When the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2000, I had to wonder what all the fuss was about. The clock apparently marked off two thousand years, but from what, no one was quite certain. I guess I am one of those contrarians who believes that we are woefully underserved by the Gregorian Calendar, which has been in use in the West since 1582. That is because marking off dates in decades, centuries and millennia is next to meaningless when we remember that Jesus was actually born in the year 4 BCE (therefore providing a somewhat awkward starting point for the first millennium); that the Earth’s orbit around the sun takes not 365 days but 365.2423 days, (a number not divisible by 4, 7 or 12) and that there wasn’t even a common subscription to the Gregorian Calendar until England converted to it in 1752 (abandoning the long used Julian Calendar).
Therefore, we might assume, there are minutes, hours and even days that might be unaccounted for in our spin through the universe. Given this sad state of affairs, using the clock to mark off a decade seems pretty pointless. With no universally accurate measurement of time, its all just pomp and circumstance about nothing.
Yet dates do bear meaning for us time-bound humans if only as a means of segmenting our lives into appreciable chunks of relevance and allowing us the means of chronicling our passage through life.
The marking of another decade is therefore an opportunity to reflect on what has passed in the ten years since that last supposed millenarian event.
Our past decade was bracketed by two completely unexpected occurences – the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the financial collapse of 2008. Everything else in between – the contested federal election of 2000, the three turbulent years of Intifada which broke the back of the Middle East peace process, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the tsunami which devastated Southern Asia in December, 2004, the flooding of New Orleans in August, 2005 – were blips on our radar screens by comparison.
Having trawled through the events of the decade, there appear four major themes that I believe will dictate much of what occurs in the coming years of this century:
1. The Emergence of Tension between National Security and Individual Rights
After the shock of 9/11 subsided and Americans got on with their normal lives, the horror of the day receded, while the government remained active in pressing for tighter security, passing the Patriot Act of 2002 with little dissent, establishing Guantanomo Bay as a maximum security prison and creating the Department of Homeland Security. This retreating tide however, exposed the hulk of the embittered federal election of 2000 and the remembrance of George W. Bush as an illegitimate president.
It wasn’t long, then, before the Democratic Party had launched into an assault on the Bush Administration’s national security measures – measures that almost any American government, from left or right, would certainly have enacted following such a devastating attack.
The hatred for Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld became so palpable in the latter part of the first Bush Administration that a romday could not go by without some vituperative attack on the character and morals of the governing Administration from some major media source. The failure to uncover evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the most important reason proffered for the invasion of Iraq, only underscored, for the left at least, the Administration’s mendacity.
As the decade progressed though, it became increasingly clear that the struggle was not between opposing Democratic and Republican policies on issues of national security, but between two fundamentally differing world views. The war on terror, declared by the Bush Administration, was not a conventional war and could not be fought conventionally. It would involve not only a struggle abroad, but a struggle to contain potential terrorist activity within. Therefore wire tapping, stricter control over financial transfers, tough border controls and increased surveillance of potential insurgents within our towns and cities, were all necessary measures.
Yet the idea that Americans might have to surrender some fundamental rights to privacy was anathema to the left and they refused to countenance it. Perhaps they refused to understand that America was as much at war as it had been in 1917 or 1941; perhaps they failed to appreciate that individual liberty and the protection of personal rights were more robust than they had ever been in America’s history, even with the tightened security measures. But the venom with which the left attacked these necessary security measures was a gauge of the struggle between the right to privacy and national security imperatives. It will remain the guiding national debate of much of the coming decade.
2. The Rise of Radical Environmentalism
What started as a fringe movement in the early 1970s gained world attention in the 2000s. Environmentalism transformed from a movement to combat pollution and to conserve wilderness areas into a multinational effort to build awareness of anthropogenic global warming and as an attack against human development itself. With world politicians subscribing to the spurious notion of ‘scientific consensus’ on the issue, radical environmentalists, who decry human interference in the environment and are in fact opposed to development of almost any kind, were able to hitch their wagon to luminaries such as Al Gore and Mikhail Gorbachev and obtain an international spotlight they didn’t otherwise deserve.
But the global warming lobby has not provided entirely convincing science. Simply put, our climate and weather is governed by so many variables that predictions are fraught with difficulty. Computer models have been used to advance the idea of likely severe weather change but they are fed data that are not always verifiable. The same models have been used to predict weather patterns over the coming 100 years, but, as was discovered in October of this year, with the revelation that climate researchers in England manipulated, manufactured or otherwise doctored the same data, put the lie to the idea that climate science is not susceptible to political pressure or ideology. It seems, at least from the rash of emails uncovered in exchanges between the climate researchers, that sometimes the models are adapted to reach conclusions which are keeping with a political platform rather than as a reflection of real climate science.
The Bush Administration brooked this wave as bravely as it could, but its power as public policy was irresistible. We have now seen the discussion of global warming completely overwhelm our national narrative and become one of the leading political discussion points of this century. It came into political form last year in the guise of Cap and Trade legislation which thankfully exhausted itself before it could obtain strenuous political support. But it lives on in the rhetoric of our president, in widespread support in the media and academia and as a subject of strong advocacy among members of our political class.
But even as the movement has gained such extraordinary traction, there has been a countervailing movement pushing back against it. It was led by the weather itself.
The past ten years have proven, even according to most climatologists, decidedly colder than the previous twenty. The year 2008 was actually one of the coldest in the northern hemisphere since the 1850s. Scientific reports are emerging that it might not be man-produced fossil fuels which are causing any heating of the earth’s atmosphere but in fact natural cycles of the sun and the absence of cloud cover.
Whatever the conclusion of the scientific debate, there is now, for once, public discussion on the issue and doubt is beginning to creep into some independent thinkers’ minds. The collapse of an international agreement on climate control at the International Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen in December, reflects, to a certain degree, this concern. We await developments but the likelihood is that anthropogenic global warming will fade as a matter of international consensus.
3. The Fragility of the International Economic System
Why the financial crash of September 2008 came as such a surprise, is beyond my understanding. The collapse of major U.S.financial institutions, many of which had been around for a nearly century, was due to a complete failure of imagination and an unwillingness to take seriously the growing signs of collapse.
Credit, used in increasingly complicated and sophisticated ways, to the point where borrowings were made against assets that barely existed, undermined the entire structure of our paper (rather than monetized) economy. The signs should have been apparent, but even such revered figures as former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, couldn’t figure it out. But in retrospect it was fairly clear: the economy had grown top heavy with debt based on collapsing assets, and like a listing galleon over-freighted with cargo, just toppled over.
The international repercussions were telling. Almost every Western economy was struck by the seismic shock which followed the U.S. banking crisis of 2008. It drove down the international value of the dollar, upended the U.S. balance of trade and created havoc in world currency markets.
The cure administered to address the country’s economic woes seemed sometimes worse than the disease. The relatively modest Bush stimulus package in September, 2008 was followed by the massive $787 billion Obama stimulus for 2009, with hundreds of billions being made available to shore up not just the banking and investment industries but public companies as well. Never in American history had public funds been used to support failing enterprises in this way. It set an ominous precedent for any future economic difficulties that the country might be forced to confront.
The future of the West and its international financial system hangs in large part, on how the United States manages its fiscal problems. Building confidence in economic stability is probably the first order of business for any American government.
4. The Scourge of Islamic Fundamentalism
Prior to 9/11 terrorism appeared as little more than nuisance which affected other countries and not the United States. While it is true there had been urban terrorists of the 70s and 80s, the Oklahoma bombing of 1995 and assorted attacks against American military units stationed outside the country – these were perceived as the work of isolated groups with no unified motivation. Domestic terrorism, the kind which resulted in huge urban casualties, and motivated by an abiding hatred of U.S citizens as a people, was largely unknown.
The events of that September day, however, changed everything. The recognition that Americans were vulnerable, not just on isolated military bases in Beirut or Riyadh, but in their own homes and public places, altered the national dialogue. It has had a sizable impact on daily life, from the lines at security check points at airports, to the security measures regarding bank accounts to tougher immigration policies.
Yet what has failed to penetrate the West’s public consciousness was the motivation behind the September 11 attacks and the subsequent assaults on Western targets around the world. The rise of Islam, which began to take its fundamentalist political shape with the establishment of the Iranian theocracy in 1979, gathered clout with the upsurge in oil prices and sought to fill the oppositional role vacated in the 1990s with the fall of communism. Fundamentalist Islamic communities grew prodigiously in Europe where they took advantage of the benevolent welfare benefits offered to new immigrants by their host countries. As they gained in collective confidence and drew inspiration from the growing international prestige of the Iranian theocracy, these communities made a play for political power, though not necessarily through the political system. The French riots of 2005 and the Danish cartoon riots of 2006, both made it adamantly clear that the Islamic communities of Europe intended to become a serious political force to be reckoned with.
The reaction of the West was craven appeasement. Steeped in multicultural pieties, Western leaders bent over backwards to make it clear they were not knee jerk racists and would take no issue with Muslim demands for a certain degree of communal autonomy and separation from mainstream culture. This effort had its crowning achievement in February, 2008 when the Archbishop of Canterbury and the former Chief Justice of Britain both conceded that the establishment of a parallel legal system to adjudicate certain internal Muslim disputes, is inevitable.
It all took place against a backdrop of the rise of Islamic terrorism throughout the West. The 2002 Bali Night Club bombing, the 2005 London bombings, the 2006 Madrid Bombings, the 2008 Mumbai attack and hundreds of other assaults on soft targets in major world capitals, were all carried out, almost without exception, in the name of Islam. Apologists wrung their hands over the claim that these desperate attacks were not the work of true followers of the Muslim faith and that Islam remained a religion of peace.
But contrary proof was readily available. There were few Muslim religious leaders willing to publicly condemn the terrorist plague which had engulfed the societies in which they lived. In the United States, the willful blindness to the reality of Muslim representative organizations covertly supporting terrorism while feigning allegiance to American values was even more troubling. The Bush Administration went out of its way to pretend that the drive behind the terrorist scourge was something other than real Islam and the Obama Administration has continued on the same wayward path.
Until Western leaders connect the dots and recognize that the West is engaged in a physical, moral and philosophical battle with hardened murderers pledged to a religious creed that calls for the the West’s destruction; until it concedes that representatives of those men live, plot and recruit within their very own societies and are an ever present danger to us; until they face the reality that not all religions are “religions of peace” and that some might actually more resemble death cults pledged to the slaughter of unbelievers – we face a very difficult and prolonged struggle for which there is no certain victory.
The years 2000-2009 have been decried as a lost decade by many pundits and commentators. I don’t agree with them. I see the past decade as offering important lessons about the world in which we live – from the true nature of Islam to the fragility of the international economic system to the necessity to sometimes trade individual rights for personal security. What we make of these lessons will determine the kind of world in which we will live in the coming decade. Lets hope the human capacity for growth, ingenuity and recovery continues to reassert itself and that we will come to view these past ten years as the necessary growing pains of a maturing civilization.