TIME Viewpoint

Lessons from the Pistorius Trial on Race, Guns and Class

South African Paralympian athlete Oscar Pistorius leaves the High Court in Pretoria on Sept. 12, 2014 after the verdict in his murder trial where he was found guilty of culpable homicide.
South African Paralympian athlete Oscar Pistorius leaves the High Court after the verdict in his murder trial where he was found guilty of culpable homicide in Pretoria, South Africa on Sept. 12, 2014. Gianluigi Guercia—AFP/Getty Images

The South African athlete escaped the worst possible outcome at his murder trial. But we're only beginning to grapple with the ramifications

Audiences have been gripped by the story of the South African sporting champion Oscar Pistorius, who was accused of shooting and killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day last year. In March, South Africa devoted a TV channel that allows 24-hour viewing of the trial, which dominated global headlines and Twitter feeds again this week as the verdict was announced. Pistorius was found not guilty of premeditated murder, the more serious charge, but was found guilty of culpable homicide—the equivalent of manslaughter. His sentence remains to be decided.

But what should we take away from the Pistorius case?

It’s clear that the media attention given to the trial is largely due to Pistorius’s iconic status as an international athlete. A double-amputee who went on to compete in the Paralympics and Olympics using prosthetic legs, Pistorius brought glory to South Africa in the 2012 London Games and inspired many with his motto: “You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have.”

But coverage of the trial has also been so extensive because the case has required us to probe deeper in order to understand the environment in which the crime took place. Pistorius’s defense was predicated on the argument that his response—shooting four times through a locked door at someone he believed to be an intruder—was a reasonable one. If Pistorius didn’t live in a nation with extraordinary high rates of violent crime, under a government tarred by corruption, his defense that he believed himself to be in danger would have been easier to dismiss. But in her verdict the South African Judge Thokozile Masipa reminded the world that her country’s endemic problems with violence does not excuse Pistorius. “Many people in this country have been victims of violent crime,” she said, “but they haven’t resorted to sleeping with guns under pillows.”

It’s no surprise that a great deal of the commentary has focused on what the trial can tell us about contemporary race relations and violent crime in a nation that abolished apartheid just 20 years ago. Despite the fact that whites make up only 8% of South Africa’s population, the majority of witnesses in the trial belonged to the same white, wealthy Afrikaner circle as Pistorius and Steenkamp, many of whom also lived in the couple’s elite high-security complex. The racial composition of the 37 witnesses shed lights on the kind of unofficial segregation and social inequality that still persists in South Africa today, where the average income of a white household is still six times higher than that of a black one.
It appears that the post-apartheid “rainbow nation” spoken of with such hope by Archbishop Desmond Tutu is still a ways off. Indeed, some commentators think the only reason the case has caught the world’s attention is because it is about a wealthy, successful white man and a beautiful, glamorous white woman. Yet others have seen the trial as an indication of the progress made in South African society—progress that has enabled Judge Masipa, a black woman who grew up poor in the Soweto township, to now determine the fate of a white man. And some have said the more pressing question is the problem of violence against women, an issue that cuts across national, racial and social borders.

However, there is a danger in taking what may be a deeply individual tragedy and viewing it as a reflection of an entire society. The fact that Pistorius is wealthy does not mean all white Afrikaners are, nor does the fact that Judge Masipa is black indicate that the legal profession in South Africa has achieved racial parity. We should try not to think of the trial as a mirror on South African society but rather as a window into a certain section of it, a window that has encouraged many of us to learn more about the country’s unique judicial system and broader social structure.

We all want to believe that the steps taken towards equality have led to unequivocal success. While great strides have been made, we must remember that a country can have black presidents and black judges and still struggle with lingering racism and segregation. We must ensure that as the trial draws to an end, we won’t be closing the door on the difficult conversations that need to be had about the way in which race, gender, wealth and power intersect—in South Africa, and far beyond.

TIME Viewpoint

Showdown in Hong Kong

Hong Kong protesters rally outside government offices after Beijing’s Aug. 31 announcement of its election scheme for the territory
Hong Kong protesters rally outside government offices after Beijing’s Aug. 31 announcement of its election scheme for the territory Lam Yik Fei—Getty Images

Beijing must realize that the territory’s openness is what gives it real value to China

When China took Hong Kong back from Britain in 1997, the leaders in Beijing labeled their reclaimed possession an “economic city.” They weren’t just referring to Hong Kong’s high-octane penchant and talent for making and spending money. They meant, too, that Hong Kong’s citizens should concentrate quietly on their livelihoods. Yet today, Hong Kong, a financial hub and largely open society, is one of the most politicized and polarized places in China. Despite its business-as-usual veneer, the territory is tense, fragmented and unsure.

Beijing is, above all, responsible for this transformation. The latest trigger: the Chinese leadership’s Aug. 31 ruling on the next election, set for 2017, of Hong Kong’s head of government, who is called the chief executive (CE). While the CE would for the first time be chosen by the voting public instead of the current narrow 1,200-member election committee, Beijing set suffocating conditions for the ballot. A likely facsimile of the committee—dominated by the conservative, pro-China establishment—would vet candidates beforehand. Nominees would need at least 50% of the group’s support to make the cut. And only three candidates at most would be allowed to run.

Backers of the scheme say it heralds progress and represents a historic step for Hong Kong as well as China. Critics say it’s a sham designed to exclude anyone in Beijing’s bad books.

Because Hong Kong is wired into the global economy, what happens to it matters to the rest of the world. The CE is essentially just a big-city mayor, but how he or she is chosen frames how free Hong Kong remains within China. In theory, the territory has a special “one country, two systems” status under which it exercises a fair bit of autonomy and retains its liberties and way of life. In practice, Beijing is applying ever greater pressure on Hong Kong’s officials, businesspeople, journalists, educators and even judges to show loyalty to China.

The CE decree is the most overt sign of the mainland’s interference. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp—a varied assemblage of politicians, students, academics, barristers, activists and opportunists—has reacted with anger and dismay. More street protests are likely. One group vows to hold mass sit-ins downtown. Anti-Beijing lawmakers say they won’t support the election plan. If it fails to pass—it needs a two-thirds majority in the territory’s legislature—a political impasse could result, and Hong Kong would face a crisis of governance. Even if the election took place as dictated by Beijing, turnout could be low, rendering the process meaningless and the winner functionally illegitimate.

Freedom vs. authoritarianism is a righteous battle anywhere, but Hong Kong’s is not a straight fight. Though the territory has been a part of China for already 17 years, mentally, the two exist in parallel universes. Values, culture, behavior, language—they all diverge. Many young mainlanders admire Hong Kong’s spirit, and many older Hong Kong citizens take pride in China’s new might.

But, broadly, neither side is comfortable with the other. China sees Hong Kong as spoiled and ungrateful despite its privileges denied to the rest of the nation. Hong Kong regards China as overbearing and uncouth. A recent survey by the University of Hong Kong shows less than 20% of local respondents identifying themselves as “Chinese.” Hong Kong’s antipathy toward China goes beyond the political—it’s existential.

To China’s leaders, what’s different about Hong Kong is what makes it dangerous. Some local activists have called for the end to Communist Party rule of the mainland, making them, from Beijing’s standpoint, subversives. Beijing’s harder and more intimidating line toward Hong Kong reflects its harder and more intimidating line at home and toward much of the rest of the world. If powers like the U.S. and Russia are reluctant to challenge China, goes the thinking in Beijing, who is tiny Hong Kong to do so?

Such sentiments are understandable but petty for a nation desiring greatness. Beijing must think boldly about Hong Kong. It should realize, and accept, that the city is a model, not a rebel; that it is what the mainland should aspire to be—Chinese yet international. Then, perhaps, Hong Kong might finally come home to China.

TIME Viewpoint

China’s Silent War on Terror

Chinese soldiers patrolling in old Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, July 30, 2014.
Chinese soldiers patrol in Kashgar, in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, on July 30, 2014 Kevin Frayer—Getty Images

A virtual media blackout makes it hard to know what's happening as China tackles unrest among its Uighur Muslim minorities

On a clear, sunny morning last October, an SUV carrying three people turned right on to Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue, plowed through crowds gathered near the entrance to the Forbidden City and burst into flames at the northern edge of Tiananmen Square. The wreck killed five people, including three in the vehicle and two bystanders. Dozens more were injured.

Almost immediately, eyewitnesses started posting pictures. The photographs showed scenes of chaos in the heart of China’s capital: a plume of smoke rising in front of a portrait of Chairman Mao; the charred carapace of the vehicle resting at the foot of the ancient Gate of Heavenly Peace. Almost as quickly as the images were posted, however, they started to disappear. It became clear that the Chinese government, and the government alone, would tell this story.

Nearly a year later, they are still pulling the strings. On Aug. 24, state-backed media announced that three masterminds behind the incident were executed, alongside five other convicted terrorists. The report listed their names and charges, but did not mention when or how they were put to death, where they were held, in what conditions, or whether they were offered legal counsel. (State broadcaster CCTV did note, however, that Usmen Hasan, the driver of the SUV, once beat a middle-school teacher and was “feared” by his wife.)

Though some elements of the official account may well be true, the reporting is clearly selective — and impossible to confirm. Hasan, his wife and his mother were killed in the crash, and the others were held out of public view. Maya Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, says rights groups and foreign journalists have effectively been blocked from looking into the matter. “We are just as much in the dark about these individuals,” she says. “We have almost no independent information, except what the state press has released.”

The handling of the case is part of an effort to manage when, and how, China talks about terrorism. This past year has seen a wave of attacks, starting with the Tiananmen crash and moving, in bloody succession, to ambushes at train stations in Kunming and Urumqi in March and April, respectively. In late May, Urumqi was hit again, when attackers targeted a morning market, leaving dozens dead. Each was pinned, directly or indirectly, on “separatists” or “extremists” from Xinjiang. If and when details are released by state media, they tend to point toward a straightforward story of radicalization at the hands of overseas Islamic terrorist groups. And those reports are always followed by news of the government’s swift and effective response.

The reality is more complex. Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which borders Russia, Pakistan and several Central Asian nations, is claimed as the traditional homeland of the Turkic Uighur people — and as part of China. Since coming to power in 1949, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has sent waves of military personnel and migrants west to settle the area they call New Frontier. Many Uighurs resent the influx of ethnic Han Chinese and worry they are getting cut out of the region’s resource-driven economic boom.

A small minority of the Uighur population, meanwhile, has waged a decades-long fight against the central government, often targeting symbols of state power including police stations and government buildings. There have also been direct attacks on civilians. The ruling party has responded by beefing up security and trying to forcibly integrate the mostly Muslim Uighur population. In recent months, entire cities have been sealed off by police checkpoints. Some areas are trying to discourage, or outright ban, certain types of beards and veils.

This has not stopped the bloodshed. In July, violence broke out in Xinjiang’s Shache county (called Yarkand in the Uighur language). State media waited more than 24 hours before announcing the unrest. As soon as they did, conflicting accounts emerged, with the government saying the violence broke out after police foiled a terrorist plot, and exile Uighur groups saying police opened fire on demonstrators protesting against restrictions during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and against the alleged extrajudicial killing of a Uighur family. The state says 96 people were killed; Uighur groups claim the figure is much higher.

We might never know what happened there. The authorities moved quickly to restrict access to the area and pulled comments from the almost-always-out-of-service web. (In times of unrest, authorities slow, or stop, Internet traffic in Xinjiang; after the 2009 riots the entire region was without Internet for nine months.) Given China’s weak record on the rule of law — and the sensitivity of the case — it’s highly unlikely that there will be an impartial investigation, let alone a fair trial. People on the ground in Xinjiang are rightly frightened that they will be punished if they comment. According to Radio Free Asia, a nonprofit media group, one blogger was already arrested for “spreading rumors” about the number of deaths.

Perhaps in 10 months we will finally hear more about the people involved in the incident. Like those killed in Beijing, Kunming, and Urumqi, the people who died in Yarkand deserve justice. The question is, what kind of justice will it be?

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

TIME conflict

From Gaza to Ukraine, the Effects of World War I Persist

We still live in the long shadow of a war that began a century ago

It was supposed to be over in a matter of weeks. In the summer of 1914, the European war that began in the aftermath of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand drew great armies into the fields, launched ships of war upon the seas and engaged imperial ambitions and fears. There was, however, a sense of optimism among several of the combatants, an expectation that victory would be quick. “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees,” Kaiser Wilhelm II told the German troops in the first week of August.

Of course, it wasn’t over by the time the leaves fell, and what became known as the Great War really isn’t over even now. From the downing of the civilian Malaysian airliner by Moscow-supported insurgents over Ukraine to the Israeli-Palestinian combat in Gaza to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Iran, the troubles of our time directly descend from the world of 1914–18, the era that inflamed ethnic and nationalistic impulses and led to the ultimate creation of new nation-states, especially in the Middle East.

To understand the madness of the moment, then, one needs to take a long view–one that begins in 1914 and not, as many Democrats would have it, with the election of George W. Bush or, as many Republicans think, with the election of Barack Obama. The spectrum of political conversation in our time is, to borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, inadequate to the stormy present.

The 19th century has been said to have ended in 1914, with a war that became, in the words of historian David Fromkin, “in many ways the largest conflict that the planet has ever known.” One could argue that the 20th century lasted only 75 years, ending under the Administration of George H.W. Bush, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the death of the Soviet Union (itself a product of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917). As the news of this summer reminds us, we are now in a world much like that of 1914, without a truly controlling order.

Americans who grew accustomed to a largely static balance of power during the Cold War must teach themselves to think in kaleidoscopic terms, not binary ones. Our national imagination is still partly shaped by the FDR-JFK rhetoric of American responsibility and the idea that we are capable of bearing any burden and paying any price to bend the world to our purposes. Yet we must be realistic–not defeatist but realistic–about our power. While we should never give up the conviction that we can effectively exert our will around the globe, we should also appreciate that any undertaking is inherently limited, a point supported by the experience of the American President of the 1914–18 era, Woodrow Wilson, who believed that the war of that age would end all wars. He was wrong–woefully so. The first Bush was closer to the mark when he spoke, usually privately, of how foreign policy was about “working the problem,” not finding grand, all-encompassing solutions to intrinsically messy questions.

And those questions today remain urgent and dangerous. In his insightful book Europe’s Last Summer, Fromkin writes that “it takes two or more to keep the peace, but only one to start a war … An aggressor can start a major war even today and even if other great powers desire to stay at peace–unless other nations are powerful enough to deter it.” To think of another conventional conflict on the scale of the Great War–16 million dead, 20 million more wounded–stretches credulity. Still, the forces of ambition, greed and pride are perennial in the lives of men and of nations, and wars of any size bring with them large and unintended consequences.

Summing up August 1914, historian Barbara Tuchman wrote, “Men could not sustain a war of such magnitude and pain without hope–the hope that its very enormity would ensure that it could never happen again and the hope that when somehow it had been fought through to a resolution, the foundations of a better-ordered world would have been laid.” We know now that such hope was illusory. It did happen again, from 1939 to 1945, and now, a century on, we live in a world that remains vulnerable to chaos and mischance and misery. Such, though, is the nature of reality and of history, and we have no choice but to muddle through. There is, in the end, no other alternative, whether the leaves are on or off the trees.

TIME In the Arena

In Gaza, a Just but Bloody War

Gaza Strip, Gaza City: Relatives of four boys, all from the Bakr family, killed by Israeli naval bombardment, mourn during their funeral in Gaza City, on July 16, 2014. . ALESSIO ROMENZI
Relatives of four boys from the Bakr family, mourning at their funeral in Gaza City, July 16, 2014. Alessio Romenzi

Hamas provoked this round, and Israel had no choice but to respond

Clarification appended July 27, 2014

Ori Nir is a man of Peace. He was born and raised in Jerusalem, spent many years as a prominent journalist for Ha’aretz, Israel’s finest newspaper, and is now the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. He is not shy about disagreeing with the Israeli government, especially when it comes to the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the general bellicosity of Benjamin Netanyahu’s regime. But he hasn’t protested the current Israeli incursion into Gaza. “It is a just war,” he told me, “carried out with a great deal of care.”

This may seem surprising to people who don’t follow the Middle East as closely as Nir does, and you might rightly ask, Why is this incursion different from all other Israeli incursions? Because Hamas, which was in an existential jam this spring, needed a new strategy. It had lost its prime ally in the region when the Egyptian army overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood. (Hamas is the official Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood.) It also alienated another of its supporters, Iran, when it sided with the Brotherhood against Bashar Assad in Syria. Opposition within Gaza to Hamas’ corruption and misrule was also on the rise. What to do?

Provoke Israel. It had worked in the past. A kidnapping of Israeli soldiers on the northern border had led to Israel’s less-than-discriminate assault on Hizballah in Lebanon in 2006. Rocket attacks had provoked Israel’s two previous Gaza incursions, in 2008 and 2012. Hamas and Hizballah had “won” those wars because their fighters resisted the Israelis more effectively than conventional Arab armies had done in the past but also because the images of collapsed buildings and blood-soaked children had bolstered Israel’s growing reputation as an oppressor and a bully in the eyes of the world.

This time is different, however, for several reasons. The initial provocation, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, was indefensible, as was a retaliatory murder of a Palestinian teen. In a moment of moral clarity, Hamas lauded its kidnappers, while a furious Netanyahu called the retaliation “reprehensible.” Indeed, Israel’s actions have been more prudent across the board. It confined its bombing at first to Hamas’ military facilities and leaders. Civilians were killed in the process–as was Hamas’ intent–but these were targeted strikes, not the free-range assault on Gaza City that had occurred in Operation Cast Lead in 2008. The ground campaign that followed was limited as well, confined to Shejaiya, a neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of Gaza City that was a warren of Palestinian fighters and the launch point for a very elaborate tunnel system from Gaza to Israel. The fighting has been brutal, to be sure. More than 500 Palestinians and 32 Israeli soldiers have been killed. But it was not an indiscriminate massacre. Israel was protecting its border, the right of any sovereign nation; its citizens were threatened by Palestinian assaults at the receiving end of the tunnels (several of which were attempted, and foiled, during the fighting). “I don’t like the civilian casualties that result from bombing the homes of the Hamas leaders,” Nir says. “And what’s happening in Shejaiya is horrible, but I think it falls within the normal rules of war. The moral bottom line seems clear.” And then, semi-amazed to be doing so, he quoted Netanyahu: “‘We’re using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles.’”

There have been the predictable anti-Israel riots in Europe, mostly populated by Islamic groups; the parlor left has been appalled, on cue, by the alleged Israeli brutality–without questioning the deadly cynicism of Hamas. Meanwhile, Hamas has been outfoxed diplomatically: it opposed the cease-fire agreement proposed by Egypt, which Israel–and the Arab League–supported. If you’re really the aggrieved party, it’s not easy to explain why you won’t accept peace. By now, in a reasonable world, Hamas would have lost all remaining shreds of its tenuous moral credibility.

A cease-fire will be negotiated sooner or later, perhaps even by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. It is likely that nothing good will come of it. But Hamas’ weakness, its inability to dictate terms, does leave a tiny possibility for peace. The first step is to restore legal order in Gaza by returning the Palestinian Authority–ousted by Hamas in a 2007 coup–to power and bringing in the U.S.-trained Palestinian security forces who have done such an excellent job of bringing law and order to the West Bank. The next step is free elections in Gaza, which, given Hamas’ current unpopularity, might be won by more moderate factions, perhaps even Fatah.

This is the Middle East, of course. Israel remains intransigent on a West Bank agreement. Peace is a chimera; only the dead bodies are real.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/politics

Clarification: The views expressed by Ori Nir in this column are his own and not those of Americans for Peace Now.

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