BBC 2024-03-08 10:01:31

State of the Union: Biden draws election battle lines in fiery speech

President Joe Biden delivered a fiery State of the Union address on Thursday, taking repeated swipes at Donald Trump and covering the broad themes of his re-election campaign.

Mr Biden used the term “my predecessor” to refer to Mr Trump 13 times in a speech that lasted more than an hour.

He accused his likely election opponent of “bowing down” to Russia and criticised him over the Capitol riot.

Mr Biden also covered immigration, abortion, the economy and Gaza.

The atmosphere in the House chamber was raucous at times, with loud cheering from Democrats and heckling from some Republicans.

It was a spectacle more typical of a political convention than a State of the Union address – a constitutionally mandated report that is usually heavy on pageantry and policy.

But this is an election year and the stakes for Mr Biden were high. He was feisty and confrontational as he sought to draw the battle lines for his nascent campaign.

Taking aim at Trump

Unsurprisingly, many of his barbs were aimed at Mr Trump given he is almost certain to be his opponent in November’s general election.

“My predecessor failed the most basic duty any president owes the American people – the duty to care,” he said in reference to Mr Trump’s handling of the Covid pandemic. “That is unforgivable.”

He criticised Mr Trump for his recent comments about Russia and Nato, and said that he sought to “bury the truth” about the 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol.

He blamed him for the Supreme Court decision to overturn the Roe v Wade ruling which guaranteed abortion rights and for blocking bipartisan immigration reforms.

Mr Trump, meanwhile, had promised to react in real time to the speech on his Truth Social platform. “Biden is on the run from his record and lying like crazy to try to escape accountability for the horrific devastation he and his party have created,” he wrote.

“They continue the very policies that are causing this horror show to go,” he said.

Mr Biden aggressive approach on Thursday may have been born, at least in part, out of necessity. At 81, he is the oldest president in US history and has been beset by questions about his age and mental acuity.

His approval ratings are the lowest of any modern president seeking re-election. He is in a statistical dead heat with Mr Trump, however, who also is viewed negatively by voters.

Even when Mr Biden addressed his age, he did so with a jab at Mr Trump, who at 77 is only a few years younger than him.

“I know it may not look like it, but I’ve been around for a while,” he said. After rattling off a list of positive attributes he said defined America, he added a kicker.

“Some other people my age see a different story: an American story of resentment, revenge and retribution.”

A punchy exchange on immigration

Mr Biden regularly ad-libbed responses to what was at times a hostile audience on the Republican side of the chamber. He quipped, parried and expressed mock surprise at their outbursts.

When the topic turned to immigration, a subject of political vulnerability for the president, he was once again ready to engage. But here, he stumbled.

After Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene accused him of ignoring the murder of Georgia nursing student Laken Riley, allegedly by an undocumented Venezuelan immigrant, Mr Biden held up a button with her name on it – one Ms Greene had given him as he walked in.

After seemingly mispronouncing her name as “Lincoln” Riley, he said she was murdered by an “illegal” – a term criticised by immigrant-rights groups.

Mr Biden went on to call for Republicans to support the bipartisan immigration legislation passed by the Senate and accused Mr Trump of “playing politics” by opposing the bill for electoral gain. The damage, however, may have been done.

A sales pitch for November

When Mr Biden wasn’t throwing haymakers at his opponent, he sought to highlight what he characterised as a record of accomplishment during his first term and outline a sales pitch for his re-election.

“I inherited an economy that was on the brink,” he said, “and now our economy is the envy of the world.”

Figures on the American economy have been trending up for months now. The public perception of the economy, however, has been much darker.

Mr Biden nodded at this split, calling the US economic revival “the greatest story never told”.

Whether the president’s words will be enough to change minds, however, remains to be seen.

It was a speech geared toward the American middle class – the voters of moderate means who make up the bulk of the electorate.

It included a variety of new proposals, most of which would require congressional legislation to enact – an unlikely scenario unless Democrats retake the House of Representatives in November.

He pitched a tax credit for new home buyers, who have seen their purchasing power eroded by higher mortgage rates. He also called for expanding a cap on prescription drug spending to every American who has health insurance and raising taxes on corporations.

Walking the line on Gaza

Mr Biden opened his speech with a call for military aid to Ukraine, but the bulk of his discussion of foreign policy came towards the end when he turned his attention to the Middle East.

The Gaza war has divided Democrats, with a vocal portion of the president’s liberal flank calling for the US to use every means at its disposal to push for a ceasefire. Some took to the Washington streets on Thursday evening in an unsuccessful attempt to block the president’s motorcade from reaching the Capitol.

Mr Biden said his administration was working towards a ceasefire that would last “at least 6 weeks,” and he detailed a new plan – announced earlier in the day – for the US to construct a temporary seaport in Gaza to allow humanitarian aid to enter by ship.

He had some harsh words for Israel, calling the civilian casualties in Gaza “heartbreaking” and saying it had a “fundamental responsibility” to protect innocent lives.

Mr Biden’s speech, because it was delivered without any significant stumbles or gaffes, is a hurdle cleared for the president – and its content could serve as a guide to how his campaign plans to sell the American public on another four years of Democratic governance.

At the very least, it will probably convince nervous Democrats that their presumptive nominee is ready to go toe-to-toe with his Republican opponent in November.

More on the US election

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US to set up temporary port on Gaza coast for aid delivery

The US military will construct a port in Gaza to get more humanitarian aid into the territory by sea, President Joe Biden has announced.

The temporary port will increase the amount of humanitarian assistance to Palestinians by “hundreds of additional truckloads” per day, officials say.

However, Mr Biden said the initiative will not include US troops on the ground in Gaza.

The UN warns that a quarter of the population is on the brink of famine.

The president made the official announcement during his State of the Union address on Thursday.

He said the port, which will be built by the US military, will involve a temporary pier to transport supplies from ships at sea to the shore.

It is not clear who will build the causeway or secure the aid on land, meaning crucial questions about whether the operation can succeed remain unanswered.

The port will take “a number of weeks” to set up, officials have said, and will be able to receive large ships carrying food, water, medicine and temporary shelters. Initial shipments will arrive via Cyprus, where Israeli security inspections will take place.

“A temporary pier will enable a massive increase in the amount of humanitarian assistance getting into Gaza every day,” President Biden said.

He added that Israel must “do its part” by allowing more aid to enter into the territory and to “ensure that humanitarian workers aren’t caught in the crossfire”.

“Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip.”

Israel’s military launched an air and ground campaign in Gaza after Hamas’s attacks on Israel on 7 October, in which around 1,200 people were killed and 253 others were taken hostage.

More than 30,800 people have been killed in Gaza since then, the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry says.

The conflict has created a growing humanitarian crisis. The World Health Organization (WHO) warned this week that children were dying of starvation in northern Gaza, where an estimated 300,000 Palestinians are living with little food or clean water.

Gaza has no deep water port and so the US has for weeks been looking at ways to get shiploads of aid in urgently, while the administration has publicly ramped up its pressure and increasingly shown in public its impatience with Israel over the desperate situation on the ground.

US officials told the BBC’s US partner, CBS, that there are plans for the pier to be installed by an army unit called the 7th Transportation Brigade, based at Fort Story, Virginia.

The brigade is designed for rapid deployment, but the military ships have not yet left the US, the officials said.

Vice Adm Kevin Donegan, who was formerly Commander of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet – the most senior US naval commander in the Middle East – told BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight programme that the port plan was “absolutely executable”.

However, he said delivering aid by land was still the most effective way, in terms of being able to get as many goods in as possible.

Vice Adm Donegan also cautioned that having “security and a good distribution network” would be critical for the safe delivery of aid from the port, referencing the more than 100 people who were killed trying to reach an aid convoy. last week, amid the growing desperation.

Palestinians said most were shot by Israeli troops. The Israeli military, which was overseeing the private aid deliveries, said most were killed in a stampede.

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Aid lorries have been entering the south of Gaza through the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing and the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom. But the north, which was the focus of the first phase of the Israeli ground offensive, has been largely cut off from assistance in recent months.

On 20 February, the World Food Programme (WFP) said it was suspending food deliveries to northern Gaza because its first aid convoys in three weeks had endured “complete chaos and violence due to the collapse of civil order”, including violent looting.

The US and other nations have resorted to dropping aid in by air – but humanitarian organisations say that method is a last resort and can’t meet the soaring need.

An independent UN expert on Thursday accused Israel of mounting “a starvation campaign against the Palestinian people in Gaza”.

“The images of starvation in Gaza are unbearable and you are doing nothing,” Michael Fakhri, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, said in a speech to the UN Human Rights Council.

Yeela Cytrin, a legal adviser at the Israeli mission to the UN, said “Israel utterly rejects allegations that it is using starvation as a tool of war”, before walking out in protest.

During his State of the Union address, President Biden also said that he was “working nonstop” to achieve an immediate six-week ceasefire – a deal he said would “get the hostages home and ease the intolerable humanitarian crisis, and build toward something more enduring”.

A Hamas delegation left talks in Cairo without a deal for a ceasefire in Gaza, but the armed group says indirect negotiations with Israel are not over.

It had been hoped that a 40-day truce could be in place for the start of the Islamic month of Ramadan next week.

But Egyptian and Qatari mediators have struggled to seal a deal that would see Hamas free Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

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MH370: The families haunted by one of aviation’s greatest mysteries

For the last decade, two words have haunted Li Eryou – lost contact.

It’s what Malaysia Airlines told him when flight MH370 disappeared, with his son Yanlin on board.

“For years I have been asking what do you mean by ‘lost contact’? It seems to me that if you lose contact with someone, you should be able to reconnect with them,” Mr Li says.

He and his wife, Liu Shuangfeng – farmers from a village south of Beijing – have struggled to make sense of what has become one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history.

On 8 March 2014, less than an hour into a routine night-time flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, the pilot said goodnight to Malaysian air traffic control. The Boeing 777, carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members, was about to cross into Vietnamese air space.

It then abruptly changed direction, and all electronic communications were cut. It turned back, first over Malaysia, and then out into the remote southern Indian Ocean until it is presumed to have run out of fuel.

The biggest and most expensive search operation ever mounted lasted four years but failed to find any trace of the missing airliner. Thousands of oceanographers, aeronautical engineers and amateur sleuths have pored over the fragmentary data from the flight, trying to calculate where it ended its journey.

For the families of those on board these have been 10 years of inescapable grief, battling to keep the search going, to find out exactly what happened to MH370, and why.

Mr Li has crisscrossed the world in support of that campaign. He says he has used up his savings travelling to Europe and Asia, and to beaches in Madagascar, where some debris from the missing plane has been found.

He says he wanted to feel the sand in a place where his son might have washed up. He remembers shouting out at the Indian Ocean, telling Yanlin he was there to take him home.

“I will keep travelling to the end of the world to find my son,” he says.

The couple, now in their late 60s, live in a rural part of China’s Hebei province. Most of their income went to pay for their children’s schooling, and they never had the money to travel.

Yanlin was the first person in their village to go to university, and the first to get a job overseas, working in Malaysia for a telecom company.

He was returning to China for a visa appointment when the flight disappeared. “Before this incident happened, we had never even been to the nearby city of Handan,” Mr Li says.

  • WATCH – Why Planes Vanish: The Hunt for MH370 on BBC iPlayer
  • MH370: What we know

Now seasoned travellers, they came back to Malaysia to mark the 10th anniversary with other families.

Yanlin was one of 153 Chinese passengers on the flight. His parents are among around 40 Chinese families who have refused settlement payments from the Malaysian government, and have filed legal cases in China against the airline, the aircraft manufacturer and other parties.

Over 10 years, the lives of those affected have moved on, yet they also feel chained to the missing plane.

Grace Nathan was doing her final law exams in the UK when MH370 disappeared. Her mother Anne was on board. Today she is a barrister with her own practice in Malaysia, and a mother of two young children.

At the anniversary commemoration in Kuala Lumpur, she recalled holding her mother’s photograph as she walked down the aisle at her wedding, and missing her advice while she was going through two difficult pregnancies.

On display there were a few battered pieces from the plane, the only physical evidence ever to be recovered from it. There were parts of the wing, corroded from their long immersion in the sea, with the surprisingly flimsy-looking internal honeycomb structure exposed.

In the crowd was Blaine Gibson, who has found more pieces of MH370 than anyone else.

One of a colourful cast of characters drawn into the MH370 saga, Mr Gibson can best be described as an amateur adventurer. He dresses in the style of Indiana Jones and has used the proceeds of the sale of his family home in California to fund his love of travelling, with a personal goal of visiting every country in the world.

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“When I attended the one-year anniversary event I learned that there was no organised search of shorelines for floating debris. It simply hadn’t been done. They were spending millions of dollars back then searching underwater. And I just thought, well, probably the first piece of this plane is just going to be found by someone walking on the beach. And since nobody was doing that, I thought I could do it myself.”

He says he searched for a year, on beaches from Myanmar to the Maldives, before finding his first piece, from the rear stabilizer of the plane, on a sandbar in Mozambique.

By that time another large piece, known as a flaperon, from the wing, had already been found on Reunion Island, confirming to the families that MH370 had indeed crashed into the Indian Ocean.

The parts that were found were all discovered 16 months or more after MH370 vanished, washed up on various East African beaches.

Analysis of the prevailing currents in the southern Indian Ocean showed they were likely to have come from where MH370 was believed to have crashed into the sea.

The former lead Malaysian investigator Aslam Khan explained how they identified them. Serial numbers on some parts were matched with records held by the manufacturer to confirm beyond doubt that they came from the Malaysia Airlines Boeing.

Distinctive fonts used in the stencil markings on others showed they were near certain to have come from it. No other Boeing 777 has ever crashed in the Indian Ocean.

Until the flaperon was found, the only evidence for the plane turning back on itself was data from military radar in Malaysia and Thailand, which spotted the plane flying west over the Malay peninsula.

Then a British company, Inmarsat, detected a series of six pings or “handshakes” made every hour between one of its satellites and MH370 as it headed south. All other communication on the aircraft had been switched off.

This sparse data was used to triangulate the distance between the plane and the satellite at each hour along a series of circular arcs, giving an approximate crash location. But this was still a huge area of very rough and very deep sea.

The search, involving 60 ships and 50 aircraft from 26 countries, lasted from March 2014 until January 2017. It was resumed in early 2018 for five months by a private US-based company called Ocean Infinity, using underwater drones to scan the seabed.

The lack of hard information has fuelled many theories, some quite wild, about what happened on board MH370, from it being hijacked and flown to Russia, or perhaps to the US airbase on the island of Diego Garcia, to it being shot down.

“This is obscene,” French journalist Florence de Changy muttered looking at the pieces of MH370 on display.

Ms Changy has written a meticulously researched book, one of more than 100 published on MH370.

She argues that the entire hypothesis that the plane turned and went south has been faked. She believes that the debris which has been found is not from MH370. She raises questions over the cargo on board, and in her book suggests that it may have been shot down by US aircraft over the South China Sea because of this cargo.

If, however, the radar and satellite data presented by Malaysia and Inmarsat is accepted at face value – and most experts do – and that the airliner kept flying south, there is only one plausible explanation. That someone flew it there deliberately.

In a new BBC documentary, “Why Planes Vanish”, two French aerospace experts, one an experienced pilot, have used a flight simulator to recreate the sharp turn the Boeing 777 made over the South China Sea, right after the last contact with Malaysian air traffic control. They have concluded that this could only have been done manually by a skilled and experienced pilot.

The fact that this was done just as MH370 was moving from Malaysian to Vietnamese air space suggests to them that the pilot was trying to conceal the manoeuvre. And that he knew it would be some time before Vietnamese air traffic control reported that they had not yet been contacted by the plane.

There are other theories – that everyone on board was knocked out by hypoxia, lack of oxygen, after an undetected depressurisation, or that a sudden catastrophic fire or explosion cut communications and forced the pilots to turn back. But the difficult manoeuvres, followed by continued, steady flight south for seven hours, make these very unlikely.

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Yet the idea that one of the pilots deliberately flew the plane and all its passengers to a watery death is also hard to accept. Neither pilot had any history that could explain such an action.

All this feverish speculation has exacted a toll on the families.

“I would not wish this on my worst enemy,” says Jaquita Gonzalez, wife of Patrick Gomes, the Inflight Supervisor on MH370.

“We have been going through such a rollercoaster. When they first started the search we would hear that they saw something, and then our hopes would be up high. And then after that we would hear no, it’s not MH370. And we landed back on ground. Each time it was as if somebody had stood on top of us and taken our breath away.”

From the start the Malaysian government was criticised by the families. First for its confused handling of the initial response, with blunders like the failure to act quickly on the military radar tracking of MH370. And later, for its apparent reluctance to authorise further searches, after the last operation by Ocean Infinity ended in mid-2018.

The company has offered to resume the search on a no-find, no-fee basis, but needs the government’s approval.

Privately some Malaysian officials acknowledge that the government could have done more. Some of this can perhaps be explained by the country going through a period of extraordinary political turmoil in recent years. Then there was the pandemic, a huge distraction which also prevented the families from holding their annual commemoration.

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The current transport minister, Anthony Loke, sought to address this by attending the 10th anniversary event in Kuala Lumpur, and promising the families he would do everything possible to find the missing plane. He announced that he was now discussing with Ocean Infinity the possibility of resuming the search later this year.

Ocean Infinity scanned an area of 112,000km, back in 2018. This though, encompassed some extremely challenging terrain, like deep underwater canyons, and it is possible it might have missed the aircraft.

Retired British aerospace IT specialist Richard Godfrey, another person who has been pulled into the MH370 vortex, believes he has now pinpointed a much smaller search area, using innovative analysis of short-wave radio test transmissions made routinely by ham radio enthusiasts. This should allow a more concentrated search by the drones, making several passes over the same area.

“They record 1.7 billion records a year in their database. Imagine a huge fisherman’s net, across the globe, full of radio signals. Every time an aircraft passes through this net, it breaks a hole in the net. That tells me where an aircraft was at a particular time. Over the six hours of MH370’s flight into the southern Indian Ocean I have been able to find 313 anomalies in the radio signals at 95 different points in time. That gives you a much more refined flight route, and a more accurate determination of a crash location.”

Richard’s method is currently being tested by the University of Liverpool, which expects to establish how valid it is later this year.

The families say they are encouraged by the latest promises made by the transport minister – a much-needed change of tone from the Malaysian government, they say. But they remain wary. Their hopes have been raised many times before.

“I just want the plane to be found,” Ms Gonzalez says. “At least then I can let my husband rest in peace. Right now, I have not done anything for him, you know, to give him a memorial. I can’t, because we don’t have anything tangible from him.”

At the commemoration a large board had been put up, on which people could write messages, of hope, of sympathy, or of grief.

Li knelt down to write a message to Yanlin in large Chinese characters, and then sat in tears, looking at it.

“Son, it’s been 10 years”, he had written. “Your mum and dad are here to bring you back home. March 3rd, 2024.”

Why Planes Vanish: The Hunt for MH370

Ten years after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 and its 239 passengers and crew vanished, can new evidence help locate the plane and finally solve aviation’s greatest mystery?

Watch now on BBC iPlayer (UK Only)

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12 iconic images of defiant women

For International Women’s Day, 12 iconic photos of female defiance, including the woman who handbagged a neo-Nazi and the marchers who sparked the Russian Revolution.

(Credit: Hans Runesson)

1. Danuta Danielsson, Sweden, 1985

Swedish photographer Hans Runesson captured this moment on 13 April 1985 – and his image has endured since, voted Picture of the Century and resurfacing on social media in 2016 with the call to arms: “Be the woman hitting a neo-Nazi with a handbag you wish to see in the world”. Taken in Växjö, Sweden during a demonstration by the neo-Nazi Nordic Reich Party, the photo shows 38-year-old Danuta Danielsson swiping at one of the marchers with her handbag.

The Polish-Swedish passerby, whose family members had reportedly been sent to a Nazi concentration camp, snapped “impulsively”, according to Runesson, who told BBC Culture that the man did “nothing – he walked further” afterwards. Despite the incident happening in a fleeting instance, the photo continues to resonate for many as a silent rallying cry.

(Credit: David Lagerlöf/Expo/TT News Agency/Press Association Images)

2. Tess Asplund, Sweden, 2016

And it had an eerie parallel in 2016, when social activist Tess Asplund placed herself in the path of protesters from the Nordic Resistance Movement in Sweden. David Lagerlöf snapped the instant when the social activist confronted a May Day march of 300 uniformed nationalists in Borlänge, Sweden: fist clenched, her impassive stance communicated as much as countless violent encounters.

(Credit: Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

3. Ieshia Evans, US, 2016

Standing still, her dress fluttering, as two police officers in full riot gear approach her, a woman protester in Baton Rouge, Louisiana made the headlines with a similarly resolute body language when this image was taken in 2016. Hailed as an “instant classic”, the photo of Ieshia Evans being arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest was compared with Stuart Franklin’s image of “Tank Man” at Tiananmen Square or the picture of an anti-Vietnam War demonstrator placing flowers in police officer’s gun barrels.

Immobile, composed, Evans is like the calm at the eye of a storm – her comment above a Facebook post of the image was: “I appreciate the well wishes and love, but this is the work of God. I am a vessel!” Taken by the photographer Jonathan Bachman, it has been seen by some as a symbol of peaceful defiance. A nurse, Evans travelled to Baton Rouge to protest the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling, telling The Guardian: “I have a six-year-old son, Justin, and I fear more for his life than I do for my own. How should I raise him? To be afraid? To keep his head down and not get in trouble… Or do I raise him in strength?”

(Credit: Getty Images)

4. Emily Wilding Davison, UK, 1913

One photo taken more than a century ago reveals an act of defiance that didn’t end peacefully. Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison died when she stepped in front of the King’s horse Anmer, during the Epsom Derby of 1913. Recent analysis of footage captured on newsreel cameras appears to suggest she was attempting to attach a scarf to the horse’s bridle – yet whatever her intention, Davison has been hailed by some as a martyr, and an emblem of female emancipation.

(Credit: Carlos Vera/Reuters)

5. Anti-government protests, Chile, 2016

Photographed by Carlos Vera Mancilla in 2016, this photo reveals the visual power of an individual stance. Taken at demonstrations marking the 43rd anniversary of the military coup that resulted in the overthrow of President Salvador Allende by Augusto Pinochet on 11 September 1973, the image captures the full force of a glare.

Outside the General Cemetery of Santiago – the site of Allende’s grave, and a memorial to those “disappeared” during Pinochet’s regime – an unnamed female protester squared up to a riot policeman, staring unflinchingly through his visor.

(Credit: Getty Images)

6. Protest against a contested re-election, Honduras, 2017

Another photo, taken in the Honduran city of Tegucigalpa in 2017, shows a less confrontational form of defiance: lying down. A supporter of the defeated presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla, protesting the contested re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernández, lay on the pavement in front of riot police – her seeming nonchalance in fact a display of inner strength.

Patsy Stevenson (Credit: Hannah McKay/Reuters)

7. Sarah Everard vigil, UK, 2021

A photo taken at a candlelit vigil was shared widely in 2021, as women were seen being handcuffed and led away by police officers. The event at London’s Clapham Common was planned in tribute to Sarah Everard, who had been kidnapped, raped and murdered by police officer Wayne Couzens. While organisers aimed for it to be socially distanced, the vigil was cancelled after police said it would be illegal under lockdown restrictions. Patsy Stevenson, the woman in this photo, later told the BBC that, moments before their arrest, a small group of women found themselves stuck against some railings. “People assume that I was part of the organisation or part of a protest group, but I had never even been to a protest before… We sort of just all in solidarity just stayed there.”

Ceyda Sungur (Credit: Osman Orsal/Reuters)

8. The Woman in Red, Turkey, 2013

Taking part in protests at Gezi Park in Istanbul one day in May 2013, Ceyda Sungur found herself facing a bank of riot police. When one of them fired tear gas at her, Reuters photographer Osman Orsal captured the moment, creating an image that became an emblem of the resistance movement sweeping Turkey that summer. Sungar – later labelled “the woman in red” – was injured, but she was a reluctant figurehead, saying: “A lot of people no different from me were out protecting the park, defending their rights, defending democracy,” she said. “They also got gassed.”

Alaa Salah (Credit: Getty Images)

9. Anti-government protest, Sudan, 2019

After street protests broke out in December 2018, demonstrations swept through Sudan. At a protest in March 2019 outside the presidential palace, 22-year-old architecture student Alaa Salah was photographed leading chants against the Omar al-Bashir regime from atop a car. She emerged as a symbol of what became the revolution, bringing global attention to what was happening in the country. “I didn’t expect to be called the icon of the revolution,” she told the BBC, “and I don’t claim that I’m the icon of the revolution. On the contrary, all Sudanese people are the icon of the revolution.” BBC journalist Zeinab Badawi said that women “made a contribution that is equal to that of the men in helping to dislodge President Bashir from power, and they’ve made it clear that they won’t be bowing out of public life now that he’s gone.”

(Credit: PA)

10. Greenham Common, UK, 1982

In September 1981, 36 women chained themselves to a fence at a US military airbase in Berkshire, England. They were protesting the decision of the British government to allow nuclear cruise missiles to be sited at RAF Greenham Common – and they established a peace camp that remained there for 19 years.

In 1982, it was decided that the camp should involve women only, creating a collective identity as mothers to protest in the name of all future generations. On 12 December 1982, 30,000 women held hands around the 6 miles (9.7 km) perimeter of the base (pictured); a year later, 50,000 women attended.

Hiroko Hatakeyama, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima, went to the peace camp. “I believe there’s a connection between what the women at Greenham did and the recent women’s marches around the world,” she told The Guardian.

Russian activist Yelena Osipova (Credit: Alamy)

11. Yelena Osipova, Russia, 2022

The 78-year-old Russian artist and activist Yelena Osipova began protesting in 2002, over the years calling for freedom for political prisoners and opposing Russian intervention in Ukraine after its Maidan revolution. Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war in 2022, she has been a regular presence on the streets of St Petersburg, picketing for peace. Despite being arrested multiple times for her protests, she told The Moscow Times that occasionally police officers simply take photos of her protest signs before letting her go. Osipova’s parents survived the Siege of Leningrad during World War Two, but one of her grandfathers died of hunger – and she is keen that people learn from history, telling El País: “Indifference, silence – that’s the most terrible thing that could happen. On a poster I wrote: ‘All of this happened because you stayed silent.'”

(Credit: Alamy)

12. International Women’s Day march, Russia, 1917

Images of events such as Slutwalk, Take Back the Night and the Women’s March on Washington have reflected strength in unity in recent decades. Yet there’s perhaps one women’s march that had more far-reaching impact than any other.

This photo shows women marching in St Petersburg on 8 March 1917. The date (23 February in the old Russian calendar) marked International Women’s Day, an important day in the socialist calendar – and, now, it also commemorates the first day of the Russian Revolution. While the marchers carried placards that had patriotic slogans, they also demanded change like “Feed the children of the defenders of the motherland” or “Supplement the ration of soldiers’ families, defenders of freedom and the people’s peace”.

“By midday of that day in 1917 there were tens of thousands of mainly women congregating on the Nevsky Prospekt, the principal avenue in the centre of the Russian capital, Petrograd,” writes Orlando Figes, author of A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution. On the following day, protesters had scaled the statue of Alexander III in Znamenskaya Square, calling for the downfall of the monarchy. And a week later, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne. The women’s march had become a revolution.

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This bias makes you a dangerous driver

Certain personality traits can predispose people to taking more risks on the road – but societal biases also prevent us recognising when our behaviour behind the wheel is becoming reckless.

I drive maybe five days a year. But each time I settle into the driver’s seat, I’m quick to fall into old patterns – the itch to go faster, the irritation with delays – that I don’t experience as a pedestrian. I’m just a more impatient person behind the wheel. And of course that’s also when my impatience is most dangerous. 

One analysis of more than 3,500 drivers in the US found that driver-related factors (notably distraction) were involved in nearly 90% of crashes.

A combination of environmental, societal and individual factors helps to explain aggressive driving, says Steven Love, who researches cognitive psychology and road safety at the MAIC/UniSC Road Safety Research Collaboration in Sippy Downs, Australia. In Love’s view, aggressive behaviours like speeding and running red lights are influenced by a combination of the traffic environment, the apparent cultural norm of speeding, and how well a driver can manage their own frustration.

The last factor is a key entry point for psychology. “A lot of road safety issues, including DUI [drinking under the influence] behaviours, stem from a greater underlying psychological problem,” says Love. “Individuals engage in risky, antisocial and emotion-driven behaviour because they have difficulties regulating their thinking and emotions.”

This applies particularly to drivers with trait aggression (a personality tendency toward aggression). Such drivers have low risk perceptions, and are less likely to be deterred by near misses or mild legal punishments. Research from China has also suggested a link between social exclusion and aggressive driving, as drivers take their anger onto the road with them.

The self-perception trap

But it’s not just trait-aggressive drivers who perceive themselves to be better drivers than is actually the case. In general, drivers are notoriously bad at judging their own skills – including visually impaired drivers in Sweden and inexperienced male drivers in Finland. US studies have shown that most survey participants consider themselves to be better-than-average drivers.

These inflated self-perceptions are dangerous, in the experiences of Sally Kyd, a criminal law expert at the University of Leicester in the UK. “If drivers have a tendency to view themselves as expert drivers, whose skilfulness is above that of the… average driver,” Kyd says, they’re likely to drive riskily because they don’t consider driving laws to apply to them. 

One reason for this gap between actual and self-rated driving behaviour is the discrepancy in beliefs about what constitutes skilful or safe driving. “Our recent studies have suggested that a primary cause to negative road interactions is the friction between various driving styles on the road,” says Love. Aggressive drivers call out slow drivers, while patient drivers point to reckless drivers as the problem. Both are frustrated.

In motonormative cultures, pedestrians and cyclists sometimes feel stigmatised on the road (Credit: Getty Images)

“This really highlights the disparity between drivers’ perceptions of driving styles that are different to their own,” Love says. “As an example, an overconfident driver who holds antisocial attitudes might believe that their speeding is completely safe after accounting for their skill level,” he says.

Ana Carboni, a cycling advocate in Brasília, Brazil, sees this attitude often. “I think people don’t perceive themselves as part of the equation,” she says. A common idea is, she says: “‘I’m a good enough motorist that I can drive at any speed, and I’ll be fine’. And we know that that’s not true.” Part of the problem, she believes, is “the difficulty in linking yourself to something bad that happens”. Aggressive drivers may use defence mechanisms to protect themselves from such stress.

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Deterring dangerous driving

It should be emphasised that reckless driving is enabled by infrastructure and policy that undervalue road safety. “What needs to happen to really bring down speeds more ubiquitously is better road design for reducing speeds in the first place,” says Charlie Klauer, who researches driving behaviour at Virginia Tech, a university in Blacksburg, US. The phrase “speed kills” is undeniably true: each 1% increase in average speed raises the risk of a fatal crash by 4%, according to the World Health Organization. Simple and inexpensive changes to road design, from narrowing streets to installing speed humps, save lives by forcing motorists to slow down.

But even though policymakers and planners have the larger role to play when it comes to protecting lives on roads, individual driver behaviour is also significant.

Underestimation of driving risk has ramifications for criminology. Offending drivers with inflated self-perceptions “see themselves as justified in creating risks in their driving”, according to Kyd. So no matter how severe the penalty for causing a fatal crash, this is unlikely to deter hazardous drivers who never expect to actually cause a collision, she says.

These expectations can be reinforced every time a motorist has an uneventful drive. Ian Walker, an environmental psychologist at Swansea University in the UK, refers to learning theory, a framework for understanding the learning process. “One of the basic elements of learning theory is that if an action doesn’t have consequences immediately, we’re very bad at learning,” Walker says. 

He often says that driving is dangerous, but not quite dangerous enough. In other words, people who drive while texting or intoxicated will probably get away with it a number of times, which reinforces their belief that it’s reasonable behaviour. “So people are not getting the feedback they need,” Walker says. “The answer to this, of course, is that people should be listening to the experts who look at this at a societal level and not just relying on their own very limited experience,” he says. 

Motonormativity can lead people to be less critical of driving than other polluting activities (Credit: Getty Images)

However, Walker recognises that this may not be realistic, “because we’re not very good at understanding risk,” he says.

So what kinds of curbs work for the most resistant, aggressive drivers? “If they are to be deterred, it is the underlying behaviour that needs to be targeted,” Kyd says. That is, a driver has to think that they could be caught and disciplined any time they drive dangerously (not only if they crash, which they think won’t happen), according to Kyd. Stiffer sentences for dangerous driving should be combined with greater enforcement to increase the chances of catching dangerous drivers before they cause tragedies, says Kyd.

Indeed, increased enforcement has contributed to reductions in road traffic deaths in parts of Brazil, the US, and other car-centric countries. This stepped-up enforcement can face an uphill battle. One reason for leniency toward dangerous driving in many legal systems is the normalisation of illegal practices such as speeding.

Many politicians are hesitant to challenge these practices due to the political influence of motorists – in Italy, for instance, car crashes increase during years with municipal elections, as ticketing slows down. Part of the problem is that authority figures in the criminal-legal system are likely to be drivers themselves, and thus may identify more easily with drivers than with vulnerable road users.

However, tougher law enforcement is not a silver bullet, even if it’s implemented in a way that respects privacy and isn’t discriminatory. “Policing resources are finite, and aggressive driving behaviours are both prevalent and difficult to detect… increasing fines may deter some offenders, but research has suggested that repeat offenders are generally not deterred from sanctions, likely due to underlying and persisting psychological issues that are influencing the behaviours,” says Love. He believes that it could be helpful to incorporate this kind of psychological analysis – for instance, for regulating emotions – into collaborations with transport, public health and educational systems.

Tackling ‘motonormativity’

To Walker, psychological insights into road safety should extend not just to individuals, but to entire societies that have dangerous biases around driving.

Something peculiar happens when people in car-centric societies think about driving, Walker says. He points to safety campaigns encouraging children to wear bright clothing so they’re seen on the roads. In Walker’s opinion, these could be interpreted as teaching children that it’s their own fault if they get run over, for not dressing in a way that suits drivers. In the context of driving, it’s easy to slip into what could be seen as victim blaming, says Walker, without realising what you’re doing. And yet, “very often the same people would recognise that they were victim blaming if this was in a different context”, he says.

People who speed may struggle to learn that they’re putting themselves and others at risk, because they sometimes get away with it (Credit: Getty Images)

In Walker’s analysis, this is an example of the fallacy of “special pleading”, an unconscious bias where certain cases are treated as exceptions to social norms. Driving has a special status in many societies, despite its health and environmental harms, which Walker and his colleagues call “motonormativity”.

Interestingly, even non-motorists exhibit this pro-driving bias. In one study of over 2,150 adults in the UK, Walker and his coauthors found that people were more likely to agree with statements that were critical of activities such as smoking than driving, though both contribute to air pollution in cities. Walker says that non-drivers also internalise the pervasive cultural messaging, from infrastructure to media to law enforcement, around the primacy of cars. “The message to someone who’s not in a car is very clear in public space: that you are the one who waits. You are the one who is treated as less important,” he says.

It’s common for non-motorists to be stigmatised, as cyclists in Bostwana, for instance, know all too well. (Read more from BBC Future about the worst place in the world to be a cyclist.)

In Brazil, Carboni feels judged for only owning a bike, and not having a car. Even apart from the policy and infrastructure transformation needed to improve road safety, “this cultural change is going to take a long time”, she says.

Part of the reason this cultural change will be challenging is because, just as aggressive and patient drivers are having different conversations about what it means to drive well, angry drivers and road safety advocates are having different conversations about mobility, in Walker’s view.

He believes that due to motonormativity, many people interpret the encouragement toward less driving as a limitation on their freedom of movement. “Of course, anyone in the active travel world, when they say, ‘I think you should drive a bit less’, they’re saying, ‘I think you should have mobility through other means’. But that’s not what people hear,” Walker says. He believes that the first step is to acknowledge the problem. “Until we collectively and individually acknowledge that our relationship with cars is not harmless, I don’t know how much progress we can make,” he says.

Klauer believes that progress is possible, even if it’s incremental. For instance, seatbelts and airbags were contentious in their early days, yet are now ubiquitous in many countries. For the 1.2 million people who die in road crashes each year, other changes for the sake of road safety – drawing on insights from different branches of psychology – can’t come soon enough.

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