Best of '3

Unfinished stories of last year


So ended 2003—Year 2 of the new era that began on Sept. 11, 2001, another year in which, in some American cities, such mundane activities as Christmas-shopping or attending a large outdoor gathering to usher in the New Year became acts of civic courage and defiance toward terrorists.

It was, quite literally, an eventful year; a year so crammed with news stories big and small, important and frivolous, that the tragic explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, which killed all seven astronauts on board and cast doubt on the future of human space flight, had almost receded from memory by year's end. (Story-of-the-year online surveys, however, still found room to list the Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez wedding-that-wasn't.)

Nearly everything paled into insignificance next to the war in Iraq. The year opened with the countdown to the war and ended with the capture of Saddam Hussein, the unforgettable images of the fallen and humiliated dictator all over the television screens and the front pages of newspapers.

But there were other stories, too. There were the wildfires in the West and the worst blackout in US history, which left 50 million people in eight states and in Canada without power. There was the trial of the Washington, D.C.-area snipers, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. There was the usual smattering of sensational court cases: Michael Jackson's arrest on child molestation charges, the Kobe Bryant rape case, the Laci Peterson murder. There was the biggest news story that can be summed up in two words: Governor Schwarzenegger.

The Year of the Woman, this wasn't. (The great tale of female heroics in the war in Iraq, the Jessica Lynch story, crumbled quickly under scrutiny; in the end, Lynch emerged as less warrior than damsel in distress.) It was, however, a big year for gay rights. The US Supreme Court struck down state laws criminalizing same-sex sexual relations; the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court went much further, declaring that a ban on same-sex marriages is discriminatory and illegal. The Episcopal Church elected its first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson, who was consecrated as Bishop of New Hampshire in November.

If there is one thing many of last year's major news stories have in common, it's that they are still awaiting their final verdict—and not just the crime stories, either. The jury is still out on the war in Iraq. There is no doubt that we deposed a vicious tyrant whose fall was widely celebrated by his country's people. The mass graves uncovered in Iraq and the grisly records of torture, murder, and mutilation by Saddam Hussein's henchmen provide powerful evidence of how brutal this regime really was. It is hard to imagine anyone regretting the dictator's downfall. Had the United States not intervened, the political prisoners would still languish in their cells and the mass graves would still be claiming new bodies.

Yet it is equally clear that Iraq cannot, at this point, count as a success story for the United States. The weapons of mass destruction, the ostensible cause for the war, have not been discovered. (To say, as some have, that Saddam was Iraq's biggest weapon of mass destruction may be clever—and true in a sense—but that's not the kind of weapon we went in to find.) The Iraqis' gladness to be rid of Saddam does not necessarily translate into support for the Americans. It is all too obvious that the Bush administration gave far more thought to winning the war than to managing its aftermath. American soldiers continue to die, and post-Hussein Iraq seems on its way toward becoming a haven for terrorists more than a cradle for democracy.

Less stark uncertainties surround the domestic news. The economic recovery that started in the third quarter of 2003 is hailed as robust by some, and pooh-poohed as shallow and almost illusory by others. The past year's victories for gay rights may make 2003 a landmark year in the march toward equality and dignity for gay citizens—or the start of a backlash, with many polls showing a dip in support for gay rights.

At this point, it's not yet certain whether Massachusetts will legalize full same-sex marriage or come up with a civil union compromise; nor is it certain which option, in the long run, will be better for the gay-rights cause.

And so, with all these uncertainties, we enter 2004. Election year is here. And in my line of work, I can't even say: Wake me up when it's over.