2013: The Year in Review


In January, Barack Obama was inaugurated for a second term as president of the United States. Also in January, cyclist Lance Armstrong confessed after years of denial that he had used performance-enhancing drugs to win the Tour de France again and again.

March saw white smoke at the Vatican — and word of the election of a new pope for the world’s Roman Catholics.  On February 11, 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics when he announced he was resigning for health reasons. It was the first papal resignation in nearly 600 years.

More than 100 cardinals from around the world traveled to the Vatican to elect a new pontiff, gathering in conclave to conduct their deliberations. While some expected a long wait, it was barely more than 24 hours before white smoke emerged from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina would become Pope Francis, the first non-European pontiff of the modern era and the first from Latin America.

Two crude bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, ripping through the crowd of runners and spectators. In the first major terrorism attack in the United States since 9/11, two pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the Boston Marathon finish line April 15, killing three people and wounding 260 others.

Three days later, hours after the Federal Bureau of Investigation released surveillance photos of two suspected bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev led authorities on a hunt across Boston. Tamerlan was killed during one shootout; his younger brother, Dzhokhar, was wounded, and was later found hiding in a boat in a backyard.

Dzhokhar is expected to go on trial next year, charged with use of a weapon of mass destruction, a capital crime. Intelligence agencies and the FBI failed to prevent the plot despite tips from Russian authorities that the Muslim brothers had been radicalized.

Terrorism analysts are studying what may have caused the brothers to allegedly transform from young party-throwing American immigrants to suspected bomb-toting terrorists willing to attack their adopted country.

Many Americans thought 2013 would be the Year of Gun Control.

After the Sandy Hook massacre last December, a majority of the public favored tougher gun laws. But on April 17, efforts to expand background checks, ban assault weapons, and limit ammunition magazines failed in the Senate.

Within a week, two gunmen had killed nine people – in Federal Way, Wash., and Manchester, Ill. – and 2013 has seen gunmen commit six murders, including the Sept. 16 killing of 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard.

More than 345 incidents have involved the shooting of at least four people. Headlines have ranged from a fatal Nevada school shooting, by a 12-year-old, to the accidental shootings of children as young as 2.

Obama has taken executive action on a host of issues related to gun violence, including flaws in mental-health policies. But the spike in demand for stricter national gun laws may have passed.

Polls this fall showed support hovering just below 50 percent.

More than 1,100 people died when the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in Dhaka on April 24. It was the worst disaster the country’s garment industry had ever seen and put a spotlight on the working conditions of labourers who make clothing for Western companies.

On May 20, thousands cowered in basements or fled in panic as one of the strongest tornadoes ever recorded struck the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, tearing up horse farms and trailers with 200-plus-mile-per-hour winds before destroying dense clumps of blue-collar tract houses. The nearly mile-wide EF5 tornado stayed on the ground for 40 minutes and killed 23 people – including children who sought shelter in a school basement.

Days later another tornado, nearly as large, struck near Oklahoma City again, injuring and killing several professional tornado chasers.

The May 20 twister was not Moore’s first brush with big tornadoes. A tornado outburst in 1999 spawned a massive twister that took a nearly identical path through the town.

This time, the storm showcased Oklahomans’ deep storm experience and rapid response, while also bringing renewed attention to building standards.

On May 6, three women escaped a Cleveland home where it was discovered they suffered systematic sexual and emotional abuse for a decade or more. Ariel Castro, a former school bus driver, kidnapped the women between 2002 and 2004.

A young girl, conceived as a result of rape, was also freed.

The event attracted international attention, not just because of the horrific conditions the women endured – they were often chained to a basement pole and forced to wear motorcycle helmets – but also because they were thought to be dead despite being within blocks of friends and family.

To prevent visitors from discovering his secret Castro fortified his home with locks, chains, and a homemade alarm system. He avoided a trial by pleading guilty to 937 criminal counts of kidnapping, rape, and assault, among other charges. One victim, Michelle Knight, told Castro at sentencing that she forgave him, but “can’t ever forget.”

He was found hanged in his prison cell in September, his death ruled a suicide.

In June, Edward Snowden sent shock waves around the world by leaking thousands of classified U.S. documents he had access to while working at the National Security Agency. The documents exposed an unprecedented program of surveillance on Americans and U.S. allies abroad.

Snowden may have leaked as many as 200,000 documents detailing surveillance programs with code names like XKeyscore, PRISM, and CO-TRAVELER. So far, documents show the NSA collecting “meta-data” on virtually all US phone calls for the past six years and about 5 billion cellphone records per day from overseas, including some of Americans.

They show the agency filtering global Internet traffic, including Google and social media.

Snowden’s crusade has spurred debate about privacy rights and surveillance: Congress is examining NSA practices, privacy lawsuits have been filed, and a White House panel would modify NSA practices.

Foreign governments are furious, while in polls, 74 percent of Americans say the NSA violated privacy. Snowden says he is “neither traitor nor hero. I’m an American.” Others say he should be jailed for life.

Snowden was later granted temporary asylum in Russia.

The campaign to achieve equal rights for gays and lesbians gained momentum in 2013. The number of states fully embracing gay marriage rose from nine to 16, evidencing a significant shift in public opinion.

And on June 26 the US Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

The 1996 law limited the receipt of a thousand federal benefits solely to those in marriages of one man and one woman. But in a landmark 5-to-4 decision, the justices invalidated the statute as a deprivation of “equal liberty” and “equal dignity.”

The decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Edie Windsor of New York City, who faced a $363,000 estate tax bill after the death of her lifelong partner, Thea Spyer. Had her spouse been a man, Windsor would have owed no tax.

The case left unresolved the broader question of whether the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage, or whether those rights will be decided on a state-by-state basis.

On July 13, a six-woman jury in Sanford, Fla., found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin.  The shooting of Trayvon and the subsequent trial of Zimmerman captivated America because the tragedy backlit twin racialized fears: the fear of young black men among some middle-class whites, and the fear among many black parents that violence against black children often goes unpunished.

The trial also invited intense reflection on several legal and cultural trends, including the proliferation of so-called stand-your-ground laws that allow armed citizens to shoot at the first hint of danger, and the rapid growth in the carrying of concealed weapons in public, as Zimmerman did.

The armed neighborhood watch captain had followed the unarmed teenager before claiming to fire in self-defense when the teen punched his pursuer. After the verdict, Obama suggested that Americans should ask themselves a question in honor of Trayvon: “Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?”

It was a boy for Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton in July. Prince George Alexander Louis is third in line to the British throne. Prince George arrived on July 22, and took his rightful place as third in line for the British throne.

A flight from Seoul to San Francisco crashed on landing at San Francisco International Airport in July. The 288 passengers and 16 crewmembers rushed out of emergency exits as the plane filled with smoke and flames. Three passengers died and more than 200 were sent to hospitals.

This July marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloody struggle fought in Pennsylvania that marked a turning point in the Civil War in the summer of 1863.

Speaking of civil war August, government of Bashir al-Assad was accused of using chemical weapons against its own people in Damascus, Syria killing more than 1,400 men, women and children. Fueled by the Arab Spring, Syrian protests have devolved into a brutal civil war with more than 2 million refugees and 120,000 others killed in a country of 21.1 million.

The use of sarin, whose prohibition Syria had agreed to in 1993, nearly brought direct U.S. action. The  reports caused  an outrage around the world and led to Syria’s agreeing to U.N. supervision of its chemical weapons stock.

Peace talks have been scheduled for January 2014.

In September, a small band of Islamic extremists opened fire at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Seventy-two people were killed and more than 200 were injured.

The federal government’s health insurance website was launched — though just barely. On Oct. 1, President Obama took to the Rose Garden to tout Day 1 of HealthCare.gov, where buying health insurance would be just like buying “a plane ticket on Kayak or a TV on Amazon.”

Instead, the launch of the federal “Obamacare” site was a train wreck like few seen in the annals of government mismanagement.  Early enrollments were far below expectations.

Nearly wo months and a 24/7 emergency tech response later, the site was much better, but glitches remained, especially on the “back end” that produces forms for insurance companies.

Obama also stumbled over his oft-repeated promise that “if you like your plan, you can keep it.” When proved wrong, he allowed insurers to extend old plans for a year, though not all state insurance commissioners went along.

Enrollments have picked up, especially on state-run marketplaces. But the ACA, the signature initiative of Obama’s presidency, is still a work in progress.

Uninsured Americans have until March 31 to enroll without penalty. Obama’s legacy hangs in the balance.

In October, a partial shutdown of the federal government inconvenienced World War II veterans and anti-Obamacare supporters and dented an already weak economy. Nonessential operations started grinding to a halt Oct. 1 because Congress hadn’t passed a budget or done anything else to fund government for the fiscal year that began that day.

For House Republican hard-liners, a twin set of fiscal deadlines – the dawn of the budget year and the Treasury’s plea for Congress to raise the nation’s arbitrary ceiling on public debt – offered a rare moment of political leverage against Obama and Senate Democrats.

But the insurgents failed to win any tax or entitlement reform or to force a defunding of Obamacare. Instead it produced a 16-day shutdown.

Services deemed essential continued but the episode may end up paring the economy’s growth rate by 0.2 to 0.6 percentage points. A bipartisan two-year compromise budget passed the House with overwhelming support December 12.

Typhoon Haiyan was one of the strongest tropical cyclones to ever hit land.

At first, the Philippines thought it might have dodged a bullet, as Haiyan — or Yolanda as it was known locally — moved rapidly over the archipelago. But when the storm blew ashore on Nov. 10, it flattened the central city of Tacloban, ripping homes to shreds, and left more than 5,000 people dead.

In November, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, agreed to curtail the country’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting economic sanctions, raising hopes for a new era of cooperation with Iran. And November 22 marked 50 years since John F. Kennedy was assassinated while driving in a motorcade through downtown Dallas.

When Nelson Mandela turned 95 in July, he was hospitalized in Pretoria for a recurring lung infection, and was placed on life support after his condition deteriorated. Released in September after a three-month stay, he died at his home in Johannesburg on December 5.

More than 91 world leaders, the largest gathering in the continent’s history, made their way to his memorial.

And also in December, the Federal Reserve Board announced that it will start to cut back on buying Treasury bonds because the economy is getting stronger on its own. At the same time, the stock market soared to record heights, up 25 percent for the year.

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