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May 22 2015 1:42 PM

ISIS Has Taken Credit for Today’s Attack on Saudi Shiites, but the Saudi Government Is Also Partly to Blame

At least 21 people were killed and 70 injured today in a suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque in Eastern Saudi Arabia. ISIS has claimed credit for the attack which resembles recent bombings by the group on Shiite mosques in neighboring Yemen. The Saudi government has also blamed ISIS for a shooting attack targeting Shia in the region that killed seven people in November.

Saudi Shiites will almost certainly direct much of their anger against their Sunni government for failing to protect them from such attacks and even creating an atmosphere of hostility toward Shiites in Saudi Arabia. Shiites are largely excluded from positions in the authoritarian state’s political system and suffer what human rights groups call “systematic discrimination” in the education and justice systems. They also rarely receive permission to build their own mosques. Activists say the government also permits anti-Shiite hate speech from prominent religious figures while jailing Shiites who criticize it. 

Saudi authorities have been fearful of Shiite organizing within the country EVER SINCE? the 1979 Shiite uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia, inspired by the Iranian Revolution. The sectarian tensions in the country have only escalated in recent years along with a growing Sunni-Shia rivalry in the greater Middle East. Saudi authorities cracked down hard on Shiite demonstrations during the 2011 Arab Spring. Protests broke out again last fall after a leading Shiite cleric and protest leader Nimr al-Nimr was sentenced to death for crimes including “being disloyal to the ruling family, using violence and seeking foreign meddling.”

These crackdowns have accompanied the kingdom’s moves to counter what it sees as Shiite aggression abroad. Saudi Arabia sent troops into neighboring Bahrain in 2011 to help put down anti-government demonstrations by the country’s majority Shiite population and, in the past few months, has been leading an multinational campaign of airstrikes aimed at pushing back the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has also been a leading funder of the rebels fighting against Syria’s Iranian-backed regime, and has been criticized for supporting Sunni extremist groups involved in that conflict. As with the chaos in Syria, the bombing campaign in Yemen is likely giving Sunni extremist groups including al-Qaida and ISIS more room to operate.  

Saudi authorities will roundly condemn today’s attacks as they did the shooting last fall and arrests are likely. But given how high sectarian tensions are running in the country, it’s hardly surprising that extremists are taking advantage.

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May 22 2015 12:02 PM

Michael Sam Signs With Canadian Football League, Season Begins in June

Michael Sam has signed a contract to play for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League in 2015, the team announced Friday. Barring injury, the former University of Missouri star will become the first openly gay athlete to particpate in a major-league regular-season football game when the Alouettes open play on June 25. Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in 2014; he played preseason games for the team and later spent time on the Dallas Cowboys' practice squad but did not appear on a regular-season NFL active roster.

Many NFL players have kick-started their United States careers by starring in the Canadian league, including current Miami Dolphins standout Cameron Wake; Wake, like Sam, is a pass-rushing defensive end who played for a high-level college program (Penn State in Wake's case) and signed with the CFL after failing to make an NFL team out of school. 

Said the Alouttes' general manager: “With the signing of Michael Sam, we have become a better organization today. Not only have we added an outstanding football player, we have added even a better person that brings dignity, character, and heart to our team.”

Sam's contract with the team is a one-year deal with a "team option" to employ him for a second year, USA Today reports, writing that "it’s not uncommon for teams to let players out of the option year to pursue an NFL job if they have the opportunity." (Despite its status as a quasi-minor league, CFL players are not permitted to leave their teams midseason to play in the NFL.) Sam will make $100,000 this season, nearly twice the CFL's minimum salary.

May 22 2015 11:03 AM

Eiffel Tower Staff Stage Walkout Over Pickpocket Threat

The Eiffel Tower is closed Friday because its staffers are upset about pickpocket gangs. From AFP:

Workers at the 126-year-old iron lattice tower -- a glittering symbol of Paris -- said in a statement they had chosen to down tools due to an "increase in pickpockets around the Eiffel Tower and several threats and assaults."

The Louvre was closed in 2013 when staff staged a similar pickpocket-related walkout. Paris, AFP says, is “a mecca for tricksters and pickpockets”; as Slate’s Joe Keohane wrote in 2011, the practice of pickpocketing has largely died out in the United States, but continues to thrive across the Atlantic (excerpt edited slightly for clarity):

In Europe, professionals from countries like Bulgaria and Romania, each with storied traditions of pickpocketing, are able to travel more freely since their acceptance into the European Union in 2007, developing their organizations and plying their trade in tourist hot spots like Barcelona, Rome, and Prague. "The good thieves in Europe are generally 22 to 35," says Bob Arno, a criminologist and consultant who travels the world posing as a victim to stay atop the latest pickpocketing techniques and works with law enforcement agencies to help them battle the crime. "In America they are dying off, or they had been apprehended so many times that it's easier for law enforcement to track them and catch them."

Keohane’s sources suggest that, in the United States, pickpocketing networks—in which older “Fagins” teach the art of the steal to apprentices—have been suppressed by increased sentences and prioritized law enforcement surveillance of danger areas. As indicated in the quote above, though, younger criminals in Europe are still keen on the practice. (One thing American criminals are better at than French ones? Killing people. Even after years of decline, the U.S.’s murder rate is still about three times as high as France’s.)

May 22 2015 9:38 AM

Suspect in D.C. Home-Invasion Quadruple Murder Found, Arrested

The primary suspect in the home-invasion murder of a family in Washington, D.C., was arrested late Thursday in D.C. after a manhunt. Daron Dylon Wint, 34, is suspected of killing American Iron Works CEO Savvas Savopoulos, Savopoulos’ wife, their son, and a housekeeper. Their bodies were discovered May 14 after their home in Northwest D.C. was apparently set on fire; authorities believe Wint took them captive on May 13. Savvas Savopoulos’ assistant brought $40,000 to the home on the morning of May 14 before the fire and the discovery of the bodies.

Wint, a former employee of Savopoulos’ company, was arrested in Northeast D.C. after being followed from College Park, Maryland, by authorities. From the Washington Post:

Federal marshals had been tracking Wint on Thursday night from College Park as he traveled in a white Chevrolet Cruze, a police official said. The suspect was traveling with two women, one of whom was driving. The Cruze was following a white box truck, which had two men inside. At least one of the men was believed to be a relative of Wint’s, the official said.
Both vehicles were stopped by marshals near 10th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE, the official said. Police found at least $10,000 in cash in the box truck, and the women in the Cruze and the men in the box truck were taken into custody, the source said. The manhunt for Wint had extended to New York City, where authorities said he has relatives and acquaintances in Brooklyn.

Wint, who grew up in Guyana and moved to the United States in 2000, has a long criminal history; he was once ordered to stay away from his father for a year after the elder Wint petitioned for a restraining order.

May 21 2015 11:34 PM

World War II Refugee and Wife Make the U.S. Government Sole Heir to Their Entire Estate

Peter and Joan Petrasek didn’t have any children or relatives in the U.S., so they made an unusually patriotic decision when they devised a will—they bequeathed all of their assets “to the government of the United States of America.” The donation of nearly $850,000 to the American government is without question quite a gesture. But why?

It’s not totally clear. The will had no more specifics than its directive to pass on the couple’s assets, cash in the bank, and proceeds from the sale of their Seattle home, to the United States. Joan Petrasek died more than a decade ago and John Petrasek passed away in 2012. It took several years to tie up loose ends of the estate, but last month the check was written to the Department of Treasury.

Peter Winn, the assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle who worked on accepting the check on behalf of the U.S government, speculated to the Seattle Times, why Peter Petrasek who escaped Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia as a young boy would want to leave his life’s earnings to the government:

“As a refugee from World War II, he was very grateful to his adopted country. He grew up with a lot of people in Eastern Europe who would have been happy to change places with him... There are still a lot of people in the world who would envy him the life he lived. He wanted to make a statement about how much it meant to him to be an American citizen.”

While it appears Winn took a hefty dose of poetic license—it’s a nice thought.

May 21 2015 10:23 PM

19 Kids and Counting Reality Star Apologizes After Underage Molestation Allegations Surface

Reality TV show star Josh Duggar apologized Thursday for molesting multiple underage girls more than a decade ago. Duggar, now 27 years old, is the oldest son on TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting reality show, which began its 10th season in February chronicling the lives of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their offspring in Arkansas. According to TMZ, some of the girls Josh Duggar molested were his sisters.

A tabloid story in inTouch Weekly on Thursday published a 2006 Arkansas police report with names redacted where Duggar confessed to molesting at least five underage girls that the Duggar family was aware of dating back to 2002, when a 14-year-old girl told Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar their son had fondled her in her sleep. More accusations arose nearly a year later; the Duggars, however, only sent their eldest son away for the summer, and, Gawker notes, “a formal investigation into the allegations was not launched until 2006, when an anonymous source leaked information about the sexual abuse to producers on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show.” (Gawker has pieced together a helpful approximate timeline.)

Josh Duggar is now married with three children and had been working in Washington, D.C. for the conservative Christian Family Research Council as the executive director of its nonprofit lobbying group. Duggar resigned his post on Thursday and made this statement in a Facebook post:

Twelve years ago, as a young teenager I acted inexcusably for which I am extremely sorry and deeply regret. I hurt others, including my family and close friends. I confessed this to my parents who took several steps to help me address the situation. We spoke with the authorities where I confessed my wrongdoing and my parents arranged for me and those affected by my actions to receive counseling. I understood that if I continued down this wrong road that I would end up ruining my life. I sought forgiveness from those I had wronged and asked Christ to forgive me and come into my life. I would do anything to go back to those teen years and take different actions. In my life today, I am so very thankful for God’s grace, mercy and redemption.

Josh Duggar never faced any charges for the his alleged crimes because the statute of limitations had expired.

May 21 2015 8:31 PM

Gyrocopter Pilot Pleads Not Guilty to Six Charges Both Serious and Surreal

Sometimes you have to take a stand. And every so often that stand involves a gyrocopter. Douglas Hughes, the 61-year-old Florida mailman who flew his gyrocopter onto the Capitol grounds last month as a form of protest, appeared in court on Thursday to respond to charges related to his gyrocopter-related principled stand. Hughes, who was indicted by a federal grand jury on Wednesday, pleaded not guilty to charges that could lead to a prison term of up to nine-and-a-half years.

That’s how committed to campaign finance reform Hughes is. The problem, obviously, is not so much Hughes’ concern with the current state of American campaign finance regulations, the issue is he flew a gyrocopter into some pretty rarified, restricted airspace. Hughes faces six charges for the stunt including violating national defense airspace and not registering his gyrocopter. You’d have to imagine the airspace violation smarts a bit more than the registration misstep. Hughes was also charged for not having proper pilot’s credentials and for sporting an unauthorized Postal Service logo on the side of his craft.

"I accept the consequences of what I did, because I believe it is critical that we return our democracy to the people," Hughes told reporters. "I will never do anything like this again,” he said. “But I would not do anything different."

May 21 2015 5:58 PM

Will Obama’s Cuba Moves Stick?

The U.S. and Cuba began a fourth round of talks today aimed at restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries and reopening embassies in each other’s capitals. Some sticking points remain: The U.S. wants its diplomats to be able to travel freely in and out of Havana while the Cuban government is suspicious of their intentions, accusing the U.S. of recruiting spies. But these concerns seem surmountable.

President Obama has already gone further toward normalizing relations with Cuba than any president since Dwight Eisenhower broke off diplomatic ties with the Castros’ regime in 1961. But the question now is just how much further he can go in the time he has left, and how many of the changes he makes will be permanent.

Obama has taken Cuba off the state sponsors of terrorism list—a major political impediment to restoring ties. He has also effectively ended the ban on travel to the island. Yes, tourism is still banned, but 12 types of travel are permitted, including a few that could serve as a fairly easy pretext for some sightseeing—and you can even pay with your MasterCard. There are still no direct flights to Cuba, though they will likely be coming in a few months, but there are an increasing number of charter services and soon a ferry from Florida. It’s now also much easier to send money to Cuban citizens and invest in Cuban companies.

That’s a lot—and Congress hasn’t approved any of it. If the negotiations with Havana succeed in getting the embassies reopened, it will probably be about all the president can do through executive action alone. The embargo has been U.S. law since 1996, and Obama can’t restore trade or fully lift travel restrictions without help from Congress. The brand new embassy might not even have an ambassador, as that would require a Senate confirmation. (This wouldn’t actually be that unusual: At one point last year there were more than 30 countries without U.S. ambassadors thanks to congressional gridlock.)

And when Obama’s gone? Depends who his successor is. Cuban American presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are both opposed to lifting travel restrictions. Floridian Jeb Bush is also opposed to Obama’s Cuba moves and was calling for even tougher sanctions before them. So if normalization is accomplished solely through executive action, it’s conceivable that it could also be undone by it.

This has happened before. In 1977, Jimmy Carter’s administration lifted most of the travel ban, but it was put back in place in 1982 by Ronald Reagan along with tougher trade sanctions. Some have argued that Obama’s changes will be harder to undo, since U.S. companies are chomping at the bit to do business in Cuba and a growing number of Americans, including most younger Cuban Americans, favor lifting the embargo.

If Congress agrees to lift the embargo, it will likely stand no matter who is president. But if Obama’s presidency ends with just reversible moves, that’s another story. Hillary Clinton would certainly leave these policies in place, and a less committed Republican might also, given how public opinion is moving on this issue. But Bush, Cruz, and Rubio are staunch Cuba hawks, and if one of them is elected, the “thaw” in relations might get quite frosty again.

May 21 2015 5:45 PM

Grand Jury Advances Case Against Six Officers in Death of Freddie Gray

Baltimore state's attorney Marilyn Mosby announced Thursday that a grand jury has indicted all six officers that she had previously charged in the April 19 death of Freddie Gray. The indictments accuse the officers of largely the same crimes that Mosby announced she was charging them with on May 1. Taking a case to a grand jury when a prosecuting authority has already chosen to bring charges on its own is an unusual step; per the Baltimore Sun, it was done in this case as "a procedural step to move a case filed in District Court to the Circuit Court, where more serious criminal cases are heard."

The most serious charge against the officers concerns officer Caesar Goodson, who drove the van in which Gray apparently received his fatal injury. Goodson is charged with "second-degree depraved heart murder."

May 21 2015 4:03 PM

America's Decline Continues

The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration eliminated parallel parking from the state's driving test Tuesday, determining that mastering the much-feared and obsessively practiced skill would no longer be necessary to secure a license in the state.
Maryland joins neighbor Virginia (but not Washington, D.C.*), in not assessing parallel-parking skills, as well as these states: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota and Wyoming.

What? Get out of here, Maryland, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota and Wyoming.

It’s simply a matter of “redundancy,” MVA spokesman Buel Young said. The test includes a maneuver called a “reverse two-point turnabout,” which involves the same skills at the wheel as parallel parking, Young said.

No. No it doesn't. A reverse two-point turnabout is not the same as parallel parking. That's why no one is stressed about learning a "reverse two-point turnabout" before their test.

This is the same kind of weak-minded thinking that produces people with college degrees who can't mentally calculate a restaurant tip. Or who go to the gym and talk on their phones the entire time while moving 0.5 mph on an ellipitical machine.

Learn to do math. Run on the treadmill (or outside). Learn to parallel park. You babies. It's hard, that's the point.

America is in decline.

*Update, 5 p.m.: Washington D.C.'s test does not involve parallel parking, according to the Washington Post and a Slate staffer who took the test there.

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