A Year to Remember

I once had a history teacher who was ambivalent about dates. Before a test, an anxious student would invariably ask whether we’d need to remember what year an event happened.

He’d wave off the question, "Just remember the big ones."

Don’t you get the feeling 2003 will be a Big One?

Every generation believes it is witness to momentous times. That desire accounts for people at the fringes who forecast the imminent end of the world — then are forced to readjust their predictions when, say, 2000 came and went like lunchtime.

But it also accounts for the rest of us who smirk when reciting the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times," certain that, as opposed to the Chinese guy who came up with the phrase, ours really are interesting times.

Even those of us who don’t stand asteroid watch sense that the world has been spinning faster since Sept. 11, 2001. "I rise to issue a warning and sound the alarm to you, my dear congregation," Rabbi Jacob Pressman of Temple Beth Am said in his Rosh Hashana sermon this year. After speaking of the ominous clouds gathering over the heads of American Jewry, he revealed that his words, which rang true on Rosh Hashana 2002, were first spoken by his rabbi on the first day of Rosh Hashana — 1938.

Indeed, 2003 looks like it could be, if not, heaven forbid, 1939, then a date up there with the big ones. Consider:

The Second Gulf War — It’s not if, it’s when.

President Bush and his advisers see the fall of Saddam Hussein as the key to democratization throughout the Mideast — the domino effect, with us pushing the first tile. Others say the president’s motivation is cheap oil. And Bush himself says it’s because Saddam is a weapon of mass destruction waiting to happen. All three motivations are no doubt at work, though in what proportion who can say.

War will bring havoc, but how much and to whom no one can predict. Remember Gulf War syndrome? The burning oil fields? The Scuds? The ineffectual Patriot missile batteries? The chaotic and ill-informed end, when we deserted Saddam’s opposition to face his wrath? We will likely not face those catastrophes again, but there will be new and unpredicted ones.

Israel — This week the Quartet pushed forward a Mideast peace plan that outlines in relative detail the steps Israel and the Palestinians must take to disengage their forces. The plan will not go into effect until after Israel’s elections on Jan. 28, and even then it is predicated on the Palestinians adhering to a cease-fire and Israel suspending the growth of its settlements. The former is something the various Palestinian factions have been unwilling to do; the latter something the Israelis went on doing through every government, including Ehud Barak’s.

During the Second Gulf War, Israel will face a far greater threat than will the United States. After the Second Gulf War, America, having put its soldiers on the line in eradicating one of Israel’s greatest enemies, might come calling to cash in big chits. Until then, there is little sign that the terror and retaliation will cease.

The Economy — The lean times are upon us with a vengeance. The California budget deficit of $34.8 billion (and ticking) will necessitate across-the-board cuts in social services. Combine these with a failing health-care system, increased public expenditures on security needs and lower charitable giving due to a slack economy, and the scope of the crisis seems historic.

The Other Shoe — This is the unpredictable lurking behind the unknowables. To hear many of our own elected officials tell it, another major terror attack is inevitable. I’m still not certain what they expect us to do with that information, other than remember not to vote them out of office afterward for not warning us — should they or we be around for the afterward.

Graded on a curve, of course, we have much less reason for fear and foreboding than most people in the world, or, for that matter, than many people in our city. We are not an Iraqi mother waiting for the bombs to fall, an African teenager dying of AIDS, an Israeli father maimed by a suicide attack or an Angeleno sleeping on the streets these winter nights.

Many of us would do well to focus more on these people’s worries than our own, not just to improve our perspective but to improve our world. If we can’t worry any less, let’s give more — there’s one response to a world that feels slated to go awry. Few of us can jump on the levers of power. Most of us have to choose in much, much smaller ways whether or not to be one of the bright spots in a dark year. History may prove that 2003 was America’s darkest hour, or its brightest.

As essayist Louis Menand reminds us, never "worry about what future historians will think of us: they’ll despise us no matter what. It’s what we think of us that we need to be concerned with."

Happy New Year.