Even terrorists joined the millennium hype in its final days. Sophisticated explosives were sent across the Canadian border two weeks ago like a deadly holiday greeting card to Uncle Sam from shadowy forces who would not be left out of the marketing mania of Y2K.
Border police intercepted Ahmed Ressam and his hideous cargo in Port Angeles, Wash. We do not yet know what was in the Algerian's mind or blueprints. But not even merchants of death and mutilation seem immune to pursuing a golden moment for brand delineation, niche finding and market share by the numbers.
Like ABC or CNN, these forces seem to have seen the rolling over of three nines to three zeroes on Father Time's odometer as a moment to compete for our attention or allegiance by branding time itself. The terror network's anchor people may have been on an around-the-clock alert as well, ready to spew out their propaganda.
The change of the millennium on the world's most widely recognized calendar has had citizens everywhere thinking of time--framing events and public figures on historical or futurological lists. But much of the conceptualizing and artifice of the millennium has been about time as we recreate it or wish it. The hype mostly missed the rhythm and essence of time as we live it.
Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May chose the evocative title "Thinking in Time" for their 1986 book on the political uses of history to underline how poorly decision-makers and the rest of us do that. We grab whatever is useful from history or future projections to justify or buttress what we want or need in the present.
"In employment of government power, particulars matter," the two political scientists wrote. "Ideology, Zeitgeist, or general forces in society or the economy express themselves on given days in given places, and results for given people will not be the same when any of those variables change."
Or as the Italian writer Cesare Pavese put it, "We don't remember days; we remember moments." Robert Frost got even closer: "You're searching, Joe, for things that don't exist; I mean beginnings. Ends and beginnings--there are no such things. There are only middles." (Both quoted in Gary W. Fenchuk's "Timeless Wisdom" collection.)
I would guess that the would-be mass murderers who seem to have employed Ahmed Ressam as a courier think much more like the rest of us than we want to imagine: They harbor illusions of ending one thing or era and beginning another, perhaps with a Y2K massacre.
Their illusions of a sharp, quick solution to a complex situation are particularly loathsome and dangerous, but not all that unusual. Humans are as prone to mistaking actions for solutions as they are to seeing beginnings or endings in the middle.
Actions do not freeze moments in place so that order can be imposed once and for all. Their consequences flow downstream into time, which moves horizontally rather than vertically.
Bombing Iraq or Serbia--or invading them--may be a necessary action on a given day, when all the variables Neustadt and May cite are taken into account by decision-makers. But the actions do not bring "peace" to Mesopotamia or the Balkans, as two U.S presidents spent much of the past decade demonstrating.
The world is a better place because George Bush and Bill Clinton used force to stop the worst excesses of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. But the extended, confused and frustrating aftermaths of these two brief U.S.-led wars show the difficulty of using either statecraft or violence to force endings and beginnings on schedule.
Nor did U.S. good intentions and aid produce a clear, sharp solution to Russia's post-Communist problems. Strategic partnership has not transformed China's authoritarian rule during Clinton's tenure. Crossing that hackneyed bridge into the future, we still encounter the obvious: "Middles" encompass and persist. Real change keeps its own timetable.
I do not mean to suggest that leaders and decision-makers should sit passively by and let time sort things out. That would lead to failure or disaster. My point is that even on the cusp of a year that brings millennial change numerically and a U.S. presidential election, politicians, voters and even pundits should bring a certain humility to their solution-mongering.
We often need to think middle rather than millennial. Where we cannot take full charge of events, we need to find actions and policies that fit the long flow of history instead of the next news cycle, polling period or major marketing moment. We need to think in time, as well as of it, as we move forward in the Year 2000.