2001-2011: The Decade of Great Change & Tragedy

12/06/2011 10:25 am ET | Updated Feb 05, 2012

As 2011 comes to a close, I can't help but feel a sense of tepid relief. Last September's tenth anniversary of 9/11 featured an immense amount of reflection on that event, but history will remember it as not only a tragically monumental day but also as the beginning of a decade to follow that saw unprecedented struggle.

From 2001 to 2011, Americans witnessed a major tragedy every single year. Even if it didn't happen on U.S. soil, we witnessed it on our television and computer screens. Each year our sensibilities were challenged, and ultimately hardened.

2001: 9/11 attacks (3,000 dead). The start of the war in Afghanistan.
2002: D.C. area sniper attacks.
2003: The war in Iraq begins, the start of the Sudanese genocide.
2004: Indian Ocean Tsunami (over 230,000 dead).
2005: Hurricane Katrina (over 1,800 dead).
2007: Virginia Tech shooting (deadliest school shooting in US history).
2008: Worldwide financial crisis in full swing.
2009: Shooting at Fort Hood.
2010: Earthquake in Haiti (over 300,000 dead). Gulf oil spill disaster.
2011: Earthquake, Tsunami & Nuclear Crisis in Japan and The Tucson, Arizona mass shooting.

Without question, since the beginning of civilization, there have been tragic events: the turn of the last century saw World War I, the end of the 20's saw the "crash" that ushered in the Great Depression of the 30's, the 40's were dominated by WWII following Pearl Harbor. The 50's saw the beginning of the segregation fight that carried into the 60's with it's anti-war protests and political assassinations while the 70's had the deadliest earthquake of the century and a nuclear catastrophe with Three Mile Island. The 80's saw the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and a major oil spill in Alaska. Even the 90's were not immune with the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine High School massacre, and the Rwandan genocide. However, the last ten years will be viewed by history as the most impacting, tragedy-ridden decade in well over a century. I know what you are thinking, this is too dramatic and overzealous for me to proclaim. But it only seems that way. Retrospect rarely comes quickly, and even in this age of constant and instant information when nothing can be missed or overlooked, we have become desensitized to just how much has happened.

Some of the tragic events that have taken place over the last ten years, such as the D.C. sniper shootings, Virginia Tech (the worst school shooting in U.S. history) and Fort Hood, seem minor when compared with 9/11, Katrina, the 2004 Tsunami or the Haitian quake in 2010, if for no other reason than that so many more people were killed in those tragedies. The Tucson shooting of a U.S. Congresswoman and eighteen other people seemed so terrible at the time but so distant and small in some respects after what we, as a nation, and a world, have been through lately. It was terrible, but was it unthinkable? I noticed that people did not gasp at the news of the Tucson shooting in the way they did with Columbine. And it seemed even smaller when only two months later, a massive earthquake, followed by a tsunami and resulting nuclear crisis devastated Japan. Do not get me wrong, when each of these occurred I was saddened and shocked. But I was less shocked, less left in pause, each time.

The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 was the first time I was old enough to feel fear as an American in a relatively secure time. Columbine truly affected me, as it did the nation. I had just come out of high school and I felt an empathetic connection with those students. I wonder however, how an eighteen year old today would react if something similar were to occur. Would there be the same emotional response after ten years of regular, annual tragedy? Becoming more desensitized to tragic events is inevitable as one grows older, but after 9/11, the world just looked, and felt, different to all of us regardless of age or situation. How many of us actively remember that 265 people were killed when an American Airlines jet crashed in Queens, New York almost one month after the 9/11 attacks? How often do we recall the anthrax scare of 2001? The unprecedented wildfires that ravaged Southern California in 2009 would hardly have room on a timeline and the connected global environmental crisis that is climate change seems too daunting of a task to tackle when compared with the immediate global financial crisis that still has people reeling. How many of us can recall when the capture or death of a U.S. soldier was nearly unheard of? Now, if a helicopter filled with troops goes down in Afghanistan it often gets pushed to page eight.

In the last decade we have seen something coincidently accompany these tragedies: a massive media boom. Twenty-four-hour-a-day cable news, the full-fledged explosion of the Internet highlighted by Twitter and Facebook. And the constant use of cell phones, as if they were never not in our lives, has made our world wildly smaller. This shrinkage, this knowledge of all that happens, whether it be a local fire or a tsunami warning for every country in the Pacific, has magnified the last ten years of hardship. With all the tragedies that have occurred and the instantaneous and overwhelming coverage of these events, where does this leave us? Reeling in the dark, or tougher and more sustainable? The tragedies of today are more like car accidents that we rubberneck on the virtual super highway compared to the very personal impact of World War II when people like my grandparents would read the daily paper for the list of local men who were killed overseas. So many people were directly affected by that war that it created an actual "baby boom". There were over 73 million military and civilian deaths between 1937 and 1945 alone, so there is a valid argument that today's tough times need to be put into perspective. Having said that, it could also be argued that with the absence of today's unprecedented technology, the world back then was sparred much of the sounds and imagery that we can't seem to avoid now.

Personally, and I may be biased by youth, I like our chances. I imagine that my generation will look back at this time with a greater appreciation for life, and our world and the suffrage in it. My generation has an opportunity to adopt an image and action of worldly discern and compassion. And not just through "occupation" (which I support) but also in our everyday lives. None of us can claim ignorance or apathy following these last ten years. We are at a crossroads. We can be the vapid, self-consumed generation with our tweets and posts about nothing but our own microcosms or we can take advantage of this time and learn from the precedent set by the "greatest generation." Like them, we should come out of this decade of change and tragedy by emerging as the generation that united the world through the advantages we have in our technology, experience and perspective.