Joel Achenbach on the 2000s: The decade we didn't see coming

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009

The decade began so swimmingly. No Y2K bug, no terrorism, nothing but lots of fireworks as the planet turned and, time zone by time zone, all the zeroes replaced the nines.

America was at peace. Prosperity reigned. The popular president soon announced a budget surplus of $230 billion. The dilemma for Washington lawmakers was what to do with all the extra money.

People watched the values of their houses soar. The Dow had jumped 25 percent in just a year. Imagine how $1,000 might mushroom if invested in stocks for the next decade!

The future had arrived bearing nifty technological gifts. An entire music catalogue could fit in the palm of a hand. People nurtured their avatars in Internet role-playing games. Technology offered a virtual escape from the real world.

Except the real world wouldn't leave us alone.

Throughout the decade, the real world pursued, hectored, harassed. Ignorance was punished. Hubris found its comeuppance. The optimists were routed, the pessimists validated. The fabulous economy turned out to be something of a hoax. A war predicted to be a "cakewalk" turned into a dismal slog.

This was a decade when things you didn't know about could really hurt you.

So it was that Americans were shocked by 9/11. That's when the decade really began, regardless of what the calendar might say. There had been earlier terrorist events, and abundant warnings, but the rantings of jihadists did not fully penetrate the consciousness of peacetime America. That September morning, observing the carnage in New York and Washington and in a field in rural Pennsylvania, we asked: What do these people want from us?

Osama bin Laden's 9/11 hijackers, holing up in cheap motels, moving in groups, warily clinging to their luggage, had acted -- we could say in hindsight -- pretty much like terrorists plotting something or other. But they were invisible in a nation still blissfully unaware of the intensity with which it was hated. Go back to Jan. 1, 2000: The peace of that first night wasn't quite so real after all. A would-be terrorist, trained in Afghanistan, had planned to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. The plot unraveled a couple of weeks before the New Year, and investigators learned the full details only months later.

"History's always catching America off guard," says Rick Shenkman, editor of George Mason University's History News Network. "We have to relearn that lesson over and over and over again, that we cannot escape history."

The attacks shaped the entire decade. They led to two wars overseas and a new security regime at home that requires grandmothers to take off their shoes and get wanded before they board a flight. Not knowing about 9/11 would be, in this decade, like walking into a whodunit movie 15 minutes late and never understanding what the characters are talking about and why they're so exercised.

The Iraq war, launched by the Bush administration in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that did not actually exist, will be litigated by pundits and historians until the end of time. The decade closes with that war winding down and tens of thousands of troops surging into Afghanistan to intensify the battle with those who attacked us at the decade's start. And just in case we might have begun to let down our guard at home, a man tried to blow up a plane landing in Detroit on the final Christmas of the decade.

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