Now that the end-of-year distractions have come and gone, most people have reentered daily life, perhaps expecting normalcy to return. How deluded we are!
This year, 2011, marks the beginning of a brand new decade. If you think only predictable events lie ahead, take a deep breath and look back at what the just-ended decennium held in store. Then think back, remembering yourself, all of us, as we celebrated the start of a new decade 10 years ago.
Weren't we all quaintly naïve?
If anyone had predicted that men blinded by religious zealotry would crash passenger planes into tall buildings, even smash into the Pentagon, presumably one of the best defended structures in America, we would have thought the one making the prediction had spent too much time playing video games. And that day, now known as 9/11, was just the opening act of what turned out to be a most extraordinary 10 years.
The first decade of the 21st century managed to surprise us at every turn. And most of the surprises were not pleasant.
By Sept. 12, 2001, we had a pretty good idea that history had taken a sharp turn. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and efforts to prevent more terrorist attacks became an ever-present backdrop on the stage where a tempestuous chapter in history unfolded before an anxious world. It became a Code Yellow decade, when air travel lost its easy glamour and gruesome terrorist attacks left thousands dead from London and Madrid to Istanbul and Bali, with Iraq becoming the scene of the most wrenching carnage anywhere, threatening to tear itself to pieces.
The Pew Research Center for People and the Press tracked the stories that drew the most attention for the 10 years just ended. You know which one tops the list. After 9/11 comes another tragedy that changed the way we look at America. It wasn't Hurricane Katrina that made our hearts contract in anguish. No, it was what came afterwards. That's when the image of a competent America, ready to successfully tackle any challenge, seemed to sink into the dirty waters of New Orleans.
The decade of the 2000s, if that's what we call it, tried to permanently change America's image of itself. For once, the irrepressible optimism of the American people, one of the most attractive and defining traits of this nation, nearly came undone. It wasn't just the two wars that wouldn't end, let alone end in victory. It wasn't just the shameful aftermath of Katrina, with its searing images of desperate Americans waving their arms from the rooftops.
This was the decade that brought the Asian tsunami and the Haiti earthquake, when the earth lashed out, killing at least half a million people in just two quick seismic shudders.
As if we needed more, a financial tidal wave threatened to wash away our collective economic future. The world held on tight to avoid a repeat of the 1930s, but people by the millions lost their homes, jobs and savings.
It's no wonder that the country, the planet, was eager for a messiah. But seriously, who could have predicted that, seemingly out of nowhere, a young politician from Hawaii and Chicago would soar across the political firmament, capturing the imaginations not only of America but of much of the world? Who knew that the United States was about to elect its first African-American president?
What a decade!
Which brings us back to where we stand today, trying to build back from a broken economy, a couple of very old wars and a terrorist threat from a radical Islamic ideology that could go a long way in shaping what the next decade will bring, just as it did in the one just ended.
That's because as unexpected as the events of the last 10 years felt, their seeds had been sown long before. Violent religious extremism, flawed financial practices and regulations, bad planning for natural disasters, they were all there in the 1990s. And just as we can't predict with precision what the coming years will bring, there is little doubt that what will happen in the years ahead has already started quietly unfolding.
In places like Iran, Pakistan and Lebanon, Wall Street, Palo Alto, and Beijing, Washington and Wasilla and Salt Lake, the people who will shape our future in this new decade are already hard at work.