Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Fear de Siecle

What were you doing 10 years ago this week?

I know what I was doing: I was waiting in line at the old Wild Oats on Belmont Blvd. (now a hipster furniture store), stuck behind the half dozen or so (mostly) senior citizens who were filling up two and three shopping carts full of 5-gallon water bottles.

People who had never before thought to schlep to the health food store for filtered water were so freaked out over Y2K that they set by several months’ supply of drinking water in anticipation of the Big Apocalypse. Those of us trying to fill up our usual one or two gallon jugs walked away empty 10 years ago this week: the Y2K freak-out brigade had shut down the machines.

This is how we ushered in the Oughts. On a wave of fear about the unknown, anticipating a failure of technology and our supporting systems. Our media told us nightly it all might--might--come crashing down as the clock turned, unleashing a cataclysmic chain of events that would forever alter how we live. The power grid would be history. Bank ATMs would shut down, stock markets would fail, airport control towers would go dark and planes would literally fall from the sky. Panic in the streets. No wonder Y2K Survival Guides were hot sellers.

And now here we are, 10 years after the fact, still in freak-out mode over a failure of technology and supporting systems as a wannabe terrorist tried to blow up his underpants and got taken down by a Dutch filmmaker sitting across the aisle. What a perfectly hilarious bookend to the Decade of Fear. In like a lion, out like a clown. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?

I think it’s pretty much universally agreed that the Oughts were the worst decade in anyone’s memory. Time Magazine called it "The Decade From Hell.” Frank Rich dubbed it the "flim-flam decade,” pointing out how we were bamboozled by Enron traders, warhawks and even celebrities who invariably were not what they were portrayed to be. ThinkProgress, God love ‘em, called it the "Decade of Bush.” In fact, there’s been a lot of attention on George W. Bush and 9/11, as if they were the sole reason for the decade’s suckitude. I think that gives them far too much credit.

Those folks are all missing something. The one thing that characterizes the Oughts was fear. We were sold fear going in, and we’re being sold fear going out. Going in it was Y2K and the Enron-created energy crisis and Chandra Levy and the “Summer of the shark”. And then 9/11 happened and it was a steady drum beat of terrorism-related fear like Saddam’s fantasy WMD and “duct tape and plastic sheeting,” punctuated by a few non-terrorism scary events like the Northeast’s grid collapse of 2003.

I don’t remember having the crap scared out of me with such regularity in all of my nearly 5 decades on this planet. And the one thing about being told “boo!” all the time is that it eventually stops working. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis I think we all pretty much decided that those politicized terror alerts we were getting from the Bush Administration couldn’t hold a candle to the very real scary stuff Mother Nature and our crumbling national infrastructure had in store.

So as the Oughts limp to a close and we’re given more “terror in the skies” headlines and U.S. Senators call for pre-emptive attacks and economists say we aren’t out of the recessionary woods yet and a sitting U.S. Congress person calls for revolution, I would just like to wave a hearty goodbye to the Decade of Fear.

Your suckitude knows no depths. Yes, some good things happened--some great things happened, personally. But I can’t close the book on this decade fast enough.