Feature

The week at a glance...United States

United States

Azusa, Calif.Wildfire rages: A 3,600-acre brush fire blazed out of control this week in the canyons of the Angeles National Forest, about 25 miles northeast of downtown L.A. Five people were injured as more than 500 firefighters poured into the rugged San Gabriel Mountains to contain the blaze, aided by four air tankers, 10 helicopters, and a host of other equipment. Even so, officials said it could take another week to bring the fire under control. “It’s extremely steep and rugged terrain, and some of it is inaccessible,” said Angie Lavell of the U.S. Forest Service. The cause of the blaze remained under investigation. A burned car was found in the area, officials said, but it was unclear whether it was the source of the fire, which has forced the evacuation of hikers and campers. The forest preserve has drawn as many as 12,000 visitors on Labor Day weekends.

Phoenix Charges dropped: After years of investigations into alleged financial misdeeds and abuse of power, the U.S. attorney’s office said last week that it would not file criminal charges against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and members of his department. The legal proceedings against “America’s toughest sheriff” and his department grew from allegations that they sought indictments and pressed criminal charges against their political enemies. Civil suits are still pending against Arpaio and his staff, one alleging racial profiling and another, by the Justice Department, alleging profiling and abuse of power. As to why the government dropped its case, “there may have been evidence of a crime, [but] there wasn’t sufficient evidence to get a conviction,” said Paul Charlton, the former U.S. attorney for Arizona. “I’m glad that the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office did a good job performing their duties, just like I perform my duties,” said Arpaio. 

Louisiana Gulf Coast Isaac’s toll: Assessing the damage wrought by Hurricane Isaac, Gov. Bobby Jindal this week declared a statewide public health emergency, a move that allows government workers to enter private property to clean up and remove debris. The Category 1 storm, which made landfall on Aug. 28, damaged an estimated 13,000 homes, said state officials, and killed eight people in the U.S. More than 903,000 people lost power at the height of the emergency, and some 57,000 were still without electricity a week later. The areas hit hardest were outside New Orleans’s rebuilt levee system, including Plaquemines Parish, which suffered major flooding. “It’s so much water,” said parish President Billy Nungesser. “It’s going to be some time before it all gets out of here.” Isaac struck on the seventh anniversary of Katrina, which killed nearly 1,800 people. 

Washington, D.C. Texas voter ID law blocked: A federal court last week overturned Texas’s voter ID law, which would have required voters to show photo identification, ruling that the legislation violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act by imposing “strict, unforgiving burdens” on poor minority voters. The decision has somewhat slowed the momentum of GOP lawmakers who have been waging a national legal battle over voter ID laws in an effort to maintain “the integrity of the electoral process.” Eight states passed voter ID laws in 2011—seven of which were signed by Republican governors—leading to state and federal challenges. Pennsylvania’s was upheld by a state judge in August. Wisconsin’s ID law has been stalled by injunctions in state courts, and South Carolina’s law has been overturned by the Justice Department, which ruled that the requirements would put an undue burden on minority voters. Similar voter ID laws have also been upheld in Georgia and Indiana. 

Washington, D.C. Social Security buys ammo: The Social Security Administration set off rumors of dark conspiracies on the Internet this week when it posted a notice that it was purchasing 174,000 hollow-point bullets. DailyCaller.com reasoned that the bullets must be for use against American citizens, “since the SSA has never been used overseas to help foreign countries maintain control of their citizens.” Another website said the ammo might be used to quell “civil unrest.” The bullets, it turns out, are intended for Social Security’s office of the inspector general, which employs some 295 agents to investigate fraud and other crimes, said spokesman Jonathan L. Lasher. The agents, who carry .357 caliber pistols, made 589 arrests last year, said Lasher. They also execute search warrants and respond to threats against Social Security offices, employees, and customers.  

Boston Sex-change inmate: A federal judge this week ordered Massachusetts prison officials to provide taxpayer-funded sex-reassignment surgery to an inmate who is serving a life sentence for murder. Michelle L. Kosilek was born a male but has undergone hormone therapy and lives as a woman in a men’s prison. In a lawsuit filed in 2000, Kosilek claimed that sex-change surgery was the only way to treat his severe gender identity disorder, which has caused him such anguish that he attempted self-castration and suicide. Judge Mark L. Wolf ruled that denial of the surgery amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Kosilek is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the 1990 murder of his wife. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who filed legislation in 2008 to bar the use of government funds for sex-change surgeries for prison inmates, called the decision “an outrageous abuse of taxpayer dollars.”

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