Signs of the Times (3/11/13)

Obama Sequesters 9/11 Victims

With the Sequester, the Obama Administration is taking $27 million from the 9/11 Victim’s Fund even while it gives Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt a cash infusion of $250 million. “In other words, the American victims of terrorism are making financial sacrifices while the ideological fathers of modern jihad are getting an economic stimulus – at U.S. taxpayer expense. Jihadists should get nothing from American taxpayers,” writes Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law & Justice.

60,000 Border and Customs Agents Told to Take Furloughs

Sixty-thousand federal employees responsible for securing the nation’s borders and facilitating trade will be furloughed for as many as 14 days starting next month because of $85 billion in cross-government spending cuts. The federal government notified the workers on Thursday, CNN reports. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said the furloughs and other austerity measures would cause delays at ports of entry, including international arrivals at airports, and would reduce the number of border patrol officers on duty at any one time. David Aguilar, the agency’s deputy commissioner, said it must cut about $754 million by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. The agency plans to institute furloughs throughout its departments, a hiring freeze — and to reduce or eliminate overtime, compensatory time, travel and training. Other federal agencies are following similar steps because of the spending cuts that took effect on March 1 through sequestration.

  • The Obama administration is targeting the sequester cuts to advance their agenda

Communities Mull Mandates for Guns

A town of 140 people in western Maine is considering an ordinance making gun ownership mandatory, the latest of a handful of communities nationwide to pass or consider such a rule even though the measures are widely considered unenforceable. Communities from Idaho to Georgia have been inspired to “require” or recommend their residents arm themselves ever since a gunman killed 26 youngsters and educators Dec. 14 in a school in Newtown, Conn., and raised fears among gun owners about an impending restriction on Second Amendment rights. Backed by gun rights supporters, the ordinance is intended to pre-emptively block gun-control laws, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said. The idea has also caught on in Nelson, Georgia, a city of just over 1,300 about 50 miles north of downtown Atlanta, where supporters of the gun-ownership proposal say light police patrols leave city residents virtually unprotected for most of the day.

New Law Lets South Dakota Schools Arm Teachers

School boards in South Dakota will be able to let school employees, hired security personnel or volunteers carry guns in schools under a law signed Friday by Gov. Dennis Daugaard. The law, set to go into effect July 1, will let school boards establish “school sentinel” programs. Under these programs, the school boards can arm people “to secure or enhance the deterrence of physical threat and defense of the school, its students, its staff, and members of the public on the school premises against violent attack,” according to the legislation. All school sentinels would first be required to complete a training program. Some other states, including Utah, also allow teachers to have loaded weapons inside classrooms.

Gun Ownership Has Declined over Several Decades

The household gun ownership rate has fallen from an average of 50 percent in the 1970s to 49 percent in the 1980s, 43 percent in the 1990s and 35 percent in the 2000s. In 2012, the share of American households with guns was 34 percent, according to survey results released on Thursday. Measuring the level of gun ownership can be a vexing problem, with various recent national polls reporting rates between 35 percent and 52 percent. Responses can vary because the wording of questions differ.

Public Transportation Ridership Increasing

Ridership on buses, subways and other modes of public transportation in the USA rose 1.5% to 10.5 billion trips last year, the highest annual total since 2008, according to a new report. Although Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath slowed ridership on some of the nation’s largest transit systems, at least 16 systems reported record ridership numbers in 2012, says the American Public Transportation Association. The increase in transit ridership was driven, at least partly, by high gas prices, the volatility of those prices and the nation’s changing demographics. The popularity of public transportation is increasing, especially among Baby Boomers, empty-nesters and Millennials, who total about 150 million people.

America’s Fastest Growing Job Pays Poorly

Home health care aide is the fastest growing job segment in the U.S. but it pays poorly. These nearly 2 million (mostly minorities and women) workers do everything from prepare meals and clean homes, to bathe and change bedpans for elderly and disabled patients. As Baby Boomers age, this job is expected to explode, growing 70% between 2010 and 2020, according to the Labor Department. That makes it the single fastest growing job in the United States. But even though there are plenty of job opportunities, many of these people make the same wage as teenagers flipping burgers or selling clothes at the mall. The average hourly wage is just $9.70 an hour, according to the Labor Department.

Economic News

The jobs recovery is broadening as the housing revival and rising consumer wealth begin to lift an array of industries, from mortgage lending to charities. The spread of employment gains to previously lagging industries makes for a more sustainable recovery that’s less vulnerable to unforeseen events that could hobble certain sectors, economists say.

Federal government jobs fell by 4,200 in February, the fifth month in a row those jobs have been zapped from the economy. And, thanks to the automatic budget cuts, it’s going to get worse. In contrast to gains in the private sector, a total of 33,000 federal worker jobs have been lost since January 2012 — and that does not include jobs at the Postal Service, which is in the midst of a crisis of its own. Federal agencies have been freezing jobs as workers retire or leave for the private sector.

The supply of homes for sale is still unusually tight as the spring buying season opens, helping sellers by turning up the heat on already-rising prices. The number of homes listed for sale was down almost 17% in late February vs. a year earlier. In some California markets, they were down more than 40%.The supply crunch is likely to last all year.

The nation’s biggest banks, ranked by assets, agreed to pay more than $60 billion in settlements related to the national credit crisis and mortgage-related cases during the last three years, a new survey shows. Bank of America led the way, with more than $40 billion in settlements announced so far. Wells Fargo announced more than $8 billion in settlements while JPMorgan Chase agreed to a $1.95 billion national settlement with the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency over mortgage loan and foreclosure abuses. Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Metlife and Morgan Stanley also agreed to settlements in the millions.

Middle East

In what scientists describe as the worst locust swarm in decades, a massive locust outbreak—estimates run as high as thirty million—has now moved from Egypt into Israel. It was 1959 the last time something this severe threatened the crops and livelihoods of the Jewish people.

Persecution Watch

Hundreds of people in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore attacked a Christian neighborhood Saturday and set fire to homes after hearing accusations that a Christian man had committed blasphemy against Islam’s prophet. Blasphemy is a serious crime in Pakistan that can carry the death penalty but sometimes outraged residents exact their own retribution for perceived insults of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed. Pakistan is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim and people of other faiths, including the nation’s small Christian community, are often viewed with hostility. Outraged Pakistani Christians took to the streets of Lahore on Sunday, protesting a rash of violence against their community over the weekend.

International Christian Concern reports that 125 Christians have been beaten and detained over the past week in Eritrea. “Police arrested these church members from homes and workplaces during broad daylight and then marched them through town to the police station while beating them,” an investigator for Open Doors said. Among the 125 Christians, 45 men and women were arrested on Feb. 27 for worshipping outside highly regulated government-approved churches in Eritrea. “Being a Christian in Eritrea is like living in hell,” a source inside Eritrea said. “Christians are treated like enemy number one.” President Isaias Afwerki, who has been in power since 1993, has instituted a totalitarian regime that seeks to control all aspects of life in Eritrea, including the religious practices of its citizens. “Systematic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations continue in Eritrea,” the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom states. “These violations include torture, sometimes resulting in death, arbitrary detention and prolonged bans on religious activities.” It is estimated over 2,000 Christians remain imprisoned in Eritrea, exposed to some of the most inhuman conditions in the world.

Islamic rebels have been taking over Christian villages in Syria, leaving Christians facing some tough choices, CBN News reports. A Muslim group recently captured the Christian village of Yacoubiyeh, and many residents fled, leaving behind empty homes and damaged churches. Some say they won’t return until they see how the Muslim rebel commander treats minorities. Though the commander says he will treat everyone fairly, like many rebel leaders he rules according to strict Islamic law. Elsewhere in Syria, reports abound of Muslim rebels murdering Christians and kidnapping others for ransom.

Syria

Syrian rebels on Saturday freed 21 U.N. peacekeepers after holding them hostage for four days, ending a sudden entanglement with the world body that earned those trying to oust President Bashar Assad a flood of negative publicity. The peacekeepers were part of a force that has spent four decades monitoring an Israeli-Syrian cease-fire without incident. The Filipino peacekeepers crossed from Syria to safety in Jordan on Saturday afternoon. Their captors from the Martyrs of the Yarmouk Brigades initially said they would only release the hostages once Syrian troops withdrew from the area. However, as the abduction made headlines, the rebels eventually dropped their demand and began negotiating a safe passage for the peacekeepers with U.N. officials.

Egypt

An Egyptian court on Saturday confirmed the death sentences against 21 people for taking part in a deadly soccer riot but acquitted seven police officials for their alleged role in the violence. On Saturday, the court announced its verdict for the other 52 defendants in the case, sentencing 45 of them to prison, including two senior police officers who got 15 years terms each. Protesters were enraged by the verdict and torched the soccer federation headquarters and a police club in Cairo in protest. As expected, the court’s decision failed to defuse tensions over the case, which has taken on political undercurrents at a time when the entire nation is mired in political turmoil over a worsening economy and growing opposition to the rule of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Afghanistan

A suicide bomber on a bicycle struck outside the Afghan Defense Ministry on Saturday, one of two attacks that killed at least 18 people as U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited the nation. Nine people were killed in the bombing at the ministry, a fresh reminder that insurgents continue to fight and challenges remain as the U.S.-led NATO force hands over the country’s security to the Afghans. About a half hour later, another suicide bomber attacked a police checkpoint in Khost, the capital of Khost province in eastern Afghanistan. An Afghan policeman and eight civilians, who were mostly children, died in that blast. “We are still at war,” Hagel said shortly before he arrived on Friday, the same day that three men wearing Afghan army uniforms and driving an Afghan army vehicle forced their way onto a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan and opened fire, killing one civilian contractor and wounding other U.S. troops.

Kenya

Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta appears to have won the presidential election in the first round with the slimmest of majorities. Final numbers showed Kenyatta with 50.03 % of the vote. He needs more than 50 % to win outright and avoid a runoff with Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who had 43.3%. Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s founding president, is indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court and if he becomes president, problems with Western allies are expected.

North Korea

A new joint military exercise between South Korea and the United States began Monday amid heightened tensions across the region. The North Korean army has declared invalid the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953, the official newspaper of the country’s ruling Workers’ Party said Monday. The armistice agreement, signed in 1953, ended the three-year war between North and South Korea in a truce. “The U.S. has reduced the armistice agreement to a dead paper,” the newspaper said. North Korea also cut off direct phone links with South Korea at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. The phone line was the emergency link for quick, two-way communication between the two sides. Since the two sides remain technically at war, it remains to be seen whether the invalidation means that North Korea will resume hostilities.

Weather

Omaha public schools are shut down Monday, March 11 as a winter storm blanketed the region with heavy snow.  Interstate 80 was shut down for part of Sunday after multiple car accidents littered nearly 200 miles between Nebraska and Iowa. There were several reports of vehicles hitting the median or going into ditches. The National Weather Service forecast up to 8 inches of snow Sunday around east-central Nebraska and southwest Iowa. The heaviest snow was expected in a swath from around David City in Nebraska, to Missouri Valley and Onawa in Iowa. Up to 9 inches of snow was possible in some areas.

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