But 2013 also saw some new beginnings: New York’s One World Trade Center officially became the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere at 1,776 feet — a symbolic presence of U.S. resilience and renewal. But even as a rebuilt “Freedom Tower” heralded the beginning of a new era of sorts, anxieties old and new were a heavy presence in many people’s minds.
Indeed symbols of freedom were suddenly jarred with the bombings at the Boston Marathon, a reminder of the more-than-decade-long threat of terrorism. And an ocean of secret documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed a gasp-inducing picture of government surveillance — domestic spying meant to shield Americans from further harm.
None of these events, however, is your top-ranked U.S.-based story of 2013 — at least not directly.
10. Flooding in Colorado (30 percent)
The breadth and intensity of the flooding that took place in Colorado the week after Sept. 11 were staggering. So was the amount of rain that fell in a normally dry state in a normally dry month: Boulder received as much rain in September as it normally gets in a year, and most of that in one five-day period.
Seventeen counties were affected — an area that stretched from the foothills west of Boulder up to Estes Park and east almost to Nebraska. At least eight people died in the floods, and thousands were evacuated, many by helicopter from remote mountain locations. Some 200 miles of state highways and about 50 bridges were wiped out or severely damaged, isolating many communities partially or completely.
It was a tough disaster by any measure for a state that has been hit hard in recent years by wildfires, with hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to state infrastructure and thousands of homes damaged or destroyed. Certain towns — such as tiny Jamestown, in the foothills west of Boulder, and Lyons, a town of 2,000 known for its bluegrass festivals — were hit particularly hard, and the rebuilding process is only just beginning.
9. Edward Snowden and the NSA (36 percent)
In June, a stream of news reports describing global surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency began to appear — based on top-secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor. Mr. Snowden, now a fugitive in Russia, may have leaked as many as 200,000 documents detailing surveillance programs with code names like XKeyscore, PRISM, and CO-TRAVELER.
So far, documents show the NSA collecting “meta-data” on virtually all U.S. phone calls for the past six years and about 5 billion cellphone records per day from overseas, including some of Americans. They show the agency filtering global Internet traffic, including Google and social media.
Snowden’s crusade has spurred debate about privacy rights and surveillance: Congress is examining NSA practices, privacy lawsuits have been filed, and a White House panel would modify NSA practices.
Foreign governments are furious, while in polls, 74 percent of Americans say the NSA violated privacy. Snowden says he is “neither traitor nor hero. I’m an American.” Others say he should be jailed for life.
8. EF5 tornado strikes in Moore, Okla. (37 percent)
On May 20, thousands cowered in basements or fled in panic as one of the strongest tornadoes ever recorded struck the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, tearing up horse farms and trailers with 200-plus-mile-per-hour winds before destroying dense clumps of blue-collar tract houses.
The nearly mile-wide EF5 tornado stayed on the ground for 40 minutes and killed 23 people — including children who sought shelter in a school basement. Days later another tornado, nearly as large, struck near Oklahoma City again, injuring and killing several professional tornado chasers.
The May 20 twister was not Moore’s first brush with big tornadoes. A tornado outburst in 1999 spawned a massive twister that took a nearly identical path through the town. This time, the storm showcased Oklahomans’ deep storm experience and rapid response, while also bringing renewed attention to building standards.
7. DOMA is struck down, a turning point for gay rights (37 percent)
The campaign to achieve equal rights for gays and lesbians gained momentum in 2013. The number of states fully embracing gay marriage rose from nine to 16, evidencing a significant shift in public opinion. And on June 26 the US Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
The 1996 law limited the receipt of a thousand federal benefits solely to those in marriages of one man and one woman. But in a landmark 5-to-4 decision, the justices invalidated the statute as a deprivation of “equal liberty” and “equal dignity.”
The decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Edie Windsor of New York City, who faced a $363,000 estate tax bill after the death of her lifelong partner, Thea Spyer. Had her spouse been a man, Ms. Windsor would have owed no tax.
The case left unresolved the broader question of whether the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage, or whether those rights will be decided on a state-by-state basis.
6. Women escape Cleveland home (39 percent)
On May 6, three women escaped a Cleveland home where it was discovered they suffered systematic sexual and emotional abuse for a decade or more. Ariel Castro, a former school bus driver, kidnapped the women between 2002 and 2004. A young girl, conceived as a result of rape, was also freed.
The event attracted international attention, not just because of the horrific conditions the women endured — they were often chained to a basement pole and forced to wear motorcycle helmets — but also because they were thought to be dead despite being within blocks of friends and family. To prevent visitors from discovering his secret, Mr. Castro fortified his home with locks, chains, and a homemade alarm system.
Castro avoided a trial by pleading guilty to 937 criminal counts of kidnapping, rape, and assault, among other charges. He was found hanged in his prison cell in September, his death ruled a suicide. One victim, Michelle Knight, told Castro at sentencing that she forgave him, but “can’t ever forget.”
5. George Zimmerman trial (46 percent)
On July 13, a six-woman jury in Sanford, Fla., found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin. The armed neighborhood watch captain had followed the unarmed teenager before claiming to fire in self-defense when the teen punched his pursuer.
The shooting of Trayvon and the subsequent trial of Mr. Zimmerman captivated America because the tragedy backlit twin racialized fears: the fear of young black men among some middle-class whites, and the fear among many black parents that violence against black children often goes unpunished.
The trial also invited intense reflection on several legal and cultural trends, including the proliferation of so-called stand-your-ground laws that allow armed citizens to shoot at the first hint of danger, and the rapid growth in the carrying of concealed weapons in public, as Zimmerman did.
After the verdict, Obama suggested that Americans should ask themselves a question in honor of Trayvon: “Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?”
4. Gun control fails in the Senate (47 percent)
Many Americans thought 2013 would be the Year of Gun Control.
After the Sandy Hook massacre last December, a majority of the public favored tougher gun laws. But on April 17, efforts to expand background checks, ban assault weapons, and limit ammunition magazines failed in the Senate.
Within a week, two gunmen had killed nine people — in Federal Way, Wash., and Manchester, Ill. — and 2013 has seen gunmen commit six mass murders (in which at least four died), including the Sept. 16 killing of 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard.
More than 345 incidents have involved the shooting of at least four people. Headlines have ranged from a fatal Nevada school shooting, allegedly by a 12-year-old, to the accidental shootings of children as young as 2.
Obama has taken executive action on a host of issues related to gun violence, including flaws in mental-health policies.
But the spike in demand for stricter national gun laws may have passed. Polls this fall showed support hovering just below 50 percent.
3. ‘Obamacare’ website fizzles (50 percent)
On Oct. 1, President Obama took to the Rose Garden to tout Day 1 of HealthCare.gov, where buying health insurance would be just like buying “a plane ticket on Kayak or a TV on Amazon.” Instead, the launch of the federal “Obamacare” site was a train wreck like few seen in the annals of government mismanagement. Early enrollments were far below expectations.
Two months and a 24/7 emergency tech response later, the site was much better — but glitches remained, especially on the “back end” that produces forms for insurance companies.
Mr. Obama also stumbled over his oft-repeated promise that “if you like your plan, you can keep it.” When proved wrong, he allowed insurers to extend old plans for a year, though not all state insurance commissioners went along.
Enrollments have picked up, especially on state-run marketplaces. But the ACA, the signature initiative of Obama’s presidency, is still a work in progress. Uninsured Americans have until March 31 to enroll without penalty. Obama’s legacy hangs in the balance.
2. Boston Marathon bombings (68 percent)
In the first major terrorism attack in the United States since 9/11, two pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the Boston Marathon finish line April 15, killing three people and wounding more than 200 others.
Three days later, hours after the Federal Bureau of Investigation released surveillance photos of two suspected bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev led authorities on a hunt across Boston. Tamerlan was killed during one shootout; his younger brother, Dzhokhar, was wounded, and was later found hiding in a boat in a backyard.
Dzhokhar is expected to go on trial next year, charged with use of a weapon of mass destruction, a capital crime. Intelligence agencies and the FBI failed to prevent the plot despite tips from Russian authorities that the Muslim brothers had been radicalized. Terrorism analysts are studying what may have caused the brothers to allegedly transform from young party-throwing American immigrants to suspected bomb-toting terrorists willing to attack their adopted country.
1. U.S. government shutdown (73 percent)
In October, a partial shutdown of the federal government annoyed many Americans and dented an already weak economy.
Nonessential operations started grinding to a halt Oct. 1 because Congress hadn’t passed a budget or done anything else to fund government for the fiscal year that began that day.
For House Republican hard-liners, a twin set of fiscal deadlines — the dawn of the budget year and the Treasury’s plea for Congress to raise the nation’s arbitrary ceiling on public debt — offered a rare moment of political leverage against Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats. But the insurgents failed to win any tax or entitlement reform or to force a defunding of Obamacare.
What did happen? A 16-day shutdown that benefited neither party in opinion polls. Services deemed essential continued (Social Security checks kept flowing), but the episode may end up paring the economy’s growth rate by 0.2 to 0.6 percentage points for the fourth quarter. A bipartisan two-year compromise budget passed the House with overwhelming support Dec. 12.
But the deal left the question: Would it merely postpone the next fiscal clash, or be a step toward more fiscal dealmaking?