Signs of the Times (8/1/14)

Court Says Ground Zero Cross Can Stay

A memorial cross at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York can remain at the newly-opened facility, an appeals court ruled Monday. A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit found that the cross, located at ground zero, was “a symbol of hope” and historical in nature. It did not intentionally discriminate against a group of atheists who sued to have it removed, they ruled. The court also rejected arguments the traditional Christian cross was an impermissible mingling of church and state. The 17-foot cross in the museum was erected by rescue and recovery workers, and built from intersecting steel beams that had been part of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, after it collapsed during the al Qaeda terror attacks in 2001.

Scientist Fired for Research that Supports Creationism

A scientist at California State University has reportedly been terminated for his research which supports creationism. The scientist has now filed suit against the university, arguing that he was fired for his religious beliefs. Mark Armitage, a published scientist of over 30 years, found evidence that dinosaurs may have inhabited earth 4,000 years ago. While on the Hell Creek Formation excavation site in Montana, Armitage unearthed the the largest triceratops horn ever discovered. The scientist examined the soft tissue of the horn, believing it to be 4,000 years old at most. Previous research suggested that dinosaurs became extinct 60 million years ago. According to Armitage’s study, however, dinosaurs could have been a part of God’s creation. Armitage’s lawsuit claims that a CSU official shouted, “We are not going to tolerate your religion in this department!” in regard to the creationist research.

Al Qaeda Coffers Swell as Europe Pays Millions in Quiet Ransoms

Kidnapping Europeans for ransom has become a global business for Al Qaeda, bankrolling its operations across the globe. While European governments deny paying ransoms, an investigation by The New York Times found that Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates have earned at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which $66 million was paid just in the past year. These payments were made almost exclusively by European governments, who funnel the money through a network of proxies, sometimes masking it as development aid, according to interviews conducted for this article with former hostages, negotiators, diplomats and government officials in 10 countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Congress Fails to Act for Humanitarian Border Crisis

Congress failed to meet its Aug. 1 goal to address the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexican border, as weeks of work on emergency legislation was swamped by the politics of immigration. The past few days have seen Capitol Hill debate how to manage the tens of thousands of Central American children who have recently crossed the border. The talks were expanded to include President Barack Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the possibility of broader comprehensive immigration reform. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives ground to a halt Thursday afternoon after it became clear that passage of a $659 million bill backed by the House leadership was in jeopardy. House lawmakers postponed their five-week August recess to try again Friday, but the Democrat-controlled Senate is proceeding with its break after failing to advance its own $3.6 billion border-crisis bill.

House Approves Lawsuit against Obama over Abuse of Executive Power

The House on Wednesday approved a highly contentious lawsuit against President Obama over his alleged abuse of executive power, teeing up an election-year legal battle sure to spill onto the midterm campaign trail. The House backed the lawsuit resolution on a vote of 225-201, with all Democrats opposed. Republicans say the lawsuit is necessary to keep the president in constitutional check, after he allegedly exceeded his authority with unilateral changes to the Affordable Care Act. Democrats branded the effort a political charade aimed at stirring up GOP voters for this fall’s congressional elections. They also said it’s an effort by top Republicans to mollify conservatives who want Obama to be impeached — something House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he has no plans to do.

House, Senate Negotiators Reach Deal on VA-Reform Bill

House and Senate negotiators announced Monday they reached a compromise on a $17 billion emergency package to begin reforming the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, capping weeks of negotiations that appeared headed to impasse before the weekend. The deal was widely lauded, though some observers said it might not go far enough in restructuring the troubled agency. The bill would provide $10 billion for veterans to seek government-subsidized care from private health-care providers if they cannot get help from a VA clinic in a timely manner, or if they live more than 40 miles from a VA center.

Prices Increase Due to California Drought

Just how bad is the drought in California? It’s so bad, that in some extreme cases, thieves are stealing water. A father and daughter living off a water tank in the Central Valley report being ripped off eight times — 2,500 gallons disappeared. The lack of rain has pushed most of California into extreme or exceptional drought, the two worst levels, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. In most of California’s major reservoirs, the water supplies that sustain many communities are less than half full. The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts some meat and produce prices will rise as much as 6% as farmers pay more money to water crops and feed livestock. Earlier this year, beef prices hit a record high, and milk, butter, eggs, fruit and vegetables were also on the rise as the drought continued to ravage farms. Avocados could increase as much as 35 cents each, lettuce could increase up to 62 cents per head, and tomatoes could jump by 45 cents, up to $2.84 per pound. The fast-food chains Chipotle and In-N-Out Burger have already raised prices, partly blaming the drought.

Economic News

The U.S. economy added 209,000 jobs last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday. The number was a bit disappointing after 298,000 jobs were added in June, but still the broader trend remains “respectable”, economists said. Over the past six months, the economy has added 1.5 million jobs, marking the strongest six months for hiring since 2006. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate ticked up to 6.2% in July, from 6.1% in June as more workers joined the labor force. About 8.7 million American jobs were wiped out in just two years following the 2008 financial crisis. The economy finally gained them all back earlier this year.

The Labor Department says weekly applications for unemployment aid rose 23,000 to a seasonally adjusted 302,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell 3,500 to 297,250. That’s the lowest average since April 2006, more than a year before the Great Recession began at the end of 2007.

The nation’s gross domestic product expanded at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4% in the three months ended June 30, the Commerce Department said Wednesday, as consumer spending, and business investment and inventory stockpiling all rebounded strongly. The government said the economy shrank 2.1% in the first quarter, not as bad as the 2.9% contraction it previously reported. Extreme winter weather dampened consumer and business spending then. The government said Wednesday that consumer spending, which makes up more than two-thirds of the economy, increased 2.5% in the second quarter, more than double the 1.2% rise in first-quarter. Meanwhile, business investment in equipment surged 7%, vs. a 1% drop in the first quarter.

More than a third of the country is in trouble when it comes to paying debts on time; 35% of Americans have debt in collections, according to a study out Tuesday from the Urban Institute, which analyzed the credit files of 7 million Americans. That means the debt is so far past due that the account has been closed and placed in collections. This typically happens after the bill hasn’t been paid for 180 days. It also means the debt has been reported to credit bureaus and can affect credit scores.

U.S. home prices rose 9.3% in May from a year earlier, S&P reported. That’s down from a 10.8% annual increase for April and the 12%-13% gains shown over many of the past 12 months. The last time the index showed an annual gain this small was in February 2013 — also 9.3%. Analysts say that after last year’s rapid gains, slower-rising home prices is actually good for the market, helping keep homes affordable as more sellers put homes on the market and an improving economy pulls in more buyers.

The median American household saw its wealth decline by more than one-third in the past decade, according to a new estimate published by the Russell Sage Foundation. Researchers found that median net worth declined from $87,992 in 2003 to $56,335 in 2013. Median household wealth peaked at just under $100,000 in 2007, right before the housing bubble burst and the financial crisis began. While the researchers for the Russell Sage Foundation found that households in the top 10 percent have recovered the wealth levels of 2003, lower-wealth households have not.

Toyota remains No. 1 in global vehicles sales after the first six months of this year, followed by Volkswagen which bumped General Motors out of second place as the U.S. automaker grapples with a recall scandal. GM had been the top-selling automaker for more than seven decades before losing the title to Toyota in 2008.

Persecution Watch

Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Monday that Turkmenistan has joined the State Department’s list of worst religious freedom offenders. The State Department’s “Countries of Particular Concern” list had remained static since 2006, when eight countries — Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan — were designated as CPCs. Justifying the addition of Turkmenistan, Kerry cited reports of people detained, beaten and tortured for their beliefs, prohibited from wearing religious attire and fined for distributing religious materials. Turkmenistan, a mostly Sunni Muslim country in Central Asia, once part of the Soviet Union, forbids private worship and greatly restricts foreign travel for pilgrimages and religious education.

In the latest effort to curb the rapid expansion Christianity in China, police officers removed crosses from two churches in the coastal province of Zhejiang. According to The New York Times, officials arrived Monday at Longgang Township Gratitude Church with a crane and blowtorch to remove the ten-foot red cross. Members of the Salvation Army Christian Church also clashed with officers on Monday who attempted to remove the church’s cross. On Friday, parishioners of Wenling Church in the city of Taizhou unsuccessfully held off some 4,000 police officers that removed two crosses. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) claims these recent incidents are part of a government effort to either demolish church buildings or remove religious symbols. The estimates for the number of churches wholly or partly demolished range from 130 to over 200.

Middle East

A cease-fire in Gaza unraveled Friday less than two hours after it took effect, with both sides accusing each other of violating the fledgling truce and the Israeli military saying one of its soldiers was captured. Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said an Israeli attack on Rafah in southern Gaza killed at least 27 people and wounded more than 100. The humanitarian truce had been announced Thursday by the United Nations and United States, after weeks of fighting and more than 1,500 deaths in Gaza, most of them civilians. Around a quarter of a million people in the small, impoverished territory have been displaced by the conflict, according to the United Nations. That’s about 14% of Gaza’s population of 1.8 million.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his country to prepare for “a protracted campaign.” Netanyahu said he won’t accept any truce that will not allow Israel to achieve its goal of destroying the tunnel network it says is used to carry out attacks inside Israel. Hamas said it will only lay down arms once Israel and Egypt give guarantees that a seven-year Gaza border blockade will be lifted. The IDF received authorization on Thursday to mobilize an additional 16,000 reserve soldiers to continue the operation in the Gaza Strip as rockets continued to be fired at Israeli communities

Militants have launched more than 2,600 rockets into Israel and has an arsenal of over 10,000, according to the Israel Defense Forces, most hidden in tunnels. Israel has uncovered 32 tunnels in Gaza. Israel does not know how many more it may find. More than 1,200 Palestinians have been killed, as have 53 Israeli soldiers and three civilians in Israel, as of Wednesday.


International investigators’ quest to carry out their duties at the crash site of the downed Malaysian airliner hit another roadblock Wednesday: land mines, according to Ukrainian officials. Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council claims that “terrorists” — the term it uses to describe rebels — have set up firing positions and laid mines on the access road to the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. This makes the work of international experts “impossible,” the agency said.

Pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine reportedly have suffered their biggest battlefield setbacks in months as the U.S. and European countries prepare to ramp up pressure on Russian leader Vladimir Putin by imposing more sanctions against Moscow later this week. The Wall Street Journal reported that Ukraine army forces had made rapid gains near the site where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed July 17 and were apparently trying to split the territory held by the rebels into two parts between the major cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Officials also told the Journal that the Ukraine army was attempting to cut off supply lines from Russia to the rebels.


European leaders are trying to hit Russia where it hurts. They’re issuing new, tougher sanctions targeting eight of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “cronies” and taking a swipe at Russia’s finance, energy and weapons industries. The new sanctions will restrict Russian state-owned banks from accessing European capital markets, and throw up more red tape to stop or slow the export of oil-related equipment and technology to Russia. All new contracts for arms imports and exports between the EU and Russia will stop. There will even be a prohibition on exporting goods and technology that can be used for both military and civilian purposes. President Obama on Tuesday announced expanded U.S. sanctions on Russia, joining the European Union in a coordinated effort to use Russia’s economy as leverage to compel Moscow to stop fueling the deadly conflict in Ukraine.


John Sopko, the inspector general charged with monitoring aid sent by the U.S. to Afghanistan, has identified potentially billions of dollars wasted in Afghanistan, including donation of planes the local government doesn’t need or can’t use, weapons that disappear as soon as they’re handed over and and construction of brand new buildings that are basically firetraps. In a steady stream of audit reports, Sopko’s office of Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, has spotlighted seemingly endless waste in the war-torn nation. In addition to the recent flurry of reports, SIGAR has criticized the spending of $34 million to build Camp Leatherneck in the Washir District of Afghanistan, a 64,000-square-foot facility that was never used and sits empty to this day. Another $34 million of U.S. taxpayer money was wasted on a disastrous soybean program that Afghan farmers have rejected.


A strong explosion ripped through the main police building in Benghazi early Friday, nearly flattening it, days after Islamic militias overran army barracks and claimed control of the eastern Libyan city. The police headquarters has been empty for several days after militias pounded it with shelling. The blast, which was heard across Benghazi and shook houses in surrounding area, appeared to be from explosives planted in the building. A coalition of Islamic militias over the past week captured a number of army bases in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, driving out troops and police and seizing large weapons stores.


A breakdown in talks between Argentina and U.S. creditors late Wednesday has sent the country tumbling into its second default in 13 years and shifted focus to what effect that default could have on global financial markets. Investors had already been bracing for bad news. And any remaining hopes for a last-minute deal were crushed when Argentina and the hedge funds holding its debt couldn’t strike a deal with a court-appointed mediator in talks in New York. Argentine Economy Minister Axel Kicillof said the country wouldn’t swallow the demands of investors led by U.S. hedge funds. The Argentine government has a confrontational stance toward the investors who have been hoping for a payout, with Kicillof calling them “vulture funds.”


The deadliest Ebola outbreak in history continues to plague West Africa as leaders scramble to stop the virus from spreading. Over the weekend, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf closed most of the country’s borders. The few points of entry that are still open will have Ebola testing centers and will implement preventive measures, she said. The president also placed restrictions on public gatherings and ordered hotels, restaurants and other entertainment venues to play a five-minute video on Ebola safety. As of July 20, the World Health Organization had confirmed 224 cases of Ebola in Liberia, including 127 deaths. Overall, Ebola has killed at least 660 people in West Africa. Fears that the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa that has killed more than 670 people could go global have led to health officials in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong quarantining airline passengers who have shown symptoms of the deadly disease. The U.S. Peace Corps plans to evacuate hundreds of volunteers from the three affected West African countries. Two volunteers were under isolation after having contact with a person who later died of the virus.

There’s a serious danger lurking in the water off the Florida coast – vibrio vulnificus, a flesh-eating bacteria that thrives in warm saltwater. In all, 32 people have been sickened and 10 people have died from the flesh-eating bacteria during the past few years. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, skin lesions, fever, chills and a decline in blood pressure. Officials issued a new warning about the bacteria Monday, telling anyone with an open cut to stay out of the water and reminding all swimmers to wash off before going homeThe Florida Department of Health also warned that consuming raw oysters or shellfish could put people in danger for contracting the disease, so always be sure to cook seafood before consumption.


Less than a year after the Rim fire left hundreds of thousands of acres charred in and around Yosemite National Park, firefighters have returned to battle another blaze that’s growing quickly. California firefighters are making progress on a pair of fast-moving California wildfires that have already claimed nearly two dozen homes. About half of the homes in the path of the El Portal fire have been dropped from evacuation orders as the inferno burns in Yosemite National Park. The wildfire has burned more than 3,500 acres of land and is 34 percent contained. With the exception of some smoke in Yosemite valley, the park itself was largely unaffected by the fire and remained open. The fire has destroyed a home and a duplex and burned through more than 5 square miles since it began on Saturday.

Fire crews also were battling a blaze in Sierra National Forest about 60 miles northeast of Fresno that grew substantially late Tuesday and had spread across nearly 9 square miles. It was threatening about 20 homes, though they were not under mandatory evacuation orders. Several campgrounds and cabins were evacuated and closed. The fire was 95 percent contained after charring more than 6 1/2 square miles and destroying 19 homes and 47 outbuildings. Mop-up operations were expected to last several days.


An EF2 tornado packing winds up to 120 mph tore the Boston suburbs of Revere and Chelsea on Monday morning, carving a three-square-mile wide swatch of damage through a residential area. Although the twister started in Chelsea, the overwhelming majority of damage was in nearby Revere where 65 homes and businesses were damaged and 13 are uninhabitable. About 2,800 residences were without power. The Fire Department received dozens of calls reporting partial building and roof collapses, and downed trees and power lines. Windows on several buildings were blown out falling trees crushed several cars. Two tornadoes also hit the Denver area Monday afternoon, temporarily shutting down Denver International Airport.

At least thirty people have been killed in a major landslide that hit a remote village in western India Wednesday and swept away at least 40 houses. More than 100 people are presumed to have been buried alive. Rescue efforts were being hampered by continued heavy rains. The Pune district about is 94 miles southeast of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. The nearest medical center is about 9 miles from the village.

Heavy rain brought flooding this week to many European countries. The flooding turned deadly in Romania, where at least two people have died. About 300 people were stranded by floods in a village near the Gilort River in southern Romania, which burst its banks. Earlier in the week, flash flooding was reported in southern England, France, Belgium and Germany. The severe weather, associated with a strong upper-air disturbance, moved farther east into eastern and southern Europe midweek. Heavy rain was reported from Poland to Italy, with a few tornadoes reported in the Balkans as well.

Winter cold kills more than twice as many Americans as does summer heat, according to a report released today by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Based on death certificate data from 2006-10, the report’s authors found that “about 2,000 U.S. residents died each year from weather-related causes of death.” The CDC report found that 63% of these deaths were attributed to exposure to excessive natural cold, hypothermia or both, while about 31% of these deaths were attributed to excessive natural heat, heat stroke, sun stroke or all three.


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