Longform’s Picks of the Week

Longform’s Picks of the Week

Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.


Let’s Consider Kate

John Lanchester • London Review of Books

On the dangerous state of U.K. banks and how they can be fixed.

The linked difficulty, or the overarching problem of which this is a sub-category, is to do with bank culture. Let’s for a moment propose a counterfactual, in which one of the big banks was headed not by a banker but by someone whose central focus in life was the attempt to be better, both personally and in the corporate sphere. Let’s raise the stakes and make this person a professional ethicist, greatly admired by his peers, who writes books about the need for banking to be a moral enterprise. Leadership is important; although plenty of people who specialise in bullshit love saying that, the fact is that it’s true: leadership is very important. So what would a big bank be like with a person of that calibre and focus in charge? How much difference would he or she be able to make? As it happens, we know the answer. The bank was HSBC, and the person in charge as CEO and then as chairman of the board was Stephen Green, who is an ordained minister in the Church of England. One of the four biggest UK banks literally had a priest in charge. His first book on banking ethics is Serving God? Serving Mammon? and his second is called Good Value: Reflections on Money, Morality and an Uncertain World. As for how that worked out, well, it was on his watch that Mexican drug-dealers made special boxes to deliver drug cartel money over the deposit counter. It was while the Anglican minister was running things that HSBC undertook criminal actions which led to a fine of $1.9 billion. So the counterfactual isn’t really counter to anything.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

40 Minutes in Benghazi

Fred Burton and Samuel M. Katz • Vanity Fair

The story of the attack that killed U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, told from the perspective of the security agents there to protect him.

A. leaned upward, glancing out through the murky transparency of his window, peering across the bars at the violence before him. He watched as the fuel bearers inched their way forward toward the residence, and he limbered up the fingers of his shooter’s hand as he laid a line of sight onto the targets closing the distance to the villa. He controlled his breathing in preparation to take that first shot. He found himself relying on his instincts, his experience, and, above all, his training. The purpose of the training that DS agents receive-the extensive tactical and evasive-driving skills that are hammered into each and every new member-is to show them how to buy time and space with dynamic skill and pragmatic thought. The DS trains its agents to analyze threats with their minds and gut instincts and not with their trigger fingers.

In that darkened bunker of the villa’s safe haven, A. faced a life-changing or life-ending decision that few of even the most experienced DS agents have ever had to make: play Rambo and shoot it out or remain unseen and buy time?


Woman’s Work

Francesca BorriColumbia Journalism Review

The life of a woman war correspondent in Syria.

Freelancers are second-class journalists-even if there are only freelancers here, in Syria, because this is a dirty war, a war of the last century; it’s trench warfare between rebels and loyalists who are so close that they scream at each other while they shoot each other. The first time on the frontline, you can’t believe it, with these bayonets you have seen only in history books. Today’s wars are drone wars, but here they fight meter by meter, street by street, and it’s fucking scary. Yet the editors back in Italy treat you like a kid; you get a front-page photo, and they say you were just lucky, in the right place at the right time. You get an exclusive story, like the one I wrote last September on Aleppo’s old city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, burning as the rebels and Syrian army battled for control. I was the first foreign reporter to enter, and the editors say: “How can I justify that my staff writer wasn’t able to enter and you were?” I got this email from an editor about that story: “I’ll buy it, but I will publish it under my staff writer’s name.”

And then, of course, I am a woman. One recent evening there was shelling everywhere, and I was sitting in a corner, wearing the only expression you could have when death might come at any second, and another reporter comes over, looks me up and down, and says: “This isn’t a place for women.” What can you say to such a guy? Idiot, this isn’t a place for anyone.


CSI: Italian Renaissance

Tom Mueller • Smithsonian

Examining 500-year-old remains inside Pisa’s premiere paleopathology laboratory.

Strangest of all, however, were the results of pollen analysis and immunochemical tests conducted on Cangrande’s intestines and liver. Fornaciari isolated pollen from two plants: Matricaria chamomilla and Digitalis purpurea. “Chamomile,” he told me, “was used as a sedative; Cangrande could have drunk it as a tea. But foxglove? That shouldn’t have been there.” The plant contains digoxin and digitoxine, two potent heart stimulants, which in doses like those detected in Cangrande’s body can cause cardiac arrest. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, foxglove was used as a poison.

In fact, the symptoms mentioned by contemporary chroniclers-diarrhea, stomach pains and fever-matched those of digoxin and digitoxine poisoning. Hence, Fornaciari concluded, Cangrande had been murdered. As it happens, a contemporary chronicler reported that a month after Cangrande’s death, one of the nobleman’s doctors had been executed by Mastino II, Cangrande’s successor, suggesting the doctor’s possible involvement in a plot to kill his master. Who ultimately was responsible for the murder remains a mystery-an assertive fellow like Cangrande had plenty of enemies-although the ambitious Mastino II himself now emerges as a prime suspect.”I thought the poisoning story was just a legend, but sometimes the legends are true,” Fornaciari says. “Paleopathology is rewriting history!”


The Melting Ice Road of Zanskar

Daniel Grushkin • Roads & Kingdoms

A trek down the Chadar, an icy 40-mile path separating a Himalayan kingdom from India, now threatened by climate change.    

The escalating physical risks and the practical consequences of a failing link to the outside world comes with an added cultural loss. Climate change threatens the whole mythology that exists around the Chadar. Legend says the deity Sharshok introduced pathfinders to the route at a time when it was solely used by spirits and fairies. Zanskaris believe Sharshok protects travelers on their journeys over the ice. One day when the path completely vanishes, Sharshok and the demons and protectors, the myths and the legends, will vanish too.

Surprisingly, while these losses seem unfortunate to the outsider, Zanskaris seem unfazed by their predicament. Before heading onto the Chadar, I spoke to a monk about how climate change is upturning a number of Zanskar’s cultural fixtures-including the architecture. Summer rain, a new phenomenon to the high desert, is literally melting the mud brick walls of homes and temples.

The newly shaved monk shrugged. “Samsara,” he said. He was talking about the Buddhist attempt to escape the cyclicality of life. The world’s problems are temporary and therefore not his business. On the other hand, local farmers have more immediate concerns rather than fussing about the coming decades. In Ladakh, Zanskar’s closest neighbor, torrential storms tore down the bridges and washed away barley fields the summer before I arrived.


Europe’s New ‘Time Bomb’ Is Ticking in Syria

Colum Lynch • Foreign Policy

As hundreds answer the call to join the fight in Syria, Europe wonders: will they return as terrorists?

They come from the suburbs of Paris, from the East End of London, from the cities along Germany’s Fulda River, and even from the small towns of Ireland: a small army of up to 1,000 European irregulars joining the Syrian civil war to help rebels topple President Bashar al-Assad.

But while ministers from these irregulars’ governments say they too are in favor of toppling Assad, these same officials are doing everything they can to stop these fighters — or at least develop new laws to criminalize their activities. The reason: fear that these irregulars will one day return to Europe, equipped with deadly military skills, trained in the tradecraft of international terrorism, and steeped in the extremist anti-Western ideology of al Qaeda and its Syrian brethren, the al-Nusra Front. On a single day in April and in a single country, Belgium, the authorities launched 48 raids on suspected jihadi recruiters believed to be luring Belgians to fight in Syria.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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