2001: Ring The Bells Backward

On the morning of September 11, commuters heading for World Trade Center offices read New York Times front-page headlines about the arrest of a person charged with hijacking an airliner from Canada to Cuba 30 years ago, and about rumored smuggling of nuclear materials in Central Asia. And about attempts to regulate displays of bare midriffs and cleavage in a New Jersey high school. Northern Virginia commuters driving past the Pentagon carried Washington Posts with a front-page headline about--you may remember this short-lived creature--the budget surplus. Sept. 10 had been a slow news day.

Year 2001 began just after dueling supreme courts, Florida's and the nation's, settled one of the strangest presidential elections. The president inaugurated on Jan. 20 would, conventional wisdom said, be unable to lead. On Sept. 20, he spoke to a joint session of Congress, and conventional wisdom changed.

Year 2001 ended with perhaps the most remarkable demonstration of military might in American, if not world, history: Less than three months after the most lethal terrorism in human experience, a regime complicit in the attacks was annihilated by U.S. power projected 8,000 miles. Some U.S. munitions were delivered by planes that took off in Missouri; others were guided to targets by Special Forces operating on horseback against cave dwellers.

September 11 caused the demotion of some worries. After the attacks, when F-16s began patrolling over Washington and New York, the Environmental Protection Agency stopped complaining that F-16 reconnaissance flights over Iraq were venting gases that threaten the earth's ozone layer. Planned Parenthood of New York City responded to September 11 by offering free abortions at certain locations.

An American corporation cloned a human embryo, rekindling anxieties voiced two centuries ago by Charles Lamb: "Can we ring the bells backward? Can we unlearn the arts that pretend to civilize, and then burn the world? There is a march of science; but who shall beat the drums for its retreat?"

An Oxford University newsletter said that between 1968 and 1970 Bill Clinton "followed the B.Phil. course." "Followed"? What a delicate way of saying he failed to get a degree. Oxford's Balliol College alumni notes included this from Nick Tee, a 1968 graduate: "I legally became Nicola Dian Capron Tee last year." A New Jersey court ruled that "gender dysphoria"--dissatisfaction with one's gender--is a protected handicap under state law protecting the disabled. A health plan for city employees was expanded to cover sex-change operations. In San Francisco, of course.

A Utah brewery advertised its Polygamy Porter with the slogan "Why have just one?" An English grocer became the "Metric Martyr," convicted of the crime of selling bananas measured in pounds and ounces, in violation of European Union regulations. A Bavarian who made a rude gesture at a traffic camera was convicted of the crime of rudeness toward the police. School officials in West Annapolis, Md., adopted this zero-tolerance policy about sexual harassment: playing tag violates the "no touching" decree.

When Enron's share price was $84, the company's market capitalization was $70 billion. Then, suddenly, the share price was 25 cents. But American entrepreneurship produced contact lenses that turn the wearer's eyes the color of his favorite NFL team, such as the 49ers' red and gold. The University of Illinois offered this history course: "Oprah Winfrey: The Tycoon." To finance a house, a New York couple tried to sell to a corporation, by Internet auction, the naming rights to their baby. No takers. His name is plain Zane.

Lithuania's newest theme park is Stalin's World, for those nostalgic for the good old gulag days. It is surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers. Inside are concentration-camp barracks and statues of Lenin, Stalin and other builders of socialism. Admission costs $1.40.

In a year when America was yanked back into the maelstrom of history, many obituaries evoked some of the stony paths to the present. Such as that of Rex T. Barber, 84, who was one of the P-38 pilots who on April 18, 1943, using information from cracked Japanese codes, shot down Admiral Yamamoto, who made Dec. 7 a day that would one day be a companion to September 11 in America's memory. Montana's Mike Mansfield, 98, became Senate majority leader. Fibbing about his age to recruiters, he was in the Navy at 14, just before the Yanks went "over there."

Gerhart Riegner, 90, was the World Jewish Congress official who in August 1942 alerted the world to Nazi genocide plans. Emilie Schindler, 93, was the wife of Oskar, who had a List. Murray Aronoff, 75, was a crew member of the steamship Exodus carrying 4,500 Jewish refugees to Palestine. He led an unsuccessful four-hour fight against British troops--"They had sidearms, machine guns and tear gas, and we had canned food and potatoes and rocks"--who boarded the ship, turning it back to Europe, as part of a policy to balance the Arab and Jewish populations in Palestine. Most of its passengers later made it to Palestine.

Rose Freedman, 107, was the last survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that killed 146 in Manhattan in 1911 and spurred worker-safety legislation. Michel Navratil, 92, was the last male survivor of the Titanic in 1912. Percy Goring, 106, was the last known British survivor of the disastrous 1915 Gallipoli campaign that almost destroyed the career of its young architect, Winston Churchill. American Fred Roberts, dead at 105, experienced chemical warfare--mustard gas--as a doughboy in France 83 years ago. Gerard Zinser, 82, was the last survivor of John Kennedy's PT 109 crew.

Finally, the nation lost two of its most distinguished women. No American has written better short stories than Eudora Welty, 92, of Jackson, Miss. The nation's capital lost a leader who understood the kinship of the words "city," "citizen" and "civility." Katharine Graham was 84.