Annus Horribilis

Scenes of rancor in 2005.


As 2005 winds down, one is hard pressed to say much good about it. After the nastiness of last year's election, the American political scene did not get any better. This was the year in which much of the right was gripped by hysteria over the fate of Terri Schiavo, a personal tragedy turned into grotesque political theater, and much of the left embraced Cindy Sheehan, the "antiwar mom" who turned her grief into a protest filled with rhetoric of hate, not peace—two very different causes whose common theme was to demonize the opposition.

Even a major natural disaster, which can bring people together in the worst of times, became another cause for political rancor. Hurricane Katrina was a story not just of nature's fury but of glaring incompetence by two vital American institutions: the government, with state, local, and federal authorities passing the buck and bungling the rescue; and the free press, which freely spread wild tales that both exaggerated the victims' plight and portrayed them as lawless thugs. Many on the left treated the hurricane as a cloud with a silver lining of Bush-bashing.

Like last year, religion has been more of a source of division than conciliation. In 2004, it was The Passion of the Christ; in 2005, the "war on Christmas." Yes, there were the usual excesses from secularist or multiculturalist zealots who took Christmas songs out of holiday pageants and lashed out at Christmas references at holiday-tree lightings. But this year, the loudest by far were the defenders of Christmas from mostly imaginary threats.

On Fox News, Bill O'Reilly revealed that the innocuous phrase "Happy Holidays" was part of a "very secret plan" to undermine Christianity in America—a plan so insidious, apparently, that even President Bush has been drawn into its net: White House greeting cards wished supporters a "happy holiday season." This caused Catholic activist William Donohue to fulminate that the Bush administration had "capitulated to the worst elements in our culture." Meanwhile, a guest on O'Reilly's show, the Rev. Tim Bumgardner, exhorted: "Hey, celebrate Christmas—people spend more money! Jesus makes people want to spend money!" Shopping for Jesus: There's a whole new idea of the Christmas spirit.

For a depressing scene abroad, look to Russia, where the parliament has just passed a bill curbing the activities of independent citizens' groups, and President Putin's last liberal adviser, Andrei Illarionov, has resigned saying, "The political system has changed, and the country has stopped being free and democratic." In December, protesters against nationalist extremism were denied permission to march in Moscow, and their unauthorized rally with the slogan, "Russia Without Fascism," was broken up by the police. Three weeks earlier, a nationalist march with openly racist overtones, to which the antifascist rally was meant as a counter-protest, had been green-lighted by the government.

Meanwhile, the new leadership of Iran seeks a throwback to the extremist roots of the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution. Western music has been banned; more disturbing, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicly denied the Holocaust and called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." In Israel, the withdrawal from Gaza and the possible beginnings of Palestinian statehood have been marred by continued violence and an electoral victory for the terrorist group Hamas.

In Iraq, a free and peaceful election could be seen as a sign of hope. Is it? Most recently, the Sunni Arabs and the secular Shi'ites have joined forces to protest the election results—which apparently handed a victory to the Shi'ite religious bloc—as tainted by fraud, refusing to participate in the legislature until a review is completed. And insurgent violence has already resumed.

Yet it would be premature to bury hope. If the Shi'ite bloc wins, it will have to rule in a coalition. A recent ABC News poll found that 57 percent of Iraqis favor political democracy, and only 14 percent support an Islamic state. Despite ongoing chaos, half of Iraqis do not believe it was wrong for the United States to invade—which is remarkable, given that no one likes being occupied, particularly by people of a different culture and religion. (This is why, despite all misgivings about the wisdom of this war, I strongly reject the view that it was a crime against the Iraqi people.)

The ABC poll also found that two-thirds of Iraqis expect things to improve in the year ahead. Let's hope they are right, both for their country and for the world.