The events of and reaction to September 11th seem to be the decade’s defining catastrophe, although it could be argued that it was in the voting booths of Florida, with their flawed and faulty machines, that the crucial historical turn took place. (In the alternate decade of fantasy, President Gore, forever slim and with hairline intact, not only reads those intelligence memos in the summer of 2001 but acts upon them; he also ratifies the Kyoto Protocol and invents something even better than the Internet.) And if September 11th marked the beginning of this unnameable decade, its end was signalled by President Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech, in which he spoke of what he called the “difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other,” and painstakingly outlined the absence of any good answers to the questions in question.
In between those two poles, the decade saw the unimaginable unfolding: the depravities of Abu Ghraib, and, even more shocking, their apparent lack of impact on voters in the 2004 Presidential election; the horrors of Hurricane Katrina and the flight of twenty-five thousand of the country’s poorest people to the only slightly less hostile environs of the Superdome; the grotesque inflation and catastrophic popping of a housing bubble, exposing an economy built not even on sand but on fairy dust; the astonishing near-collapse of the world financial system, and the discovery that the assumed ironclad laws of the marketplace were only about as reliable as superstition. And, after all this, the still more remarkable: the election of a certified intellectual as President, not to mention an African-American one.