2001 was the year the new millennium lived up to its billing.
Think back to those twilight years of the last century--1998, 99 and 2000.
Remember those? All the talk of global disasters to come? Dire predictions of terror? Conspiracy theories run amok? Remember how people said our computers would turn on us? How the government could unravel? How we groped after symbols for the new age?
Who can doubt what the predominant symbol for this millennium will always be. The images of airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center have been seared into the brains of three generations, more or less. The image of those dual towers feeding themselves to the ground as they spewed gray plumes and braided ropes of debris will be around for a very long time.
Who can doubt they will dominate talk of new millenniums, new eras, new centuries for hundreds if not thousands of years to come--assuming there's anyone left to do the talking.
True, the world mostly celebrated the new millennium at the last stroke of 1999, but as science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke and others tried to tell us, 2001 was the true first year of the third millennium A.D.. And the WTC catastrophe will serve as well anything to punctuate that fact. It could scarcely have been more dramatic and horrific if the pyramids themselves had inexplicably exploded.
You want terrorism? You want conspiracy theories?
The first year of the new millennium provided them in droves.
Of course, the year was punctuated by many other oddities and forebodings. For the first time in nearly a century a president served without winning the popular vote. The fact that George W. Bush has performed well in this time of crisis--and I believe he has--doesn't alter the fact that he began his tenure with questionable legitimacy. I mention it not to open old wounds, just as one more reminder of the weirdness of the year.
Other strangeness prevailed as well.
Back in the late 1960s, Clarke, mentioned above, wrote a book--and a movie with director Stanley Kubrick--in which he warned of a super computer rebelling. The Hal-9000 computer of "2001: A Space Odyssey" became a symbol of seemingly benign technology turning psycho.
As Y2K approached, dire but popular predictions of computers crashing, spawned fears of airplanes falling from the sky, of the breakdown of governance, of new wars and a scarcity of goods.
Now we know that, in 2001, our computers did turn on us. This was the year the Internet convulsed and contracted. Internet companies crashed and burned, sucking the whole economy into a vortex of recession. Sped along by computers, however, biotechnologies mushroomed with mixed results. Human fetuses were cloned.
In some ways you could argue that 2001 never lived up to its billing. Where are the pinwheel space stations Clarke and Kubrick predicted? Where are the glimmering moon bases and interplanetary spacecraft and signals from the stars?
Still, the prophets were right in a way. Clarke, Gene Roddenberry and other science fiction visionaries--such as H.G. Wells, writing at the turn of the 20th century--long ago predicted that in some future age an enlightened alliance would rise up to combat forces of darkness and ignorance that had kept the human race locked in chains of religious and ethnic conflict for centuries.
This alliance would be composed of many nations. It would be multicultural and tolerant in outlook. It would be democratic and high tech in approach. And it would prevail over self-appointed genocidal leaders of rogue nations and movements.
In 2001, one such self-appointed leader, Slobodan Milosevic of the former Yugoslavia, was put on trial for his crimes against humanity. Another virulent regime--one that tolerated international terrorism and made a spectator sport of shooting women in the head and blowing up treasures of world culture was chased back into its caves.
If those united against such violence born of ignorance and intolerance can live up to the values they (we) espouse--notions of tolerance, democracy and human rights for people of all nations, races and religions, then 2001 becomes the year in which a terrible beauty was born.