The Terrible Twos
A strange year's worst moments
Here we are at the end of the first full year of what many have called "the new normal"—the world after the Sept. 11 attack on America.
It has been a strange year, one in which we learned to live with the constant low-grade threat of terrorism on our soil but were haunted by other perils as well.
Revelations of corporate corruption and fraud on a massive scale shook our faith in the new democratic capitalism that was supposed to empower millions of ordinary men and women by making them not only consumers but stockholders. A rash of child abduction and murder stories was a reminder that "ordinary" domestic crime can make us feel just as unsafe as foreign terrorism (even if the notion of a child abduction epidemic was at odds with overall statistical trends). North Korea's nuclear saber-rattling was a strange spectacle of an old and vanquished enemy—communist totalitarianism—rising up like a ghost at a time when we are grappling with the new danger of Islamic radicalism.
As we face uncertain prospects in 2003, it's time to look back on some highlights (or lowlights) of 2002.
Dubious political alliance of the year: Our friendship with Russia. The new conventional wisdom has it that in the post-Sept. 11 world, Russia has decisively cast its lot with the West as a strong and reliable ally in the war on terrorism. As is often the case, the conventional wisdom is at least partly true—but some healthy skepticism is in order.
Despite their nation's continuing economic woes, Vladimir Putin and his team want Russia to be a superpower, a major and independent player in geopolitical events. When it serves their purpose, the Russians continue to cozy up to the dictatorial regimes of North Korea, Iraq, and Iran—while using the rhetoric of the war against radical Islamic terrorism to whitewash human rights abuses in Chechnya. Putin may be a necessary strategic ally, but he's no friend.
Resignations of the year: Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who left his post as head of the Boston archdiocese after months of revelations about cover-ups of child sexual abuse by priests, and Senator Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican who resigned as incoming Senate Majority leader after days of a firestorm about his off-the-cuff remark suggesting nostalgia for segregation (and of revelations about his past hobnobbing with racists). Both men turned what could have been graceful exits—lessons in contrition and personal accountability—into pathetic, drawn-out struggles to save their careers.
The other senatorial gaffe of the year: Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, just made it under the wire. Speaking to high school students on Dec. 18, the senator suggested that Osama bin Laden was "so popular around the world" because he has been doing good works in poor countries—building schools, roads, day-care, and health-care facilities—for decades. "We haven't done that," she said. "How would they look at us today if we had been there helping them … rather than just being the people who are going to bomb in Iraq and go to Afghanistan?"
Criticizing US foreign policy is not unpatriotic, but Murray should have at least gotten her facts straight. The United States has played a major role in providing humanitarian assistance—both monetary aid and volunteer workers—to poverty-stricken countries including Afghanistan, while bin Laden has been building terrorist training camps, not day-care centers. Luckily for the Democrats, Murray is not their Senate leader. Still, they need to turn up the heat on her to apologize—or risk giving ammunition to those on the right who would tar all liberals with the "blame America first" brush.
The silliest use of terrorism as a parallel to score political points: Plenty of contenders in this category, but two stand out.
On the left: Speaking in Iowa in April, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who heads an environmental group called the Waterkeeper Alliance, declared that hog-producing factory farms were a bigger threat to America than Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
On the right: Writing in USA Today in July, activist and commentator Star Parker suggested that suicide bombings, abortion, unwed motherhood, and divorce are all part of the same mentality of disrespect for human life.
A New Year's resolution to give up such cheap and insulting political rhetoric would be nice. But it would be broken even sooner than the ones about diet and exercise.