Time magazine called it the “decade from hell.” I would not go quite that far, but the first 10 years of the new century surely signaled an erosion of confidence not only in institutions, but perhaps also in our very selves. Casting a glance at each year, I am struck not so much by the top news story as by harbingers of opportunity and threat for the new century.
The year 2000 was marked by the delayed election of President George W. Bush after intervention by the Supreme Court. The peaceful transition despite electoral chaos proved for many once again that democracy works. It could also be seen, however, as the beginning of a mounting distrust of the political system we relied on.
The atrocities of September 2001 were not only the beginning of a war on terrorism; they also marked the beginning of our nationwide feeling of terror. The assault on symbols of two things so close to our national identity—great wealth and great power—exposed us to a vulnerability that would be intensified each year as our wealth and power failed to provide the security we thought they had insured.
The year 2002 revealed the full range of scandal in the Catholic Church. The scandal of sexual abuse by priests and the coverup by some bishops continued to haunt the decade with lawsuits, the outlay of millions in settlements and the departure of many members of the laity wounded by a sense of betrayal and angered by ecclesial priorities. We are still faced with a daunting choice. Do we retrench or do we reform?
In 2003 the United States, having taken on the Taliban the previous year, invaded Iraq. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein and our tenuous claim of victory will likely cost over a trillion dollars. The terrible cost to life and limb for America’s soldiers and Iraq’s civilians may yet weigh more heavily on us if we have opened the way not for peace in the Persian Gulf but for a 100-year war.
The years 2004, 2005 and 2006, though marked by images of torture at Abu Ghraib or terrorism in Madrid and London, are inextricably bound together as testimonials to our seeming powerlessness before great physical and moral evil. A tsunami killed 200,000 people in a flash. A hurricane devastated a great American city. Thugs slaughtered 200,000 in Darfur.
In November 2007 the journals Science and Cell revealed that researchers in Japan and Wisconsin had successfully derived pluripotent stem cells from adult skin cells. Although most people still think of embryos when they hear about stem cells, this new procedure offers the most promising breakthrough in regenerative medicine. The mapping of the human genome early in the decade has opened previously unknown paths to human healing. It has also raised the specter of genetic manipulation, enhancement and modification of our species.
The year 2008 was the year of financial collapse. Earlier rumblings from the ethical failures of Enron and its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, erupted into a full-blown earthquake. An almost dogmatic faith in the market and blind reliance on financiers dissolved in a decade when stocks would fall 25 percent, median family income would drop, millions of jobs would disappear, and huge corporations would go bankrupt.
Amazon, at the end of 2009, reported that for the first time, electronic books for its Kindle device outsold physical books during the Christmas season. Ray Kurzweil, a creative computer zealot who thinks that artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence by mid-century, has himself unveiled an e-reader program that will be available for personal computers, the iPod Touch and the iPhone. The exponential growth in computer technology points to a revolution in journalism, medicine, politics, communication and life itself. While most of us celebrate the change, critics like Lee Siegel, in Against the Machine, warn us that we are already becoming an electronic mob, bereft of personal substance and any interior life.
Whether Siegel is right or not, his worry about the loss of personhood, it seems to me, is well founded. But that problem is not new. Perhaps the very fault and fall in Eden turned on the acceptance or rejection of our vulnerability as only human persons. In the present day, it is just that the stakes are so much higher. An unchecked human longing for control, whether in geo-politics, money, power, religion or the domination of nature, makes every new opportunity a treacherous new temptation.