says he is thinking, precisely, of those families. And he’s emphasized that when he was in the NYPD, he spoke out against police brutality.

NYC mayor says the plainclothes police unit will work differently this time around

His administration has not yet given specifics about how officers in the unit will work, but he’s promised that this time around it will be a different.

They will wear body cameras.

They will focus on criminals.

There will be consequences for police who overstep.

Accountability is something Shawn Williams is eager to see. In 2019, his son, Antonio Williams, was shot and killed by plainclothes officers. He was waiting for a taxi when police approached him. They were investigating illegal guns in the area. He ran, and police say during the struggle he was shot eight times. A plainclothes policeman also was killed during the arrest, shot by another officer.

Williams was 27. He was armed but police say he did not shoot his weapon. He had prior convictions, one in 2011 and another in 2018, both for nonviolent offenses. His family has accused police of releasing the information to distract from their own behavior.

Shawn William says in order for there to be any sense of trust in the police, “They need to start holding cops accountable for their actions. Not a smack on the wrist, not ‘you’re on suspension, you still get your salary.’ ”

It’s been more than two years since his son was killed. The Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the agency that investigates and mediates complaints against the NYPD, opened an investigation just a few months ago.

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Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and peace activist, dies at 95

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Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and peace activist, dies at 95

Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh arrives for a great chanting ceremony at Vinh Nghiem Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City in 2007. Nhat Hanh, who helped pioneer the concept of mindfulness in the West, died at age 95 on Saturday.

AP file photo

AP file photo

HANOI, Vietnam — Thich Nhat Hanh, the revered Zen Buddhist monk who helped pioneer the concept of mindfulness in the West and socially engaged Buddhism in the East, has died. He was 95.

A post on the monk’s verified Twitter page attributed to The International Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism said that Nhat Hanh, known as Thay to his followers, died at Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, Vietnam.

The International Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism announces that our beloved teacher Thich Nhat Hanh passed away peacefully at Từ Hiếu Temple in Huế, Vietnam, at 00:00hrs on 22nd January, 2022, at the age of 95. #thichnhathanh #Buddhism

— Thich Nhat Hanh (@thichnhathanh) January 21, 2022

“We invite our beloved global spiritual family to take a few moments to be still, to come back to our mindful breathing, as we together hold Thay in our hearts,” a follow-up post read.

Born as Nguyen Xuan Bao in 1926 and ordained at age 16, Nhat Hanh distilled Buddhist teachings on compassion and suffering into easily grasped guidance over a lifetime dedicated to working for peace. In 1961 he went to the United States to study, teaching comparative religion for a time at Princeton and Columbia universities.

For most of the remainder of his life, he lived in exile at Plum Village, a retreat center he founded in southern France.

There and in talks and retreats around the world, he introduced Zen Buddhism, at its essence, as peace through compassionate listening. Still and steadfast in his brown robes, he exuded an air of watchful, amused calm, sometimes sharing a stage with the somewhat livelier Tibetan Buddhist leader Dalai Lama.

“The peace we seek cannot be our personal possession. We need to find an inner peace which makes it possible for us to become one with those who suffer, and to do something to help our brothers and sisters, which is to say, ourselves,” Nhat Hanh wrote in one of his dozens of books, “The Sun My Heart.”

Surviving a stroke in 2014 that left him unable to speak, he returned to Vietnam in October 2018, spending his final years at the Tu Hieu Pagoda, the monastery where he was ordained nearly 80 years earlier.

Nhat Hanh plunged into anti-war activism after his return to his homeland in 1964 as the Vietnam War was escalating. There, he founded the Order of Inter-being, which espouses “engaged Buddhism” dedicated to nonviolence, mindfulness and social service.

In 1966, he met the U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in what was a remarkable encounter for both. Nhat Hanh told King he was a “Bodhisattva,” or enlightened being, for his efforts to promote social justice.

The monk’s efforts to promote reconciliation between the U.S.-backed South and communist North Vietnam so impressed King that a year later he nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize.

We celebrate the life and global, humane influence of #ThichNhatHanh, an ally of Dr. King’s, who died Saturday.

Here’s a photo of the two at a news conference in Chicago in 1966. #MLK nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for a Nobel Peace Prize the next year.

📸: Edward Kitch/AP pic.twitter.com/CJTJ7zHKv2

— The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center (@TheKingCenter) January 21, 2022

In his exchanges with King, Nhat Hanh explained one of the rare controversies in his long life of advocating for peace — over the immolations of some Vietnamese monks and nuns to protest the war.

“I said this was not suicide, because in a difficult situation like Vietnam, to make your voice heard is difficult. So sometimes we have to burn ourselves alive in order for our voice to be heard so that is an act of compassion that you do that, the act of love and not of despair,” he said in an interview with U.S. talk show host Oprah Winfrey. “Jesus Christ died in the same spirit.”

Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai academic who embraced Nhat Hanh’s idea of socially engaged Buddhism, said the Zen master had “suffered more than most monks and had been involved more for social justice.”

“In Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s, he was very exposed to young people, and his society was in turmoil, in crisis. He was really in a difficult position, between the devil and the deep blue sea — the Communists on the one hand, the CIA on the other hand. In such a situation, he has been very honest — as an activist, as a contemplative monk, as a poet, and as a clear writer,” Sivaraksa was quoted as saying.

According to Nhat Hanh, “Buddhism means to be awake — mindful of what is happening in one’s body, feelings, mind and in the world. If you are awake, you cannot do otherwise than act compassionately to help relieve suffering you see around you. So Buddhism must be engaged in the world. If it is not engaged, it is not Buddhism.”

Both North and South Vietnam barred Nhat Hanh from returning home after he went abroad in 1966 to campaign against the war, leaving him, he said, “like a bee without a beehive.”

He was only allowed back into the country in 2005, when the communist-ruled government welcomed him back in the first of several visits. Nhat Hanh remained based in southern France.

The dramatic homecoming seemed to signal an easing of controls on religion. Nhat Hanh’s followers were invited by the abbot of Bat Nha to settle at his mountain monastery, where they remained for several years until relations with the authorities began to sour over Nhat Hanh’s calls for an end to government control over religion.

By late 2009 to early 2010, Nhat Hanh’s followers were evicted from the monastery and from another temple where they had taken refuge.

Over nearly eight decades, Nhat Hanh’s teachings were refined into concepts accessible to all.

To weather the storms of life and realize happiness, he counseled always a mindful “return to the breath,” even while doing routine chores like sweeping and washing dishes.

“I try to live every moment like that, relaxed, dwelling peacefully in the present moment and respond to events with compassion,” he told Winfrey.

Nhat Hanh moved to Thailand in late 2016 and then returned to Vietnam in late 2018, where he was receiving traditional medicine treatments for the after-effects of his stroke and enjoyed “strolls” around the temple grounds in his wheelchair, according to the Buddhist online newsletter LionsRoar.com.

It was a quiet, simple end to an extraordinary life, one entirely in keeping with his love for taking joy from the humblest aspects of life. “No mud, no lotus,” says one of his many brief sayings.

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Attorney General pledges comprehensive response to violent crime

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Attorney General pledges comprehensive response to violent crime

People walk past the Sol Tribe tattoo shop where two women were shot and killed and a man injured on Dec. 27 in Denver, Colo. It was the first in a series of shootings that claimed five lives across the area.

Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday said the federal government wants to create a “comprehensive” response to the scourge of gun crime that involves working more with cities and states.

“At the Justice Department, we stand shoulder to shoulder with you in the fight against violent crime and we will use every tool at our disposal to protect our communities,” Garland said in remarks to the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington on Friday.

The number of murders in the U.S. jumped by nearly 30% in 2020 from 2019, according to the FBI, the largest single-year increase ever recorded.

The Council on Criminal Justice think tank reported earlier this month that murders rose 7% last year, based on police data from large cities, with Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Portland and at least 10 other municipalities still seeing record numbers of homicides.

Looking beyond officers on the street

State and local police are on the front lines in the battle against gun violence, homicide and assault, and Quinton Lucas, mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, said that communities need a variety of help from the federal government.

“The challenge of the last few years is that too much of the debate has been either-or,” said Lucas, who chairs the mayors conference’s Criminal and Social Justice Committee. “It is either law enforcement — police officers on the street and funding them — or you invest in programs in your community, violence interruption, cure violence models, etc.”

Kansas City saw 182 homicides in 2021, the second deadliest year in its history. Lucas said the Justice Department under former President Donald Trump flooded many cities with federal agents. Now Lucas wants another kind of flood.

“Resources that help us fund more of our social work programs, particularly our work with young people, that’s the sort of change we need from this administration,” he said. “And I think mayors are waiting to see when that will happen because, Lord knows, the problem isn’t easing up in any of our cities.”

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas addresses demonstrators with a bullhorn during a protest at the Country Club Plaza on May 31, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Justice Department under President Joe Biden has already launched five strike forces to disrupt illegal firearms traffic and share intelligence. Garland also has been using executive action: proposing new rules to curb the spread of ghost guns that lack serial numbers to and promote the safe storage of firearms so those weapons stay out of the wrong hands.

Last year the Justice Department handed out $139 million to spur the hiring of more cops on the street. But the Attorney General said on Friday that the department also wants to invest in social workers, community violence interrupters, and programs to help people with mental illness.

There’s a need for more enforcement of laws already on the books, and a new leader for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said Kris Brown, president of Brady United Against Gun Violence. The Biden administration’s first choice for that job, David Chipman, withdrew his candidacy last September after opposition in the Senate and among gun rights groups.

The parents of Valentina Orellana-Peralta, the 14-year-old girl killed by a stray bullet fired by an LAPD officer at a North Hollywood clothing store last week, and their attorneys held a news conference Dec. 28, 2021.

Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP

Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP

The ATF inspects only a small fraction of gun stores each year and less than one percent of federally licensed gun dealers have their licenses revoked even after serious infractions, Brown said. Her group had to sue for access to information about which gun dealers are responsible for many firearms used in crimes.

“We need this administration to put a director forward who understands the agency and make it work exactly the way it should,” Brown said.

The new threat: aggression toward election officials

The Justice Department is grappling with multiple challenges, including some 850 reports of threats to officials overseeing elections in states across the country.

On Friday, federal prosecutors brought their first criminal case against a Texas man who threatened officials in Georgia.

Chad Stark, 54, allegedly wrote it was time to “put a bullet” in one election official and pay a visit to another election worker and her family. The indictment cited a post to Craigslist dated Jan. 5, 2021, in which Stark said, “we will find you oathbreakers and we’re going to pay your family to visit your mom your dad your brothers and sisters your children your wife… we’re going to make examples of traitors to our country… death to you and all you communist friends.”

“Today’s charges are a milestone for the election threats task force I announced just last summer,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, in an exclusive interview with NPR. “It wasn’t just that we had seen a surge in threats but also frankly the alarmingly personal and violent and aggressive nature of the threats.”

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco speaks during a news conference with other federal law enforcement officials at the Robert F. Kennedy Main Justice Building on Nov. 08, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Monaco said election workers are protecting democracy–and the Justice Department will protect them.

“Today’s charges are the first but they will not be the last,” Monaco said.

Justice Department officials said there are dozens of open investigations into election threats.

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