A few weeks ago, Newsweek produced a video, which condensed the major news events of the past decade into one seven-minute mashup video. This interested me! So, I merrily sat down at my desk, queued it up, and prepared to watch it unfold. At the time, I thought: "Oh, this will be fun."
It was not fun. Not at all. You know what? This past decade was pretty terrible!
The good thing about memory is that it protects you from realizations like this. And the nice thing about history is that it unfolds very slowly as you page back through it, with an emphasis on patiently allowing the reader to make sense of it all. But as I watched the decade replay itself before my eyes, it was a weird combination of warp speed images and strangely elongated memories as the "what I lived through" and the "how I lived through it" attempted to co-exist in my brain at the same time.
As the video began, the first big event was the Y2K concerns that everyone had at the beginning of the decade. This was a breezy, easy way to begin. I recall, perhaps incorrectly, that Y2K was this big concern that was rather easily surmounted, and maybe wasn't that big a deal to begin with. For an instant, I smiled inwardly. I relaxed, just a little bit. I allowed myself to lower my guard.
That was a big mistake! Because a few instants later, the decade was off and running, it's awfulness blooming anew in my face. September 11th. Katrina. Lehmann Brothers. War, collapse, ruination, privation, recession. This decade, and its relentless pummel, was coming at me hard, like a shot to the face. And as an audience to it and participant in it, I could do nothing else but take it.
And damned if after it was all over, I didn't think to myself, "Wow. This must be like how it felt to be Harry Whittington."
Let's cast our minds back to Saturday, February 11, 2006. Harry Whittington was, at the time, a 78 year old lawyer who lived in Texas, and whose life, as far as history was concerned, was largely unremarkable, save for one thing: he was an intimate of Vice President Dick Cheney. And on that day, Whittington and Cheney were members of a hunting party, casting after quail at the Armstrong Ranch in Texas. The two men were reportedly friends. Maybe even BFFs -- I do not know. What's important is that on the morning of February 11th, Harry Whittington awoke safe in the knowledge that Dick Cheney was among his well-wishers. That's not nothing! There are billions of people across this planet who Dick Cheney literally wishes to be visited with some sort of indiscriminate harm.
Now, something should be said about the "hunting" that the two men were engaged in that day. Cheney's hunting party was not actually on a painstaking hunt for elusive quail. If I recall correctly, the Armstrong Ranch was some sort of hunting facility that invited hunting parties and then provided them with quail. I seem to recall that the whole point of the enterprise was that the quail were really easy to shoot -- maybe they were drugged, or bred for stupidity, or literally placed in front of men with guns.
The point is, the task of hunting wasn't supposed to be hard. It was to be like a fishing charter, where hooks are baited with marlins, and people cheer as you heave them out of the water. These were the Y2Quail of the avian universe -- an easily surmountable challenge, that wasn't that big a deal to begin with.
And so, Dick Cheney and Harry Whittington and four other hunters went out for quail that day, and by the end of the day, Dick Cheney had shot his friend in the face.
Now, there are all sorts of diverging accounts about what happened, who was standing where, who was drinking what, whose fuck-up set off the whole unfortunate chain of events. The official summary of what happened goes like this: "Whittington downed a bird and went to retrieve it. While he was out of the hunting line, another covey was flushed and Cheney swung on a bird and fired, striking Whittington in the face, neck and chest."
Whittington ended up hospitalized for his wounds. On Monday, he was moved out of the intensive care unit. The following morning, Whittington suffered a small heart attack because of shrapnel that had strayed too close to his heart. He was subsequently moved back into intensive care and treated anew. With the Christmas Crotchfire attack fresh in our memories, should I point out that the Bush administration waited a day to inform the world that the second in line to the Oval Office had shot a guy? No? Okay. Moving on!
The most extraordinary thing about this whole story occurred on February 17, when the finally discharged Whittington held a press conference, and said this:
My family and I are deeply sorry for everything Vice President Cheney and his family have had to deal with. We hope that he will continue to come to Texas and seek the relaxation that he deserves.
That's right. Harry Whittington, late of being shot in the face, went in front of the press and apologized for that time he allowed his face to get in front of somebody else's bullets. Gosh! My bad!
Look, look: accidents do happen. And you have to concede the ambiguity of the incident. You just have to. What I'm saying is that no one in the wide world would have thought any less of Harry Whittington if he had declined to cast himself as the guilty party, let alone take responsibility for ensuring that the State of Texas would continue to receive Dick Cheney's tourism dollars.
But you know what? I get Harry Whittington. I really do. He was just going with the flow of the times in which he was living. By 2006, we had all become inured to the conditions this decade was setting. Whatever bad stuff had happened to us, this decade taught us one indelible thing about it: we were wrong, and it was our fault.
After September 11th, when we wanted to seek out and destroy the murderers who had greenlit the most awful attack on our country in our recent memory, we were told, after a brief, furtive attempt to do the right thing, "No, no. You're wrong. What's needed is for us to wage war against a country of people who had nothing to do with that. If you want to be thought of as serious, you'll go along." After Hurricane Katrina had devastated the Gulf Coast, when we cried that it was FLAT OUT INSANE that we couldn't adequately take care of our own fellow citizens, we were told, "No, no. You're wrong. We're actually doing a heck of a job. How dare you say otherwise! You are bad, and you should feel bad."
Did you lose your home this decade, and suspect you were taken in by some shady mortgage broker? Well, this decade told us, "Shut up, you. That's your fault. Do you want Rick Santelli and a gang of traders from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to stab you in the eyes, with pitchforks? Because that's what will happen if you keep bitching."
Did you want some measure of justice to be meted out after all the torture and detention and surveillance and rampant immorality that occurred during the Bush administration, and you had voted for a guy who said All That Would Change? Well, you were told: "Shut up, you. Do you really want to put the country through that sort of pain? All of that happened in order to protect you, you goddamned ingrates. So if you know what's best for you, you'll shut up and Move Forward."
And tell me, after the entire economy collapsed under the weight of what could be charitably called a cascading series of interconnected, interplanetary fuck-ups at the hands of the most amoral greedheads that Wall Street had ever produced, did you want to INSIST that a pound of flesh, at the very least, be taken from all of those people responsible? Well, you know how that worked out: "No, no. You're wrong. You need to let the sage geniuses who run the show for the Bush and the Obama administration put an unbelievable amount of your money into sacks, so we can cart it off and give it to those very same interplanetary fuck-up greedheads as a burnt offering to fix the damage, because you are all too damn stupid to understand the Dark Mysteries of the Economy. How dare you act like you know better! This was all your fault in the first place!"
That was the story of this decade. We got shot, in the face, again and again, and it was always our fault, we were always wrong.
In a few hours, this decade will come to a merciful end. Maybe the Tweens (And can we all agree to call the next decade the Tweens? Because that eloquently captures where this nation is in terms of maturity level.) will be better. Maybe it won't. But the time for moving on is nigh.
Still, it's not too late to do the right thing. Why don't you all take one of these final passing moments to look this passing decade in the face before it departs, and, at long last, apologize to it?