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United States

The US in 2013 - from Snowden to storms to shutdown

The United States made plenty of headlines in 2013, ranging from fatal bombings to deadly tornados, government shutdowns and NSA leaks. But in between the doom and gloom there was also some good news.

April: Gun control bill fails

Gun control advocates believed the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 would be a national turning point. A 20-year-old gunman had shot and killed 20 first-grade children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, prompting national outrage and calls by Democratic congressional leaders for a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Expanded background checks for online gun sales and gun shows were also proposed.

The resulting bill was the United States' most ambitious gun safety legislation in almost two decades and the vote became a proxy battle for a larger national fight.

However, the bill failed in the Senate on April 11 when 45 Senators - four Democrats and 41 Republicans - voted against it. In the end, the bill lacked the 60 votes required to pass the amendment. President Barack Obama described the vote as a "shameful day for Washington."

April: Boston marathon bombing

Only four days after the gun control bill failed, the city of Boston was hit by a fatal bombing. On April 15, the 117th Boston Marathon was brought to a sudden halt when two pressure cookers filled with a home-made mix of nails and shrapnel exploded near the finish line, killing three people and injuring more than 260.

Obama immediately announced that "any responsible individuals, any responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice." A manhunt started in Boston, with the help of citizens identifying grainy surveillance images of two young men thought to have carried out the bombings.

Two days after the bombings, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev - ethnic Chechens whose family had emigrated from Dagestan - were identified as the alleged perpetrators.

Shortly afterwards 26-year-old Tamerlan was killed in an exchange of explosives and gunfire with police while his 19-year-old brother managed to escape. A day later, police found a wounded Dzhokhar hiding in a small boat parked beside a house, and arrested him.

He pleaded not guilty to 30 charges related to the bombing, and was indicted on all counts, including the use of a weapon of mass destruction and killing four people.

May: Tornado hits Oklahoma

The deadly tornado that tore through an Oklahoma City suburb on May 20 arrived with little notice. It wasn't until the afternoon that a tornado emergency warning was issued.

Just 16 minutes later the tornado arrived. It destroyed entire city blocks and trapped dozens of school children beneath debris. With winds reaching speeds of up to 200 miles per hour (320 kilometers per hour), the dark grey funnel shattered homes, whipped cars into the air and spun up dangerous shards of wood and glass.

The fatal storm was exceptionally strong. Less than one percent of all tornados actually reach the speed with which the tornado devastated the city of Moore, just south of Oklahoma City. By the time the tornado ended it had killed 24 people, including seven children.

June: Snowden leaks Prism

On June 6, 29-year-old IT specialist Edward Snowden managed to leak one of the most important pieces of classified intelligence in US history.

By handing over hundreds of thousands of documents to reporters in Hong Kong, Snowden made it possible for The Guardian and the Washington Post to break a series of stories exposing the inner workings of the US National Security Agency (NSA). The resulting media reports detailed a widespread network of espionage both at home and abroad.

The information provided by Snowden showed that the NSA had collected the phone and Internet records of millions of American citizens. It also exposed American spying operations against its own allies. The revelations prompted international outrage and a debate on the boundaries of surveillance in the digital age.

In the weeks following the leak a hunt for former NSA contractor Snowden started, with the US government and journalists trying to find the "whistleblower." Snowden left Hong Kong for Russia, where he was granted a year's asylum, causing President Obama to cancel a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Ensuing revelations include the US applying a computer system that provides access to the full text of emails around the world, as well as the NSA tapping German chancellor Angela Merkel's phone, which has become a major wedge in German-US relations.

June: Supreme Court clears way for gay marriage

On June 26, the US Supreme Court cleared the way for the legalizing of gay marriage across the country by ruling against part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The federal law, which did not recognize homosexual couples as equal to heterosexual couples, was ruled unconstitutional in a 5-4 vote.

Since then, homosexual partners have been eligible for the same legal benefits given to heterosexual couples under federal law.

In a separate case, a Federal appeals court also overturned California's ban on same-sex marriage, thereby allowing gay marriage in the most populous US state. California voters had approved the ban on same-sex marriage in 2008, but same-sex couples had subsequently filed a lawsuit challenging the ban in the courts. Since then legal challenges to same-sex marriage bans are pending in other states as well.

Some see the ruling by the Supreme Court as a social evolution. Just 17 years earlier, when DOMA was signed into law, same-sex marriage wasn't allowed in a single US state. Now, 12 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage.

July: George Zimmerman trial

2013 also saw a notorious court trial. The fatal shooting of unarmed 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Florida in February 2012 sparked a heated national debate on racism.

There were those who believed Zimmerman's testimony that he acted in self-defense and then there were those who saw the case as an example of racial profiling and demanded justice for the murder of an innocent African-American high school student.

George Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder on July 13, and after two days of deliberations, the jury finally came to a decision. The verdict: not guilty.

After the trial ended, a national discussion on race and the criminal justice system was just beginning. Martin's death caused protests, appeals for political intervention and discussions about racial discrimination that continue until today.

July: Detroit files for bankruptcy

Five days after Zimmerman's not guilty verdict, the US was shocked by other news. Once home to a booming automotive industry, the city of Detroit had to file for bankruptcy on July 18. It thus became the largest city in the United States to file for bankruptcy protection. For many Detroit residents, it was an embarrassing surrender after once being the richest city in the US.

However, after years of struggle due to massive debt, a dwindling population and high crime rates, the city of Detroit was forced to admit that it could not dig itself out of an $18.5 billion (13.7 billion euros) debt hole.

Detroit was once the fourth largest city in the US, and the cradle of the US automotive industry. But when much of the auto industry left, so did Detroit's residents. The city's population has shrunk by more than half, leaving 78,000 buildings across the city abandoned.

Detroit is hoping for a fresh start without the "burdens of debt it cannot hope to repay," as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder put it the day it filed for bankruptcy. And there are determined citizens on a mission to revitalize Detroit, one block at a time.

October: US federal government shuts down

When a group of conservative Republicans were unwilling to reach agreement on federal debt levels, America faced its first government shutdown in 17 years on October 1.

After Congress missed a midnight deadline to agree on terms for raising the country's debt ceiling, the federal government effectively shut down. National parks and monuments were closed, non-essential agencies were shuttered, and 800,000 government workers were forced from their jobs, leaving them wondering when their next paycheck would come.

Obama blamed the speaker of the Republican-led House of Representatives, John Boehner, for not ending a "reckless" US government shutdown and for being held hostage by "extremists" in his own party.

After a 16-day impasse, US Republicans and Democrats finally reached a last-minute short-term deal to prevent a debt default and raise the debt ceiling at least until February 7, 2014.

Even though it was just a temporary solution, the compromise was a huge relief to people in the US. Thanks to the agreement, federal agencies have funding until January 15, 2014, and employees were finally able to return to work.

However, the episode may have long-term ramifications. The weeks of insecurity about a possible default deeply shook people's trust in the US economy and the value of the dollar as a world currency. The two-week shutdown not only cost the US a lot of trust but, according to economists' estimations, also around $24 billion.

October: Obamacare website launch is a fiasco

It's quite fitting that October 1 not only marked the beginning of the US federal government shutdown, but also the launch of the federal website healthcare.gov, which allows US residents to sign up for health insurance provided by The Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare.

After all, President Obama's healthcare law was the trigger for the government shutdown, with Republicans having voted more than 40 times to repeal Obamacare.

Experts say the law will extend health insurance to more than 30 million citizens in need of coverage. But The Affordable Care Act divided the nation, with many citizens not understanding what it entails.

What didn't help the acceptance of health care reform - or Obama's popularity - was the failed launch of the website. The first month of operation was a fiasco: the website was barely usable due to technical glitches, faulty coding and a high demand, preventing people from signing up for insurance and causing huge frustration.

Only a fraction of those interested were able to register, and US citizens will face penalties if they aren't insured from January 2014 onward. However, Obama has promised to reconsider the penalty period, given the technical difficulties.

November: San Francisco turns into Gotham City for a day

But not all news out of the US this year was depressing. We end this 2013 review on a heart-warming note from the city by the bay. On November 15, San Francisco transformed itself into Gotham City to fulfill a young leukemia patient's wish to be Batman for a day.

The Make-a-Wish Foundation pulled out all the stops to make Miles Scott's dream to become the superhero come true, enlisting the help of thousands of volunteers, local TV crews, the San Francisco police, and even President Obama.

Miles Scott, a five year-old cancer patient, got the chance to fight crime as a superhero named "Batkid." He spent the day walking the streets and participating in an elaborate event created just for him. Scott battled villains like the Riddler, rescued a damsel in distress tied up across the Hyde Street cable car line, and was cheered on by over 15,000 citizens.

The San Francisco Chronicle dedicated its entire front page to the cancer patient and published an article with the headline: "Batkid Saves City," written by Clark Kent. The San Francisco police chief announced on a breaking news story on TV that Batkid’s help was needed to solve a crime. And President Obama issued his first ever Vine (video message) on Twitter congratulating Miles.

Hopefully 2014 will bring us more heart-warming and less devastating news from the US.