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Annus horribilis
Bush and Katrina, Tom and Katie, Theo and the Sox: Choose your disaster

One year ago, I spoke to Alex Palermo, a psychic medium at the Tremont Tea Room, about his prognostications for the coming dozen months. (See "Seeing Things," December 31, 2004.) His visions, delivered quickly and with wild gesticulations, were peppered with dark mutterings about "major threats to our security," "marred Iraqi elections," and "White House scandal." Iíve always been a skeptic when it comes to psychics, but this guy ó who also predicted that two Supreme Court justices would step down in 2005 ó might just have been on to something. As it turns out, he was more or less spot-on when he foresaw a lot of "doom and gloom, man!"

The past 365 days have been marked by epic natural disaster, interminable war, terrorist bombs, perfidious politics, and pop-culture inanity. The year was a whole lot worse for some than it was for others. But it was bad for pretty much everyone. Through it all we soldiered on. And forward we march. Because 2006 can only get better. Right?


It was apparent even before the year got under way that this might be a rough one. In the waning days of 2004 (too late to get on most publicationís year-in-review lists), a massive tsunami leapt out of the Indian Ocean to annihilate huge swathes of Southeast Asia. In a matter of seconds, the briny deep had swallowed most everything, killing upwards of 275,000 people. From Indonesia to the Horn of Africa: utter devastation. It was the worst natural disaster the world had seen in at least three decades. But, as it turned out, it was only the beginning.

In late February, more than 500 people were killed when an earthquake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale pancaked entire villages in southern Iran. At the end of March, an 8.7-magnitude earthquake shook Sumatra, making it the second largest in four decades. In April, another quake shook Japan, injuring 56. Then, on October 8, a massive earthquake demolished huge stretches of remote and mountainous Kashmir, killing a staggering 80,000 people.

The Kashmir quake was in the news here for just a few days, however, because we were still processing our own epochal disaster: Hurricane Katrina. As the monster storm gathered strength in the Gulf of Mexico, people living along the Gulf Coast evacuated ó people with the means to leave, that is. The poor stayed as fierce winds and rain lashed their modest homes. And when the storm finally passed, they were relieved.

Then the levees broke. And, quite suddenly, New Orleans had all but vanished. More existentially, that rupture changed utterly our sense of national identity, exposing a shameful race- and class-based caste system and an entirely inept government response. American cities arenít supposed to have bloated corpses floating down streets flooded with noxious water, polluted with toxic waste and human effluvia. American governments arenít supposed to leave thousands of their citizens stranded for days in sweltering convention centers, without food or water or medicine, while bodies pile up. In all, more than 1300 people died. Meanwhile, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency was busy sending e-mails to his friends: "Tie or not for tonight? Button-down blue shirt? ... I got it at Nordstroms.... Are you proud of me? ... I am a fashion god."


The hurricane made for gripping, sometimes horrifying television. But when Americans tired of that version of reality, they flipped the channel to "reality" TV like The Gastineau Girls, My Fair Brady, Fat Actress, and that corpulent Bible-thumping hag from Trading Spouses. ("Gargoyles! Psychics! GET THE HELL OUT OF MY HOUSE! IN JESUS NAME I PRAY!")

The fact that programs like these were conceived, funded, and aired speaks ill of our societyís collective IQ, or at least the perception thereof. And even while intelligent shows like My Name is Earl and The Office found audiences, a smart and funny series like Arrested Development, even with rapturous critical plaudits, a rabid cult following, and high-powered Hollywood backers, clings for dear life. Why? Because Americans are dumb and getting dumber.

Perhaps the God who George W. Bush believes smiles so benevolently on this land of freedom was making us pay for Breaking Bonaduce. Less than two months before Katrina, Hurricane Dennis killed 10 people in Florida after killing more than 50 in the Caribbean. Immediately after Katrina, Hurricane Rita wreaked havoc once again on the Gulf Coast, flooding the desolate Lower Ninth Ward and extending its reach to Texas and Alabama. In early October, Hurricane Stan killed more than 1000 in Mexico and Central America. Hurricane Wilma, one of the strongest storms ever recorded, reached Category 5 status a couple weeks after that, and three days later Tropical Storm Alpha ó weíd run out of Roman letters ó ensured that the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season would be the most active on record. It didnít end until Hurricane Epsilon, the second strongest December hurricane ever, petered out nine days into this month.

Think someone was trying to tell us something? Doomsday dispensationalists like the folks at RaptureReady.com sure do. That site factors in all this severe weather, flooding, and seismic activity ó along with other religio-political factors like "false Christs" and "beast governments" ó to calculate its Rapture Index, a "prophetic speedometer of end-time activity." At press time, it stood at 156. Compare this to a record low of 56 during the early í90s, and a high of 182 right after 9/11. If weíre not at End Times yet, we sure seem close. After all, itís right there in the Book. Just read Luke 21:11 ("great earthquakes shall be in divers places") and Luke 21:25 ("nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea").

But as the oceans churned and the earth shook, our evangelical president again turned a deaf ear to the those in the "reality-based" community. A lot of very smart people see a correlation between climate change and the increasing number and severity of hurricanes this season. Thatís why itís so disappointing that when the Kyoto Protocol took effect in February, it was without the support of the United States. And that by the time the United Nations Climate Change Conference ended in Montreal earlier this month, the US had embarrassed itself once again by its abject refusal to do anything substantive about stemming an undeniably real environmental threat.


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Issue Date: December 23 - 29, 2005
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