By Justin Pope
It was a year of storms, of raging winds and rising waters, but also broader turbulence that strained our moorings. Our atmosphere, our politics, our economy , rarely in memory have they seemed in such constant agitation.
Our emotions, too. In the year’s final weeks, amid a torrent of tears in a heartbroken Connecticut town, a rush of grief seemed to wash over all of us from the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults in an elementary school, and of the shooter’s mother in her home. The senselessness and loss plumbed depths of sorrow and outrage we had not felt, together, for many years.
But if 2012 battered us with floods and tempests, and seemed especially dark in its final days, it was also perhaps more distinctively a year of mornings after, when clouds parted and dawn’s light fell upon altered landscapes.
Surveying the changes, we were sometimes sanguine, at other times distraught.
There were, of course, the storms themselves, taking not just ferocious but sometimes freakish forms. Americans saw an unusually warm winter, spring tornadoes, summer drought, and a band of concentrated, hurricane-scale thunderstorms that taught millions the word “derecho.”
Autumn brought Hurricane Sandy and a wintry nor’easter that disrupted millions of lives and killed hundreds, many swept from their homes in communities with safe-sounding names like New York’s Breezy Point and the Rockaways that unexpectedly entered the lexicon of global disaster zones.
When the waters did recede, they revealed a country perhaps one step readier to confront difficult questions: Is our planet changing, and are we responsible? Even more abruptly, the Connecticut killing spree seemed in one terrible day to bring the long-dormant issue of gun control to the political forefront.
Sandy may also have boosted President Barack Obama in the last days of a close-run re-election campaign that was nothing if not a storm itself , a seemingly endless $6 billion typhoon of negativity that simply exhausted Americans, particularly in a handful of swing states on whose airwaves it made landfall.
But it ended at last, and if the outcome seemed to affirm the status quo, it also laid bare a political topography reshaped by changing demographics.
Just over half the country, disproportionately the young and minority, celebrated Obama’s re-election, and three states became the first to approve gay marriage at the ballot box. Among those on the losing side, older and whiter as a group, some were genuinely shocked by the result, and expressed sadness in the conviction that an America that felt familiar to them was slipping away.
After nearly half a decade, rays of sunlight at last shone on the American economy. Unemployment, though still uncomfortably high, fell below 8 percent for the first time in more than three years. Housing began to rebound. Though political gridlock threatened to undermine it, recovery seemed at last at hand.
Yet the flickering revival also illuminated how much may have changed forever. Factories were hiring again, but often couldn’t find workers with the needed qualifications. A college degree was the increasingly unforgiving divider between the haves and have-nots, fueling anxiety over its rising price.
One 2012 study reached the remarkable conclusion that even during the depths of the worst recession in the lifetimes of most Americans, the number of jobs available to people with a bachelor’s degree never stopped increasing. And even when the economy picked up in 2012, the number of available jobs for those with only a high school diploma continued to decline. In other words, for those with a college degree, the Great Recession never happened. For those without one, it may never end.
Amid great sorrow, there was no shortage of wondrous human achievement in 2012.
Felix Baumgartner, a 42-year-old former car mechanic from Austria, rode a balloon-tugged capsule to the edge of space. Then, as millions watched breathlessly online, he opened the hatch, paused momentarily, and stepped into the void. He tumbled for nine minutes and 24 miles, breaking the sound barrier, before deploying a parachute and landing safely in the New Mexico desert.
No less thrillingly to some, scientists in Switzerland tied the final string of a knot that explains the most elementary workings of the universe: the “standard model” of physics. With the words, “I think we have it,” they announced with virtual certainty they had found the so-called Higgs boson “God particle.” It was an answer to one of the most basic but bedeviling questions imaginable: Where does mass come from?
At the London Olympics, Jamaican Usain Bolt proved himself the greatest sprinter of all-time, and Baltimore swimmer Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian. But for the Americans, victory in the medal table was driven by women ,a reward, on the 40th anniversary of Title IX, for a broad-based culture of sports participation. The defining image: 16-year-old gymnast Gabby Douglas, suspended with seemingly impossible fluidity and grace at the apex of her jump from a balance beam, en route to the all-around gold medal.
British athletes also exceeded expectations, and after years of grumbling over costs and inconvenience, the hosts seemed actually to enjoy themselves. The opening ceremonies touched all the right notes, celebrating a multicultural nation sufficiently confident in its virtues of cleverness, artistry and humor to resist trying to outdo the Beijing extravaganza four years ago. From Mary Poppins to Monty Python, from a sky-diving queen to Mr. Bean, it was a palpable hit.
There were, as always, those who let us down. Lance Armstrong, the supposedly superhuman cyclist stripped of seven Tour de France titles, humiliated by a meticulous official report that painted him a cheat and a bully. Revered general and CIA director David Petraeus, taken down by an affair with a fawning biographer. Former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, carted off to prison for 30-to-60 years for child sex abuse.
Internationally, there was no shortage of storms in 2012, though less in the way of resolution. Old enmities and grievances resurfaced in the Middle East, clouding the legacy of the 2011 Arab spring. The number of dead in the Syrian civil war passed 40,000. Israeli and Palestinian civilians suffered through another escalation of the conflict in Gaza.
In Libya, four Americans, including much-loved ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in an attack on the Benghazi consulate that became yet another point of bitter political dispute in Washington.
The European Union accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, but its grand experiment with a single currency teetered. Greeks rioted against austerity, and anti-immigrant groups harking back to the continent’s fascist past drew energy from the despair. Spain, Portugal and Italy struggled to right themselves and offer a way forward to an emerging generation that has never tasted opportunity.
Beneath the biggest headlines there were stories where one might spot distant clouds on the horizon , clouds with the potential, at least, to gather into storms.
In February, Congress set in motion planning to open U.S. civilian airspace to unmanned aircraft by 2015. Will domestic drones make possible heretofore unimaginable conveniences, transform our economy and make us safer? Or, as some fear, will they usher in a “surveillance society” where prying eyes above compromise the privacy of every home and back yard?
In September, China unveiled its first aircraft carrier. Will it herald an arms race and future conflict? Or does it merely highlight the wide military gap between the United States and any rival? And will China’s slowing economy prove a manageable correction, or the first rumblings of an economic and political earthquake?
In November, in the magnificent but seemingly cursed Great Lakes region of East Africa, refugees again streamed past bodies of the dead, fleeing into the mountains. The city of Goma, Congo, fell to a few hundred rebels, allegedly supported by next-door Rwanda, as United Nations peacekeepers stood by. Would this prove merely another flare-up in a beautiful but crowded and long-suffering corner of the world? Or was it the re-ignition of a conflict that , unbeknownst to much of the world , was the deadliest on earth since World War II, claiming more than 5 million lives during the late 1990s and early 2000s?
Yes, some clouds did part in 2012. But there remained no dearth of the grieving and the suffering, on whom “the sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch”, in the words of Shakespeare’s famous take on tempests, and who anxiously awaited what the dawning light of 2013 would reveal.