Signs of the Times

Israeli Strikes Hit Gaza, 145 Killed

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli warplanes destroyed dozens of security compounds across Hamas-ruled Gaza on Saturday in unprecedented waves of air strikes, killing at least 155 people and wounding more than 250 in the single deadliest day in Gaza fighting in recent memory, Palestinian medical officials said. The strikes came in response to renewed rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli border towns in which two schoolgirls were killed Friday. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said “the operation will last as long as necessary” but it was not clear if it would include a ground offensive. The strikes caused widespread panic and confusion as black clouds of smoke rose above Gaza. Some of the missiles struck in densely populated areas as children were leaving school and women rushed into the streets frantically looking for their children. Gaza militants fired several Grad-type Katyusha rockets at southern Israel in response to the strikes, the military said. One hit in the border community of Netivot, killing a woman and wounding four people, Israel’s rescue service reported.

  • JJ Commentary: The next major end-time sign will be escalating warfare in the Middle-East, if not now then soon.

Pakistan Moves Troops to India Border

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan told India on Saturday it did not want war and would use force only if attacked — a move apparently aimed at reducing tensions after Pakistan moved troops toward their shared border. Intelligence officials said Friday that the army was redeploying thousands of troops from the country’s fight against militants along the Afghan border to the Indian frontier — an alarming scenario for the West as it tries to get Pakistan to neutralize the al-Qaeda threat. Islamabad also announced it was canceling all military leave — the latest turn of the screw in the rising tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors following last month’s terror attack on the Indian financial capital of Mumbai. India has blamed Pakistani militants for the terrifying three-day siege.

Gallup: Americans See Religious Influence Waning

RELIGION NEWS SERVICE — Two-thirds of Americans think religion is losing its influence on U.S. life, a sharp jump from just three years ago when Americans were nearly evenly split on the question, according to a new Gallup Poll. Sixty-seven percent of Americans think religious influence is waning while just 27% say it is increasing. That perspective demonstrates a continuing downward trend, Gallup said. Those who regularly attend worship services are more likely to say religion is losing its influence; three out of four weekly attenders (74 percent) said religious influence is falling, compared to 24% who thought its influence is on the rise. The latest poll also finds that the percentage of Americans believing that religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems” has reached an all-time low. Slightly more than half of those surveyed — 53% — held that view, while 28% say it is “largely old-fashioned and out of date.”

  • JJ Commentary: What pollsters and respondents mean by “religion” is part of the problem. The presumption that all religions are equally valid undermines belief in the One True God. Minimization by obfuscation.

U.S. Sides with Traditional Marriage…For Now

ONENEWSNOW.COM — The United States has refused to sign on to a United Nations declaration on sexual orientation. In all, 67 nations have signed the declaration submitted by France that called upon recognition of two new categories in human rights, one based on sexual orientation and the other one on gender identity. The statement’s purpose is to decriminalize homosexual conduct. In spite of homosexual marriage being illegal in 70 nations, many believe it will achieve international acceptance eventually. While the United States did not sign on to the declaration, the incoming Obama administration might think differently.

Religion News Service reports that the Vatican called for the decriminalization of homosexuality, but said a proposed United Nations declaration on gay rights is vague and excessively far-reaching. The statement by the Holy See’s UN delegation was a response to the “Declaration on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity,” presented to the UN General Assembly on Thursday. “The Holy See appreciates the attempts made in [the declaration] to condemn all forms of violence against homosexual persons as well as urge states to take necessary measures to put an end to all criminal penalties against them,” the statement said. But the Vatican said that the UN declaration “goes beyond this goal and instead gives rise to uncertainty in the law and challenges existing human rights norms.”

One-Third of Top Aides become Lobbyists

WASHINGTON — More than a third of top congressional staffers who left their public service jobs this year went to work for private lobbying firms or other groups seeking to influence the government, according to a USA TODAY analysis. Under an ethics law passed last year, the House and Senate for the first time must list the names of departing staffers earning $127,000 or more per year. So far this year, 32 of the 193 top staffers who left government registered as lobbyists and another 42 went to work for consulting firms, law offices, interest groups and trade associations, the analysis showed. Publicizing names of departing staffers gives the public notice that “they’re cashing in on their expertise,” says James Thurber, an American University lobbying expert. Former congressional staffers are free to become lobbyists or otherwise work to influence the government as long as they follow ethics laws, including a cooling-off period. The new rules prohibit former Senate aides from lobbying anyone in the Senate for a year after they leave.

  • JJ Commentary: Now there’s a recession-proof occupation! Create the problems and then advise how to deal with them. Lobbyists join lawyers as one of the few groups continuing to do well or better during this economic meltdown. And let’s not forget that most politicians and lobbyists are lawayers.

Economy: No Tidings of Great Joy in Latest Reports

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The number of workers filing new claims for unemployment benefits jumped 30,000 to a 26-year peak last week, as the country’s year-long recession continued to chill the labor market. Initial claims for state unemployment insurance benefits rose to a seasonally adjusted 586,000 in the week ended Dec 20th. Jobless claims are considered a timely, if volatile, indicator of the health of the labor markets and broader economy. A year ago, initial claims stood at 353,000.

New orders for long-lasting manufactured goods fell 1% in November, a less severe drop than expected, although it followed a steeply revised plunge in October. The Commerce Department now estimates that October orders plummeted 8.4% instead of 6.9% it previously reported, for the biggest monthly decline since a 14% drop in July 2000.

Consumer spending fell for a fifth month in November, the longest weak stretch in a half-century, while incomes declined under the weight of job layoffs. Americans’ incomes fell a worse-than-expected 0.2%. It was the first decline since July and reflected in part the fact that more than a half-million jobs were cut in November.

Despite some of the deepest price cutting ever seen before Christmas, retail sales still plunged 2% to 4% for the holiday season. Online sales, which were expected to be far better than those in stores this season, were only a little better with a 2.3% decline. Despite the dismal results, reported Friday that it had its best holiday season ever and discounter Wal-Mart is defying economic trends with monthly sales increases while most others show big declines.

In a year when stocks in general, measured by the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, are down 41%, the luxury players are down even more. Saks’ stock is down 81%, Sotheby’s, 79%, and Tiffany’s, 51%. That’s quite a change from a year ago, when luxury companies were viewed as being immune from the downturn because their customers didn’t have subprime loans. But now, the wealthiest consumers are beginning to feel the pressure as their portfolios shrivel and jobs in the financial sector vanish in a reverse wealth effect.

Foreign Auto Makers Hurting Too

TOKYO (AP) — In more bad news for Japan’s auto industry, Toyota said Wednesday its global vehicle sales plunged 21.8% in November, the biggest drop in eight years. Rival Nissan said its worldwide sales sank 19.8% and global production nose-dived a record 33.7% on depressed sales in the United States. Japan’s No. 2 carmaker, Honda Motor Co., also said Wednesday its global production in November tumbled 9.9%, the biggest fall in five years. The dismal data comes two days after Toyota, Japan’s biggest automaker, predicted that this fiscal year it would report its first operating loss in 70 years.

Iraq Parliamentary Speaker Resigns

BAGHDAD (AP) — The Iraqi parliamentary speaker resigned on Tuesday, ending a long-running power struggle and allowing lawmakers to authorize British and other non-U.S. foreign troops to remain in the country into 2009. Lawmakers applauded with the resignation of Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni who has clashed repeatedly with Kurdish and Shiite lawmakers in recent years. The enmity reached its peak last week in a shouting match over the detention of the journalist who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush. Within a half-hour of his resignation, parliament approved the troops measure in a voice vote — just a week before the U.N. mandate authorizing foreign troops was to expire. The new measure will allow Britain’s 4,000 soldiers and smaller contingents from several other countries to stay through and assist U.S. troops until the end of July. The Americans can remain until the end of 2011 under a separate security agreement.

Greek Police Bus Attacked; 3,000 at Rally

ATHENS (AP) (AP) — More than 3,000 protesters chanting “Cops, Pigs, Murderers” marched through Athens on Tuesday amid fears of continued violence over the death of a teenage boy in a police shooting. Earlier Tuesday, shots were fired at a riot police bus in Athens. None of the 19 officers on board was injured, authorities said, but the attack raised concern that violence against police could escalate. Tuesday’s march kept many stores in downtown Athens closed. A group of youths overturned a police car, but the incident ended without further violence.

Homeland Security Forecasts 5-year Threat Picture

WASHINGTON (AP) — Intelligence officials also predict that in the next five years, terrorists will try to conduct a destructive biological attack. Officials are concerned about the possibility of infections to thousands of U.S. citizens, overwhelming regional health care systems. There could also be dire economic impacts caused by workers’ illnesses and deaths. Officials are most concerned about biological agents stolen from labs or other storage facilities, such as anthrax. The terrorism threat to the United States over the next five years will be driven by instability in the Middle East and Africa, persistent challenges to border security and increasing Internet savvy, says a new intelligence assessment obtained by The Associated Press. Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks are considered the most dangerous threats that could be carried out against the U.S. But those threats are also the most unlikely because it is so difficult for al-Qaeda and similar groups to acquire the materials needed to carry out such plots, according to the internal Homeland Security Threat Assessment for the years 2008-2013.

The al-Qaeda terrorist network continues to focus on U.S. attack targets vulnerable to massive economic losses, casualties and political “turmoil,” the assessment said. Earlier this month, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction remains “the highest priority at the federal level.” Speaking to reporters on Dec. 3, Chertoff explained that more people, such as terrorists, will learn how to make dirty bombs, biological and chemical weapons.

Hawaii Island of Oahu without Power

HONOLULU (AP) — The Hawaiian island of Oahu lost power during heavy rain and lightning, blacking out the population of some 800,000 people and thousands of tourists including vacationing President-elect Barack Obama. Residents were advised by the power company and civil authorities to stay home after the Friday evening outage and to conserve water. Several radio stations broadcast emergency information. Gov. Linda Lingle said Hawaiian Electric Co. was taking an emergency generator to the compound on the east side of the island where Obama has been staying.

Winter Storm Pounds West as Ice Wreaks Havoc in Midwest

RENO, Nevada — Yet another snowstorm closed highways in parts of the West on Friday, the latest in a tiring week of bad weather, and a dangerous sheet of ice in parts of the Midwest contributed to a looming flood problem. Up to 20 inches of snow was forecast in parts of the Rockies, along with wind gusts of up to 80 mph. A Utah avalanche killed two people earlier in the week, and a snow slide in California’s Sierra Nevada killed one man Thursday. Wisconsin officials Thursday classified a vehicle crash death Tuesday as weather related. After enduring days of cold Arctic air and freezing rain, the Midwest was threatened Saturday with rain, fog and rapidly rising temperatures that could cause flash flooding. Roadways lacquered with ice that have contributed to dozens of deaths were thawing, but mountains of melting snow and falling rain were creating hazardous pools of water.

Ø JJ Commentary: Ahh, global warming, what a treat!

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