Trial of the century
Nearly seven years after the crime and with months left in the Bush presidency, the Pentagon formally brought charges against six Guantanamo Bay detainees charged with murder and war crimes for the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The Feb. 11 indictment includes 169 counts against the men "alleged to be responsible for the planning and execution of the attacks" in 2001 that killed nearly 3,000 people, according to Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Hartmann, the legal adviser to the tribunal system.
Officials will seek the death penalty in the unprecedented military tribunal case, but they will be hampered by critics who say evidence is tainted because key suspects were subjected to interrogation tactics that amount to torture (rather than "coercion," which is allowed under the Military Commissions Act). The Supreme Court is expected to rule later this year on whether Guantanamo detainees can challenge their confinement in civilian courts. The tribunal will also be hampered by timing: Verdicts are unlikely before President Bush leaves office and the trial itself may not be under way by then-and the next president could abolish the tribunal altogether.
But officials say they'll seek the death penalty and hope to try all six together, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the attacks; Mohammed al-Qahtani, whom officials have labeled the 20th hijacker; and Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, known as Ammar al-Baluchi, a nephew and lieutenant of Mohammed.
Economic stimulus and you
Not all taxpayers are created equal in the eyes of Congress. The economic stimulus effort signed into law Feb. 13 will mean different things to different Americans. The most basic feature of the plan is to send $600 rebate checks to individual taxpayers and $1,200 checks to married taxpaying couples, plus $300 per child. But that is only for individual taxpayers who made up to $75,000 last year and married taxpaying couples who made up to $150,000. Individuals who made between $75,000 and $87,000, and married couples who made between $150,000 and $174,000, will receive only partial rebates. Those who owe no income tax for 2007 but made at least $3,000 will receive $300 checks, or $600 for married couples. The IRS will base the amount people receive on their 2007 tax returns, to be filed by April 2008, so low-income Americans who pay no taxes will have to file a return to receive a check.
A soldier's sacrifice
Sixty-three years after Japanese soldiers in World War II killed celebrated correspondent Ernie Pyle, a photo of his body-never before published-surfaced this month. The man who put a face to the war's suffering died near Okinawa just six days after FDR's death, and the never-before-seen shot is "a striking and painful image, but Ernie Pyle wanted people to see and understand the sacrifices that soldiers had to make, so it's fitting," said Pyle biographer James E. Tobin.
Sen. Barack Obama took his campaign mantra-"Yes, we can"-to a key set of Democratic primaries in the Beltway on Feb. 12, scoring big wins in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., and stunning Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign. Clinton scrambled to regroup, turning her attention to March 4, when the candidates will face another round of crucial primaries in Ohio and Texas.
Even as the delegate count remained close, Democratic strategist James Carville offered a blunt assessment of the importance of March 4 for Clinton: "Make no mistake, if she loses either Texas or Ohio, this thing is done."
Republican candidate Mike Huckabee did well in the Beltway too, but not well enough to stop Sen. John McCain from becoming the party's presumptive nominee after Gov. Mitt Romney stepped away from the race Feb. 7. Huckabee looked content to keep proving his strength among conservative voters and highlighting the great challenge for McCain: To win the White House, McCain first must win the base of his own party.
Not over yet
The nation's housing market continued to stall during the fourth quarter of 2007, according to a report from the National Association of Realtors. Home prices fell in 77 out of 150 metropolitan areas, and the U.S. median sale price dropped to $206,200 from $219,000 the year before. Every region saw price declines; the West at 8.7 percent had the largest decline while the Midwest at 3.2 percent had the smallest.
He may have murdered his girlfriend's 3-year-old son and left the boy's body parts in his girlfriend's freezer and dog bowl, but Raymond Mata Jr. will not be electrocuted for his 1999 crime. On Feb. 8 the Nebraska Supreme Court, in a 6-1 ruling on Mata's case, said death by electric chair is unconstitutional because it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The decision ended Nebraska's distinction as the only state with electrocution as its sole means of execution and left state courts with no way to carry out death sentences.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams angered both church and state in a Feb. 7 speech proposing that some forms of Islamic law, known as Shariah, be incorporated into the British legal system. Calling for "a kind of plural jurisdiction" where the Muslim code could be applied in certain cases, Williams said that "citizenship in a secular society should not necessitate the abandoning of religious discipline." Senior leaders of the Church of England called for Williams' resignation following the lecture, which comes alongside a likely disintegration this year of the Anglican Communion in its dispute over ordination of gay clergy. Former British Home Secretary David Blunkett called the Williams proposal "catastrophic."
Perhaps Steven Spielberg will succeed where the UN Security Council and countless heads of state have failed. On Feb. 13 Spielberg told Olympic organizers in Beijing thanks, but no thanks. Citing China's lack of progress in resolving the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, the long-touted artistic adviser to the Beijing Olympic Committee announced he will not participate in the summer games. "I find that my conscience will not allow me to continue with business as usual," he said. China is the largest purchaser of Sudanese oil and supports over 30,000 Chinese workers and advisers in Sudan's capital of Khartoum.
Rejinald Humayun, general secretary of the Churches of Pakistan and a missionary doctor for over 20 years, was freed by captors who had held him since Dec. 8. Humayun, who served as medical superintendent of Bannu Christian Hospital in Pakistan's troubled North-West Frontier Province, was taken by armed men, and there had been no word of his whereabouts until his unexpected release.
Heading into Lent and with an April visit to the United States planned, Pope Benedict XVI issued a new version of "the Easter prayer for the Jews" that is recited during Good Friday services by Roman Catholics. Jewish leaders were quick to call it "a disappointment" because it calls for Jews to accept Christianity.
Considering that more than 750 people have died of severe cold and heavy snowfalls this winter in Afghanistan (and nearly 230,000 cattle), an uptick in U.S. casualty figures on Afghanistan's battlefields may seem less alarming. Over the course of the six-year war, the U.S. death toll stands at 483 and the NATO toll (including U.S. military deaths) at 766.
But the Bush administration is concerned that a surge in Taliban control of outlying regions is coinciding with battle fatigue among its NATO allies. In Munich U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told U.S. allies that Europe's security is at stake in Afghanistan, and he warned that opposition to the war in Iraq should not cloud the mission in Central Asia. "We must not-we cannot-become a two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not," he said.
Momentous Mormon days
Demonstrating his fidelity to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mitt Romney interrupted the final Super Tuesday push to attend the Feb. 2 funeral for its prophet and president, Gordon Hinckley. The following Monday Thomas Monson was proclaimed Hinckley's successor. By Thursday Romney, the first Mormon to get anywhere near a major party nomination, had quit the race.
Whatever Romney's political future, his candidacy undergirded Mormonism's visibility and ascendancy. But it also roused the perennial "are Mormons Christian?" issue and brought scorn from secularists, while a segment of voters expressed wariness about a Mormon in the White House. "The anti-Mormon whispering campaigns in the Bible Belt may also have permanently derailed the growing political alliance between Mormons and evangelicals," noted Peggy Fletcher Stack of The Salt Lake Tribune. For now, Senate majority leader Harry Reid remains the most powerful LDS office-holder.
Monson told his first news conference "there will be no abrupt change." Not surprising, since Hinckley led notable advances on most fronts and Monson worked closely with him in the hierarchy for 44 years. This expanding denomination became America's fourth-largest under Hinckley and counts nearly 12.9 million members worldwide.
The church's tightly centralized authority structure is led by the president and his chosen first and second counselors, forming a collective First Presidency that works alongside the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. The man who became an apostle the earliest automatically becomes the next president, and Monson joined at age 35. Now 80, he's the youngest new president since 1973 and reports good health, though he has diabetes. Next in line is Boyd Packer, 83, seen as notably doctrinaire.
Monson holds an M.B.A. and was an advertising and sales executive with the church-owned daily in Salt Lake City, general manager of its commercial printing company, became an apostle in 1963, and entered the First Presidency in 1985.
Though he stressed continuity, Monson's first move was innovative: Nearly all First Presidency and apostle choices have not only been Americans but natives of Utah or Idaho, but Monson's first counselor will be Henry Eyring, 74, from Princeton, N.J. Though president of its Idaho college, Eyring was also a business professor at Stanford and earned a Harvard doctorate in business.
More intriguing is Monson's decision to bypass more senior figures to pick Dieter Uchtdorf, 67, for second counselor. Uchtdorf is German. He was senior vice president of Lufthansa airlines before becoming an apostle in 2004. Uchtdorf said his wife told him not to worry about his German accent when meeting reporters, since today more than half the church doesn't speak English.
-Richard N. Ostling is the co-author of Mormon America (HarperOne, revised edition 2007)