Signs of the Times (3/8/12)

Virginia Governor Signs Pre-Abortion Ultrasound Bill

Gov. Bob McDonnell on Wednesday signed into law a controversial bill that requires women to have non-invasive abdominal ultrasound exams before undergoing abortions. The Republican governor’s signature means the mandate takes effect in July for abortion providers across Virginia. The bill not only sparked protests the past three weeks by angry women’s rights groups and others that led to 30 arrests at the Capitol Saturday, it subjected Virginia to scorn by columnists and political talk shows and ridicule from television comedians.

  • Mockery is the chief weapon of godless, irrational demagogues

Utah Lawmakers Pass Abstinence-Only Sex Education Curriculum

The Utah Legislature has passed a controversial bill mandating an abstinence-only sex education curriculum for Utah public schools or allows schools to drop the subject altogether. The bill, which passed Tuesday largely along party lines, defines sex education as abstinence-only and bans instruction in sexual intercourse, homosexuality, contraceptive methods and sexual activity outside of marriage. The measure now goes to Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, who is expected to sign it. Republicans sponsored the bill in response to what they viewed as inappropriate material being presented in classrooms, specifically materials produced by Planned Parenthood. Under current law, parents can opt to keep their children out of the program.

Twelve States Propose Eliminating Permits for Concealed Weapons

Legislatures in a dozen states are considering laws that would eliminate requirements that residents obtain permits to carry concealed weapons. Gun-control advocates view the efforts as part of a long-range strategy to eventually weaken gun laws across the country. But supporters say armed, law-abiding citizens prevent crime pointing out that Crime rates are low in four states — Alaska, Arizona, Vermont and Wyoming — that already allow residents to carry without a permit. States that have been or are considering bills in current legislative sessions include Colorado, Iowa, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota and Virginia.

Dozens Arrested in California Education Protests

A day of boisterous protests over cuts to higher education that included thousands of students swarming the state Capitol ended with dozens of arrests after demonstrators refused to leave the building. Authorities on Monday evening arrested 72 people, most of whom will be charged with trespassing. Protesters chanted “We’re doing this for your kids,” as one by one they were lifted by the arms, handcuffed with plastic ties, and led away. Students angry over steep tuition increases and fewer courses at California’s public universities and colleges waved signs and chanted, “They say cut back; we say fight back.” Tuition has nearly doubled in the past five years, to $13,000 for resident undergraduates at University of California schools and to $6,400 at California State University schools. Community college fees are set to rise to $46 per unit by this summer, up from $20 per unit in 2007.

  • The economy’s a mess, particularly in California, but no one is willing to sacrifice anything to fix the problem, rendering collapse almost inevitable

Solar Storm Headed Toward Earth

The biggest solar storm in five years is expected to bombard the Earth on Thursday, potentially upsetting airplane flights, GPS systems and electric power grids. The first effects of the storm will come at about 7 a.m. ET, says Joe Kunches of the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo. Kunches says the storm should last about a day. On the “G1 to G5” scale of geomagnetic storm intensity, with G5 being the worst, Kunches says this storm is expected to be a G3, considered to be a “strong” one. The storm has the potential to trip electrical power grids, although Kunches said power companies around the world have been alerted for possible outages. Solar storms can also disrupt GPS systems or make them less accurate. The storm can lead to communication problems and added radiation around the North and South poles, which will probably force airlines to reroute flights. NASA reports that the current increase in the number of solar storms is part of the sun’s normal 11-year solar cycle, during which activity on the sun ramps up to the solar maximum, which should peak in late 2013.

Drug Companies have Paid $8 billion in Fraud Fines

The nation’s largest drug makers have paid at least $8 billion in fines for repeatedly defrauding Medicare and Medicaid over the past decade, but they remain in business with the federal government because they are often the sole suppliers of critical products, records show. Government investigators say their hands are tied with the tools they have. They can exclude Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies from providing medications to Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries as punishment for bad behavior, but that would leave beneficiaries without drugs patented through a particular company. Or they can fine the companies and force them to enter corporate integrity agreements that require government oversight and a promise not to defraud the government again — a promise that often goes unkept.

  • Drug companies are the among the most corrupt organizations on earth

Economic News

Consumer borrowing rose by $17.8 billion in January, the Federal Reserve said Wednesday. That followed similar gains in December and November. The gains for those three months were the largest in a decade and helped consumer borrowing climb to a seasonally adjusted $2.5 trillion. That nearly matches the pre-recession borrowing level. Many economists believe the rise in borrowing is a sign that consumers are feeling more confident about the economy. But consumers are also borrowing more at a time when their wages have not kept pace with inflation.

Some economists say the real reason for the recent fast drop in unemployment isn’t that there are suddenly so many new jobs — it’s that far fewer people than expected are looking for work. Nearly three years into the recovery, the unemployment rate has tumbled even though new job gains are far smaller than in past recoveries. One factor is the 1.1 million discouraged unemployed workers — some of whom won’t come back into the job market even as it improves. Another is the growing number of retirements among the Baby Boomer generation, a generational demographic shift that’s converging with a slowly accelerating economic recovery.

The U.S. economy is improving faster than economists had expected. They now foresee slightly stronger growth and hiring than they did two months earlier. Those are among the findings of an Associated Press survey late last month of leading economists. The economists think the unemployment rate will fall from its current 8.3% to 8% by Election Day. The U.S. economy has been improving steadily for months. Industrial output jumped in January after surging in December by the most in five years. Auto sales are strong. Consumer confidence has reached its highest point in a year. Even the housing market is showing signs of turning around.

  • The European debt crisis will trigger a domino breakdown of the economic order later this year, upsetting these rosy predictions

Israel

In a speech before the chief American-Israel lobby group late Monday, Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu said he was running out of patience with international sanctions meant to force Iran to give up their nuclear program and vowed not to gamble with Israel’s security. “I will never let Israel live under the shadow of annihilation,” said Netanyahu, in his address before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Hours after meeting with President Obama and other administration officials, Netanyahu took a tough line with Iran and members of the international community that don’t share Israel’s position that time is running out to deal with Tehran.

Iran

Iranians say they are feeling the pinch of sanctions in the price of meat and other daily essentials, but in spite of growing popular anger toward the government, analysts believe little will change. The United States and the European Union have stepped up sanctions on Iran in response to the country’s development of nuclear capabilities and have frozen the Iranian central bank’s assets. Inflation is now at over 20%. But, if Western governments are counting on economic deprivation to bring radical change in Iran, analysts say they are likely to be disappointed. “History shows that sanctions do not yield regime change — this is particularly true for states that emerged out of revolutions,” said Middle East analyst Arshin Adib-Moghaddam.

Iran will grant U.N. inspectors access to a military complex where the U.N. nuclear agency suspects secret atomic work has been carried out, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported Tuesday. Tehran had previously banned U.N. inspectors from visiting the Parchin installation, southeast of Tehran, but a statement by Iran’s permanent envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency said the visit will now be allowed in a gesture of good will. However, it would require an agreement between the two sides on a guidelines for the inspection, ISNA reported.

  • Just more stalling tactics by Iran. ‘Guidelines’ will become another stumbling block.

Syria

Syria’s president defied mounting international pressure to end the year-old crackdown on an uprising against him and said Tuesday he was determined to go on fighting what he called “foreign-backed terrorism.” The international outcry against Syria has been growing louder by the day. On Monday, U.S. Sen. John McCain called for airstrikes against the country, saying the United States has a moral and strategic obligation to force out Assad and his loyalists. President Obama has resisted calls to step into the turmoil in Syria to stop Assad’s bloody crackdown on protesters. He told a news conference Tuesday that the international community has not been able to muster a campaign against Syria like the one in Libya that ousted Gadhafi last year.

The military crackdown has turned to southern Daraa province, where the uprising began a year ago. Troops shelled a village in Daraa and clashed with military defectors. Syria’s deputy oil minister announced his defection in an online video that emerged Thursday, making him the highest ranking official to abandon President Bashar Assad’s regime since the country’s uprising erupted a year ago. There has been a steady stream of army defections who have joined a group of dissidents known as the Free Syrian Army, now numbering in the thousands, but civilian government officials have remained largely loyal to Assad’s regime.

Libya

Tribal leaders and militia commanders have declared a semiautonomous region in oil-rich eastern Libya. Thousands of major tribal leaders, militia commanders and politicians made the declaration Tuesday in a ceremony held in the eastern city of Benghazi. Vowing to end decades of marginalization under ousted ruler Moammar Gadhafi, the gathering named a council to run the affairs of the newly created region. Libya’s National Transitional Council, the interim central government, has repeatedly voiced its opposition to the creation of an eastern region, warning it could eventually lead to the breakup of the North African nation.

Libyan militias that are sitting on stockpiles of portable anti-aircraft missiles will probably not relinquish them until they reach a broad political agreement with the country’s fledgling central government. “Their ultimate leverage is they’re armed,” said Andrew Shapiro, an assistant secretary of State who oversees efforts to account for the missiles, which are prized by terrorists. “They’re not going to give that up until they are satisfied that their interests are being taken into account.” The missiles are small enough to fit in the trunk of a car and can be used to attack civilian aircraft.

Afghanistan

Commanders plan to reduce the number of U.S. troops by about half in southwestern Afghanistan — once the heartland of the Taliban insurgency — amid signs that the militants there have been weakened and local Afghan forces are growing in strength. The number of U.S. troops in the southwestern region is expected to decline to about 10,000 by October, down from nearly 20,000 at the end of last year. The White House has ordered that 23,000 U.S. troops withdraw by October as part of a plan to bring the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to pre-surge levels. These military wins are considered key milestones on the long and daunting road out of Afghanistan — with a targeted withdrawal of U.S. combat forces by the end of 2013.

But the reluctance of everyday Afghans to embrace a pillar of the Western-backed government — its judiciary — shows the limits of a decade of U.S. nation-building efforts in a country with deeply rooted traditions and a citizenry with fluid allegiances. “The limited, unresponsive, and unreliable nature of the Afghan justice system is a central source of Afghans’ grievances with their government and has opened the door to Taliban shadow governance,” according to the U.S. State Department’s Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy.

  • No Islamic society will embrace Western-style justice.

Nigeria

Members of the Muslim jihadist group Boko Haram are vowing to “eradicate Christianity” in Nigeria. Reports coming out of Nigeria over the past several days show that the group whose name means “Western education is evil” is launching a new terror campaign aimed at killing Christians and Jews in northern Nigeria. The Nigerian news site Bikya Masr reports that the jihadi group has declared war on all Christians living in northern Nigeria. Estimates put the casualties in Boko Haram’s campaign at more than 100 dead since Christmas.

  • Allah, god of hate, murder and evil: Jesus, God of Love, Forgiveness and Salvation for all. You choose.

Laos

A pastor has been released from prison in Laos after being locked up for nearly 13 years because of his Christian activities, ASSIST News Service reports. Bounchan Kanthavong was set free Feb. 2, having been arrested in June 1999 and sentenced to 12 years in jail for treason and sedition. According to the ministry Barnabas Fund, Bounchan’s only “crimes” appear to have been receiving Bible training and sharing his faith with customers in his clothing shop; his actions were perceived as a threat to national security and the traditional Lao religion of spirit worship, and were thus interpreted as treason. Lao authorities warned him repeatedly to stop practicing and sharing Christianity, and ordered him to cease all worship activities at his shop, but his witness led to around 70 people accepting Christ. Following his arrest, his wife took over the leadership of their Christian community, which has grown to more than 3,000 believers today. Bounchan refused to renounce Christ to leave prison early, and his health suffered during his time in jail.

Russia

Tens of thousands of demonstrators protesting alleged voting irregularities Monday were met by security forces who arrested more than 200 people. Chased by rows of riot police, demonstrators blocked traffic on Moscow’s main thoroughfare chanting “Putin is a thief!” and “Revote!” Putin, president from 2000 to 2008 before becoming prime minister because of term limits, won more than 63% of Sunday’s vote, which the opposition and independent observers said was marred by massive fraud. It was also Putin who disposed of the direct election of governors, and it is he who has overseen the banning of most opposition candidates from state-controlled media. Many people seeking more democratic freedoms expressed desperation that Putin’s victory will end their hopes.

  • Russia is returning to its totalitarian roots as it prepares for its end-time role as the bear from the north

Honduras

Poverty, crime and corruption have overwhelmed Honduras, a fledgling democracy engulfed in political chaos and designated the murder capital of Latin America. Gang and drug violence has risen sharply in Central America, and Honduras is one of the countries struggling to combat it. Drug cartels bribe security forces and judges to look the other way, according to the World Bank. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world at 82 homicides per 100,000 people in 2010, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The turmoil has prompted many Hondurans to flee north.

  • The end-time spirit of lawlessness continues to expand its influence just as the Bible prophesizes

Weather

Afghan authorities say an avalanche has destroyed a village in northeastern Afghanistan, with scores feared dead. Officials said Tuesday that at least 50 people have been confirmed dead, but that they expect the toll to rise. The avalanche occurred Sunday night in Darwaz district. Two hundred people lived in the village and initial reports are that only three women and one child survived.

Indiana’s homeland security agency says snow that fell overnight on southern Indiana is creating new hazards for residents cleaning up after Friday’s deadly tornadoes. The roads and ground are slippery as residents resume searching their ruined homes for valuables and cleaning up storm debris. Snow is also adding to the misery of storm victims cleaning up in West Liberty, Ky., where a tornado demolished the downtown and neighborhoods in the eastern Kentucky town. Thousands of business owners are assessing damage and struggling to reopen following the massive 10-state tornado outbreak. Early estimates are that 580 businesses and homes were destroyed or seriously damaged in Kentucky’s Clark County in the storms on Friday.

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