At least 120 people were killed in Pakistan Thursday in a series of bombing attacks mostly targeting Shiite Muslims and government soldiers. Eighty-six deaths came in a twin bombing in the southern city of Quetta, with scores dying in an initial blast followed by more deaths when a car bomb struck police and rescuers who arrived at the scene. The banned Sunni group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility for the attack, prompting fears of worsening sectarian violence in Pakistan after more than 400 deaths in 2012.
Thursday’s bombings came hours after at least six people were killed in the seventh publicly known U.S. drone strike inside Pakistan in less than two weeks. The Obama administration has begun 2013 with a flurry of Pakistan strikes, raising speculation it is accelerating the bombings before its capacity to carry them out is diminished with the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of next year. According to a tally by the website Long War Journal, U.S. drones have already killed as many as 11 civilians and 30 suspected militants in the first 10 days of the year. If confirmed, that would mean a death ratio of more than one civilian for every three suspected militants. It also would already exceed the official civilian death toll for 2012, though that number is likely too small because U.S. policy deems all adult males as militants unless contrary evidence emerges after their deaths.
According to The Washington Post, the future stationing of CIA bases that launch the drone strikes will be among the topics discussed by the White House and Afghan President Hamid Karzai during Karzai’s current visit to Washington.
The Obama administration has reportedly set its expectations low for passage of a new assault weapons ban in Congress despite a changing national consciousness in the aftermath of last month’s Newtown shooting massacre. The New York Times is reporting the White House has decided it will be "exceedingly difficult" for the ban to make it to President Obama’s desk, leading administration aides to develop other gun control rules that could draw bipartisan support. The alternatives include universal background checks and more government research on gun violence. The White House is also reportedly considering a $50 million effort to fund the placement of hundreds of police officers and new surveillance equipment in public schools, a move that would resemble the National Rifle Association’s call for armed guards in every school.
News of possible gun regulation proposals comes as Vice President Joe Biden hosted gun industry representatives at the White House on Thursday as part of his ongoing task force on U.S. gun violence. In his remarks, Biden vowed to issue his recommendations to President Obama next week.
Vice President Joe Biden: "With my colleagues, I am putting together a series of recommendations for the president that will — that he will take a look at. There’s a real, very tight window to do this. I committed to him I’d have these recommendations to him by Tuesday. There is a surprising — so far, a surprising recurrence of suggestions that we have universal background checks, not just close the gun show loophole, but total universal background checks, including private sales."
The meeting included officials with the NRA, who quickly attacked Biden’s task force in a statement shortly after. The NRA said: "We were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the Second Amendment."
A number of states have vowed to tackle gun violence on their own following the Newtown massacre. In Colorado, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed Thursday to require universal background checks on all state gun sales. Hickenlooper’s plan came one day after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for tightening the state assault weapons ban and limiting high-capacity magazines.
Another school shooting occurred on Thursday, this time in rural California. A 16-year-old student armed with a shotgun walked into his high school and fired at a fellow student, leaving the victim seriously wounded. The shooter fired at another student, but missed his target. Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said he was carrying multiple rounds of shotgun ammunition.
Donny Youngblood: "There was an active shooter that had — didn’t show up for school this morning for the first period. He then interrupted the class halfway through it, armed with a shotgun. He fired the first round, striking another student; that student is at the hospital, a 16-year-old who is in critical condition but stable at this point. He then tried to engage a second student that he named and tried to shoot him and missed. The teacher at that point was trying to get the students out of the classroom and engage the shooter, who had numerous rounds of shotgun shells, a 12-gauge shotgun, numerous rounds in his pockets, and he engaged the student, or the suspect, with — in conversation."
According to fellow students, the shooter had previously been bullied by other students and had been expelled after it was discovered he kept a "hit list" of people he wanted to target.
In Colorado, a judge has ordered shooting suspect James Holmes to stand trial for killing 12 people and wounding dozens more at an Aurora movie theater in July. Holmes is set to appear in court today but is unlikely to issue a plea. His attorneys say he is suffering from an unspecified mental illness. Evidence emerged at a pretrial hearing this week that Holmes took pictures of himself posing with his firearms before the attack took place. Outside of the courtroom, relatives of two Aurora shooting victims spoke out about seeing Holmes in person.
Jessica Watts: "It was very emotional for a lot of us, and I think — you know, I think he — this whole time, he’s been detached. He looked very disheveled in court today, and he didn’t — he basically looked very disinterested."
Sam Soudani: "Trash. I mean, honestly, you sit there, you look at a person, and when you see there is no more humanity left anymore, you don’t look at him as a person. You really don’t. I took a glimpse at him there. I don’t — I don’t feel hate or anger toward him. I just don’t feel anything toward him."
The federal government has unveiled new restrictions on the high-risk home loans that pushed millions into foreclosure and helped spark the financial crisis. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced new rules Thursday forbidding lenders from issuing mortgages to those ill-positioned to repay the loan and preventing inducements for borrowers to take on crushing debt. In a statement, the bureau’s director, Richard Cordray, said: "To put it simply: Lenders should not set up consumers to fail."
President Obama has nominated another former Wall Street executive to become treasury secretary, picking his own chief of staff, Jack Lew, to replace Timothy Geithner. Obama unveiled Lew’s nomination at the White House on Thursday.
President Obama: "When the history books are written, Tim Geithner is going to go down as one of our finest secretaries of the Treasury. Jack has my complete trust. I know I’m not alone in that. In the words of one former senator, having Lew on your team is the equivalent, as a coach, of having the luxury of putting somebody at almost any position, and knowing he will do well. And I could not agree more. So I hope the Senate will confirm him as quickly as possible."
Lew was an executive at Citigroup from 2006 to 2008 at the time of the financial crisis and a longtime proponent of deregulating Wall Street.
A pastor selected to deliver the benediction at President Obama’s inauguration later this month has withdrawn following an uproar over anti-LGBTQ comments he made in the 1990s. Rev. Louie Giglio had come under opposition after it was revealed he called on Christians to fight what he called the LGBTQ movement’s "aggressive agenda." In a statement, Obama’s Presidential Inaugural Committee said it was unaware of Giglio’s prior stance at the time he was selected.
A new study has found that up to half of all food worldwide is going to waste. Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers says that at least 1.2 billion of the four billion tons of food produced each year is thrown out due to problems with harvesting, transporting and storage, as well as wasteful behavior from sellers and consumers. The report calls food wastage "a tragedy that cannot continue if we are to succeed in the challenge of sustainably meeting our future food demands." The findings come as nations across the globe continue to grapple with soaring food prices. Brendan Cox of the group Save the Children said soaring food costs threaten to cause more needless deaths.
Brendan Cox: "What we’re saying today is there is a new normal of high food prices. Just in the last year, we’ve seen wheat and maize increase by 25 percent, and that’s having a real impact on children’s lives. We already know that around three million children are dying every year as a result of malnutrition, and we think the food price crisis this year, but what could happen next year, could make that situation much worse."
Fears of a spike in food prices have grown after a longstanding drought prompted the Obama administration to declare a natural disaster in large parts of the Midwest. Conditions in the four main wheat-producing states — Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas — continue to be the worst on record. The drought has carried over from what was the hottest year on record in the United States.
Thousands of people rallied in Venezuela on Thursday to mark what would have been the swearing-in of ailing President Hugo Chávez. The inauguration has been delayed while Chávez remains in Cuba following his fourth surgery for cancer. Venezuelan Vice President Nicolás Maduro addressed Chávez supporters.
Venezuelan Vice President Nicolás Maduro: "Thirty days have passed since the operation on Commander Hugo Chávez, and at this very moment, as you know, he is fighting a battle, and we tell him from here: 'Commander, easy! Keep up your battle, because here you have a Bolivarian government and a revolutionary people!'"
While the Venezuelan Supreme Court has ruled Chávez is still president despite missing his swearing-in, the opposition is calling for a caretaker government and new elections.
Two Democratic congressmembers are claiming Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke was told of bribery allegations surrounding the retail giant’s expansion in Mexico as early as 2005. Emails disclosed by Rep. Henry Waxman of California and Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland show Walmart International’s general counsel emailed Duke and other executives about specific bribes for the opening of a number of stores in November 2005, contradicting Wal-Mart claims its top officials were unaware. In a letter to Duke, the congressmembers write: "It would be a serious matter if the CEO of one of our nation’s largest companies failed to address allegations of a bribery scheme." The Justice Department is currently investigating whether Wal-Mart violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it a crime for American corporations to bribe foreign officials.
The entire faculty of a Seattle-area high school has voted to refuse giving students a standardized test used in teacher evaluations. In a unanimous decision that is likely the first of its kind nationwide, teachers at Garfield High School said the MAP tests are a waste of time, money and resources that are then unfairly used to grade their performance.
Jesse Hagopian: "Today isn’t just about testing in general; it’s about a particularly flawed test."
Kit McCormick: "And I just see no use for it at all. And so, I’m not going to do it."
Writing on her website, former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch said the vote could have national ramifications for showing teachers "There is strength in unity and that they do not have to endure unethical demands with passivity and resignation."
Nominations for the 85th Academy Awards were unveiled on Thursday. The documentary category includes three films featured on Democracy Now! throughout the past year: "The Invisible War," on sexual assault in the U.S. military; "How to Survive a Plague," on the historic efforts of the early AIDS movement; and "5 Broken Cameras," on the nonviolent struggles of Palestinians against Israel’s separation wall in the occupied West Bank.
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