Undoubtedly the most significant even of the decade was the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City by airplanes piloted by Islamic terrorists on September 11th 2001. It was horrific because it was an act of premeditated murder perpetrated before our eyes on the world’s television screens. It was significant because it was the model for similar attacks in Bali on October 2002 in the tourist district of Kuta which killed 202 people, 152 of whom were foreign nationals (including 88 Australians), and 38 Indonesian citizens; in Madrid on March 11th 2004 when 191 train commuters were killed in the morning rush hour; in London on July 7th 2005 when 52 commuters were killed on the underground and on a bus by suicide bombers and in Mumbai between November 26thand November 29th 2008 where gunmen killed up to 175 people. There were many other attempts at mayhem including those of Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, the 2007 attempt to blow up London night clubs and Glasgow airport terminal with car bombs and the recent attempt to destroy an airliner in Detroit with an ‘underpants’ bomb.
These attempts have been foiled by increased security and by plain incompetence on behalf of the bombers. The security services, themselves are not without their incompetent qualities, witness the shooting of the innocent (though illegal immigrant) Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes, at Stockwell Underground, the day after a failed bomb attack on the Tube.
Part of the terrorist’s raison d’être is to invoke such an oppressive reaction that Western civilization would grind to a halt. Although, this has not happened, the increased security at airports has been intrusive and is set to become more annoying.
The other response to the terrorist attacks has been the start of two major wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Winning such a war is not a problem; winning the peace is. As well as countless suicide bombers in both Iraq and Afghanistan there have been atrocities elsewhere in the Middle East including bombers in Turkey and Jordan. Asymmetrical warfare has entered our vocabulary. Relatively primitive technology, cunningly placed, is extremely effective, especially when the operatives are prepared to die for their cause. One notable fact about such wars is that they are fought mainly in the newspapers. The terrorist cannot hope to defeat the powerful armies of Western nations, but aims to inflict so many casualties that the Western country loses the will to fight. Even so single-minded a country as Israel found this to be true in its confrontations with Hezbollah in 2006 and with Hamas in 2008/9. Propaganda (much of it based on faked photographs) was the greatest weapon of the Islamists. This tactic began in Viet Nam and thus far an effective counter has not been produced.
Often forgotten among Islamist atrocities is the massacre at the Beslan school in North Ossetia in September 2004. Another important strand in World events has been the resurrection of Russian power since the fall of the Soviet Union. President and now Prime Minister (and perhaps to be President once more) Putin has rebuilt Russia sufficiently to throw its weight about again. Powered by vast natural gas reserves, it is able to blackmail Eastern European states like Ukraine into submission and overcome Georgia by the weight of its armed forces. It feels sufficiently confident to murder a Russian dissident, Alexander Litvinenko, with Polonium 210 on the streets of London. This is reflected in a simultaneous weakening of British power as exemplified by the capture of fifteen Royal Navy personnel by Iranian revolutionary guards when they strayed into disputed territorial waters and by the kidnapping of a yacht owned by British tourists from under the nose of the Royal Navy by Somali pirates. How one yearns for the days of Margaret Thatcher.
The other major story of the Noughties has been the collapse of financial institutions and the consequent worldwide recession. Beginning in the United States in 2007 it has been linked to reckless and unsustainable lending practices resulting from the deregulation and securitization of real estate mortgages. The US mortgage-backed securities, which had risks that were hard to assess, were marketed around the world. Credit was easy to get and this fed a global speculative bubble in real estate and equities, which served to reinforce the risky lending practices. The precarious financial situation was made more difficult by a sharp increase in oil and food prices. The emergence of Sub-prime loan losses in 2007 began the crisis and exposed other risky loans and over-inflated asset prices. On September 14th 2007 savers began to queue to withdraw a total of £1 billion from branches of the Northern Rock Building Society after hearing that the Bank of England has arranged an intervention package to rescue the bank, which ran into difficulties as a result of the US sub-prime mortgage crisis.
Things seemed to stabilize a little but with loan losses mounting and the fall of Lehman Brothers, a major investment bank, on September 15th 2008, a panic broke out on the inter-bank loan market. As share and housing prices declined many large and well established investment and commercial banks in the United States and Europe suffered huge losses and even faced bankruptcy, resulting in massive public financial assistance. Iceland, home of three banks that had grown beyond their means of support, became the first Western democracy to become bankrupt.
One factor that economists seemed to have ignored was the growth of China. Within domestic economies in the West governments followed extremely inflationary policies with massively increased public spending and the creation of bureaucratic monstrosities as industrial jobs were exported to third world economies. Individuals felt rich because the paper price of their properties increased massively. They were able to borrow against these inflated prices and spend the money on foreign imports. China, meanwhile, expanded its industrial base and refused to revalue it currency. With the electronic goods, the West was importing deflation (in the form of cheaper manufactured goods) to counteract its domestic inflation.
As the recession has deepened, Western governments have adopted Keynesian economic practices and printed more money, thus devaluing their currencies while building up huge debts and hastening the day when they become vassal states of China and the commodity-rich states of the Middle East. Politicians have become distrusted. An expenses scandal in Britain has made politicians as hated as bankers.
We have had our share of natural disasters during the past decade. Worst of all was the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 which killed nearly 230,000 people in fourteen countries, and inundating coastal communities with waves up to 30 meters (100 feet) high. Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand were the hardest hit. It was caused by an undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Several other earthquakes were hugely destructive including the October 8th 2005 Kashmir earthquake which killed over 80,000 people mainly in Pakistan, the May 12th 2008 in the Sichuan province of China and killed at least 68,000 people and the December 26th 2003 Bam earthquake in southeastern Iran which killed 26,271 people. Hundreds of thousands of people with a different skin hue dying a long way away, somehow did not have the impact in the news that the 1,836 killed along the U.S. Gulf Coast, as Hurricane Katrina struck. This was dwarfed in effect by cyclone Nargis which made landfall in Burma (which the ruling junta have renamed Myanmar) in 2008 causing catastrophic destruction and at least 146,000 fatalities. Every nation has its news priorities as this report shows: Sixty-seven British people lose their lives when four planes are hijacked by terrorists. It is the largest UK death toll in a single terrorist attack. This was how one website reported 9/11. As earthquakes go, we were more interested in what happened nearer to home on April 6 2009: A 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck near L'Aquila, Italy, killed nearly 300 and injured more than 1,500.
Not all disasters have been natural or terrorist induced. In New York City, American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in Queens minutes after takeoff from JFK International Airport, killing all 260 on board and Space Shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry to Earth, killing all seven occupants. Air France Flight 4590 Concorde crashed during takeoff from Paris after its fuel tank caught fire, killing 9 crew and 100 passengers as well as four on the ground; the entire Concorde fleet is grounded for one year, and is eventually retired.
There were 22 other air crashes during the decade in which more than 100 were killed, and countless others where fewer than that number were eliminated. Most recently, Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330-200 flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, crashed in the Atlantic Ocean killing all 228 occupants.
Talking of deaths the decade has said goodbye to several well known names: actors Jason Robards, Julie London, Richard Farnsworth (Straight Story), Sir Alec Guinness, Walter Matthau, Sir John Gielgud, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Hedy Lamarr, Nigel Hawthorne, Joan Sims, Jack Lemmon, Anthony Quinn, James Coburn, Richard Harris, Leo McKern (Rumpole), Rod Steiger, Dudley Moore, John Thaw (Morse), Alan Bates, David Hemmings, Donald O'Connor (Singing in the Rain), Charles Bronson, Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Robert Stack, Richard Crenna, Howard Keel, Christopher Reeve, Janet Leigh, Fay Wray (King Kong), Marlon Brando, Tony Randall, Peter Ustinov, James Doohan, Anne Bancroft, Eddie Albert, Sir John Mills, Sandra Dee, Dennis Weaver, Shelley Winters, Yvonne De Carlo, Ian Richardson, Gareth Hunt (New Avengers), Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny) , Jane Wyman, Moira Lister (Red Shoes), Deborah Kerr, Heath Ledger, Roy Scheider, Richard Widmark, Charlton Heston, Mel Ferrer, Cyd Charisse, Van Johnson, David Carradine, Farrah Fawcett, Karl Malden, Patrick Swayze, Natasha Richardson, Brittany Murphy, Jennifer Jones, Gene Barry, Richard Todd, Edward Woodward, Patrick McGoohan, Natasha Richardson, Norman Painting (Phil Archer for 51 years in the long running radio series), and Joseph Wiseman (Dr No); film makers, Roger Vadim, Stanley Kramer, John Frankenheimer, Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, John Schlesinger, Ismail Merchant, Robert Wise, Carlo Ponti, Sydney Pollack, Ken Annakin, John Hughes and Anthony Minghella; writers Malcolm Bradbury, Barbara Cartland, Anthony Shaffer, Douglas Adams, Robert Ludlum, Leon Uris, Arthur Hailey, John Fowles, Susan Sontag, Muriel Spark, Evan Hunter (better known as Ed McBain), Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, Mickey Spillane, Peter Benchley, Kurt Vonnegut, Madeleine L'Engle, Norman Mailer, George MacDonald Fraser, Philip Jose Farmer, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Michael Crichton, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Harold Pinter, John Mortimer, John Updike, J.G. Ballard, David Eddings, Frank McCourt, Troy Kennedy Martin and Keith Waterhouse; comedians, Victor Borge, Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, Spike Milligan, Ned Sherrin, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Ronnie Barker, Red Buttons, Bernard Manning, Clement Freud and Danny La Rue; musicians, George Harrison, Isaac Stern, Chet Atkins, Perry Como, Ray Conniff, Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee, Johnny Cash, Bo Didley, Maurice Jarre, Maurice Gibb, Elmer Bernstein, Artie Shaw, Howard Keel, Ray Charles, Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Long John Baldry, Freddie Garrity, Gene Pitney, Wilson Pickett Luther Vandross, Tony Meehan drummer with the Shadows, Mstislav Rostropovich, Ivor Emmanuel (Zulu), Frankie Laine, George Melly, Luciano Pavarotti, Oscar Peterson, Edmund Hockeridge, Humphrey Lyttelton, Eartha Kitt, Michael Jackson, Mary Travers (survived by Peter and Paul), Les Paul, Stephen Gately (Boyzone) and Dave Dee (of Dozy, Mick and Titch); politicians, Pierre Trudeau, Abba Eban, Idi Amin, Yasser Arafat, Ronald Reagan, Eugene McCarthy, Kim Il Sung, Mo Mowlam, Robin Cook, Edward Heath, John Kenneth Galbraith, Caspar Weinberger, Slobodan Milosevic, John Profumo, Boris Yeltsin, Raymond Barre, John Biffen, Ian Smith, Saddam Hussain, Benazir Bhutto, Robert McNamara, Edward Kennedy and Cory Aquino; journalists, Alistair Cooke, Johnny Carson, Art Buchwald, Bill Deedes, William F. Buckley Jr, Charles Wheeler, Walter Cronkite, Ludovic Kennedy and Brian Barron; scientists Sir Fred Hoyle, Sir Joseph Rotblat, Stephen Jay Gould, Edward Teller and Francis Crick; royalty, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret, Prince Rainier and King Saud; religious leaders, Pope John Paul II, Oral Roberts, Chad Varah and Ruth Graham; sportsmen, Sam Snead, Max Schmeling, George Best, Bob Woolmer, Alan Ball, Arthur Milton (the last player to play both football and cricket for England), Fred Truman, Brian Clough, Colin McRea, Ingemar Johansson and Bobby Robson; daredevils, Thor Heyerdahl, Paul 'Red' Adair, Neville Duke, Steve Fossett, Robert "Evel" Knievel and Sir Edmund Hillary; from the world of fashion, Estee Lauder, Anita Roddick, Lord Patrick Lichfield and Yves St Laurent; campaigners, Rosa Parks, Simon Wiesenthal and Andrea Dworkin; and a miscellaneous group that includes Lady Bird Johnson, Alex Comfort, Bobby Fisher, Magnús Magnússon, Marcel Marceau, Kerry Packer and Paula Yates.
The decade has been one of increasing technology. We all now have flat screen televisions and monitors, mobile phones have become hand-held computers that take pictures, film has almost disappeared as our cameras have gone digital, and even I have an MP3 player, though not a Blackberry nor Bluetooth and I don’t Text. Although some still cling to vinyl, music has now become ‘downloaded’ (though I don’t know how to do it). VHS has been replaced by DVD but now broadcasts are recorded straight to hard drive in order to ‘timeshift’. Fast-forwarding has made the TV advert extremely missable and companies have had to think up new ‘business models’. Broadband is ubiquitous and with it have come Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, Blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Everyone has a SatNav except me. People seldom play games on their computers now; instead they have dedicated games machines like the X-Box and the PS3 or even Nintendos. To counteract the couch-potato-ness of it all they have Wiis.
The two big science stories of the decade have been the completion of the Human Genome Project and the start of the Large Hadron Collider experiments. In Medicine we have seen a plethora of new anti-cancer drugs often too expensive to be used, and prospects for successful gene therapy. Stem cell therapy has been much talked about, but little has come of it so far. More important than any of these has been the reduction in smoking, often following legislation. Medics are now campaigning against excessive alcohol consumption. We have had epidemics of Swine Flu, Bird Flu, SARS, MRSA, foot and mouth and c. difficile, we have had scares about MMR and gene therapy; they have all been hyped by the press.
Climate change has been on everybody’s lips. In order to reduce our ‘carbon footprint’ we have seen a re-emerging of nuclear power, wind turbines and ‘biofuels’. The ‘Climategate’ e-mails threaten what had been a consensus amongst climatologists. The newspapers have to have something to write about.
In August 2006 Pluto was demoted to a "dwarf planet" after being considered a real planet for 76 years. Other "dwarf planets" in our solar system now include Ceres and Eris, previously thought of as ‘asteroids’.
In the arts, the most popular books have been the Harry Potter series followed closely by the works of Dan Brown, but I have appreciated The Kite Runner as well as works by Ian McEwan, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly and John Le Carre. The movie event of the decade was The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but we must also mention Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind , Chicago , Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men and Slumdog Millionaire.
In sport we have been astonished by Tiger Woods (who has suddenly fallen from grace), Roger Federer, Usain Bolt, Christiano Ronaldo, the Williams sisters, Kauto Star, Michael Schumacher, Joe Calzaghe, Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong and Shane Warne. Drug assisted performances remain a problem. remarkably, England twice won the Ashes and we were introduced to WAGs.
Television has been dominated by ‘reality’ and ‘talent’ shows. I have never watched one though we bought Susan Boyle’s record this Christmas. Of note otherwise were The Wire, The Sopranos and The Office. Dr Who returned to British television.
DNA continues to acquit people on death row, but not Harold Shipman who the GP who is reckoned to have murdered over 200 ‘heartsink’ patients. Pedophilia has horrified people throughout the world. Many have been caught with computer technology, but the murders of two little girls in Soham and the abduction of Madelaine McCann remind us that it is still a problem for us.
Illegal immigration is a problem in both the UK and USA. In 2004 Twenty-three Chinese illegal immigrants drowned, trapped by rising tides in Morecambe Bay, Lancashire, as they harvested cockles. The 9/11 disaster precipitated a wariness of Muslims. The Danish cartoons controversy made people wonder why we should be especially sensitive to Islam vis-à-vis Christianity. Political correctness reigns.
The largest expansion to date of the European Union took place in 2004, extending the Union by 10 member-states: Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Malta and Cyprus. Europe now has even more porous borders. The Euro has been adopted by 12 European countries and has been growing in importance. In 2009 the Lisbon Treaty was adopted, effectively a Constitution for a United States of Europe.
Although homosexual marriage is allowed in a few American States, the Civil Partnership Act, which came into force in Britain in 2005, gives same-sex couples the same rights as hetero-sexual married couples. The first civil partnership lasted a single day.
One longs for the day when the newscaster will start his bulletin with the words, “Today, nothing newsworthy happened. However, here are some names to conjure with, names that will be in the headlines tomorrow: David Beckham, Shami Chakrabarti, Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan, Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, Camilla Parker Bowles, Dmitry Medvedev, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, Manmohan Singh, Nancy Pelosi, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul.