Disruption, despair and fightback

Terrorism and tragedies struck with unheard of ferocity but people were still optimistic and moved on in the face of savagery.

By Author  |  Published: 31st Dec 2017  12:06 amUpdated: 30th Dec 2017  11:00 pm
Disruption

An attack on a concert, a church, an ice cream parlour; an assailant wielding a gun or hammer or acid. There’s an earthquake in Mexico, a monsoon in India, a volcanic eruption in Bali, hurricane after hurricane after hurricane. Keep up as your phone vibrates with word of your favourite actor accused of misconduct. Make that anchorman, politician or radio star.

The volatile year 2017 shook us so much and so often that it felt like a whiplash or worse, and that’s without even considering Donald Trump, at the centre of so much of the turmoil.

“It’s almost like one of those horror rides at the amusement park where every time it heads into the next segment it gets worse,” says noted trendspotter Marian Salzman. “Every time I turn off a device, I feel like I have anxiety because I’m not tracking the news.”

The year, she said, boiled down to “disruption, despair and dumpster fires.” In retrospect, 2017’s destiny seemed sealed in its opening moments.

Sad Start

Just after the New Year dawned in Istanbul, a gunman killed 39 people at a nightclub and wounded scores. The joy of the holiday dissolved into a scene of heartbreak outside the city morgue, where some cried as they learned of a loved one’s fate.

Around the world this year, vehicles were made into weapons, with trucks, cars and vans mowing down people on the Westminster and London bridges in Britain; in Times Square and on a Manhattan bike path; on a major shopping street in the Swedish capital of Stockholm; on the historic La Rambla in Barcelona.

Terrorism and other violent incidents struck so regularly that many accepted it as a fact of life.

“It can happen anywhere as long as there is one man willing to die,” said Luis Antonio Bone, 66, of Barcelona. Bone is at once realistic and defiant, saying crowded places may make him think about his safety but won’t deter him from outings. “We have to live with it,” he said, “but keep living as we always have.”

Resolute Resilience

That kind of resilience was mustered again and again, even by some of those marked by some of the year’s biggest tragedies.

In Texas, Pastor Frank Pomeroy vowed that good would persevere over evil. Pomeroy leads the rural church where a gunman killed 25 parishioners, his own 14-year-old daughter among them. “Rather than choose darkness as that young man did that day, we choose life,” he said in an emotional service only a week after the rampage.

In Las Vegas, too, where 58 people were fatally shot at a music festival, some searched for optimism in the face of savagery. Jay Pleggenkuhle, a 52-year-old landscaper, helped create a memorial garden with a tree for each of the victims. Some 1,000 people volunteered to help with his project, putting aside personal or political differences to work hand in hand. “People have really been bound together following this tragedy,” he said.

A deadly chemical attack in Syria stirred people around the globe. Missile launches by North Korea brought angst that nuclear war was nearing. Rallies by white supremacists, wearing white hoods and clasping torches, roused uncomfortable memories of the United States’ past. All of it broke with such ferocity, it seemed impossible to focus on any one incident too long.

“Even something like a mass shooting that killed 50 people, the story moves on in just a couple weeks,” said Lauren Wright, a lecturer on politics and public affairs at Princeton University.

In Egypt, twin Palm Sunday attacks ambushed Coptic Christians and a November assault on a crowded mosque killed more than 300. In Britain, 22 people died when a suicide bomber detonated a backpack full of explosives after an Ariana Grande show.

Weathering Storms

Three major storms — Harvey, Irma and Maria — battered Puerto Rico and much of the Caribbean, as well as Texas and Florida, as 2017 went down as one of the most active hurricane seasons in recorded history.

Fires tore through California and Portugal; earthquakes rocked Mexico, Iran and Iraq; flooding and an avalanche covered parts of Italy; mudslides levelled homes in Sierra Leone; and a deadly monsoon pummelled India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

In hotspots around the world, people sought escape. Amnesty International estimated that 73,000 refugees took to the Mediterranean in the first half of the year alone, with about 2,000 dying along the way. In Myanmar, the military has been conducting a brutal ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people, killing untold numbers and forcing more than 626,000 to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Deepening Divides

Amid the barrage, other big stories struggled for a spotlight. A grinding civil war in Yemen pushed millions in the impoverished country to famine. A political crisis in Venezuela brought intensifying clashes. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe was ousted from control after a 37-year reign. In Spain, a push for Catalonian independence degenerated at times into ugly scenes of mayhem.

In the US, Trump opened his presidency with a dark inaugural address beseeching an end to ‘American carnage’ but saw much of his agenda rejected, with members of his own party providing key votes against him. Divides deepened, with agreement elusive even on core national values.

Americans were sadder, a ‘happiness’ report found. Sales of the dystopic novel ‘1984’ surged and a chilling stage adaptation came to Broadway. Mass protests formed around the country, including droves of women who proudly deemed themselves ‘nasty,’ a label placed on Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.

A Little Hope

There were, in this arguably awful year, moments to hail, too, stories of heroism and bravery that restore faith and give the heart a little hope.

More than 80 schoolgirls, abducted by Boko Haram extremists more than three years ago in Nigeria, were released. In South Sudan, a boy abducted and forced into the army — mourned in a funeral two years ago after word of his gunshot death reached his mother — was alive after all, and returned home.

The Islamic State lost power as it was driven from Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria. In the US, a total solar eclipse gave a break from the unending cacophony, with droves of sky-gazers standing shoulder to shoulder across a swathe of the country.
A new calendar page brings with it the chance to start fresh.

Around Europe and Africa

In Europe and Africa, as in much of the rest of the world, 2017 was a year of political upheaval.

Emmanuel Macron, an inexperienced 39-year-old pro-Europe investment banker and ex-economy minister, ran as an independent and beat populist Marine Le Pen to become French president. Six months later, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel mired in a struggle to form a political coalition in her own country, he is increasingly taking a leadership role in Europe and beyond.

Negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union, meanwhile, was the key political preoccupation in Britain, where Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party lost its majority in Parliament after she called an ill-advised snap election. She now leads a minority government deeply divided over Brexit.

Russian President Vladimir Putin solidified Russia’s place in the world, exerting political muscle in Syria and elsewhere. He and US President Donald Trump have been engaged in a delicate courtship despite sanctions imposed by each country on the other and a US investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Kenya saw months of deadly political turmoil as the Supreme Court nullified the presidential election, a first in Africa, and ordered a new vote that the opposition leader boycotted, saying electoral reforms had not been made.

Somalia had its worst ever attack in October, when more than 500 people were killed by a truck bomb on a Mogadishu street. The government blamed al-Shabab, but no group has claimed responsibility.

Cultural Earthquake

2017 will forever be known as the Year of the Reckoning. Because at year’s end, the phenomenon of powerful men being knocked off their perches by allegations of sexual misconduct showed no signs of slowing. Each morning, we awoke to ask: ‘Who’s next?’

To that question, we should also add, ‘What next?’ Because as the year drew to a close, many were also wondering just how deep and lasting the change would prove, going forward. Was this, indeed, the cultural earthquake many have called it? Or was there a chance it might all eventually slip away?

“We can’t be sure,” says Gloria Steinem. “But what I can be sure of is that this is the first time I’ve seen women being believed.” And that, says the feminist author, “is profoundly different.”

Can of Worms

Whatever forces had been stirring under the surface, it all burst into the open with an October scoop in The New York Times, a story alleging shocking misconduct by Harvey Weinstein. The powerful producer’s misbehaviour had long been the subject of whispers, but it was actress Ashley Judd who finally gave a well-known name to the allegations — a crucial launching point for what followed.

Her account of a hotel room encounter in which Weinstein asked her to give him a massage or watch him shower sounded familiar to many others, who were inspired in the ensuing days to come forward with their own allegations against Weinstein, from harassment to assault to rape. To date, some 80 women have come forward.

Me Too

Then came the tweet heard round the world. “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status,” actress/activist Alyssa Milano tweeted on Oct 15, “we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

Then she went to bed. “I couldn’t have been in bed more than eight hours, because I’m a mom,” says Milano. When she awoke, tens of thousands had taken up the #MeToo hashtag (a phrase introduced 10 years ago by social activist Tarana Burke.) Less than 10 days later, Milano tweeted that more than 1.7 million people in 85 countries had used the hashtag. “The thing that was so surprising was the sheer magnitude and the quickness of how it happened,” says Milano.

As the weeks went on, the accusers multiplied, and so did the accused, from Hollywood (Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, Brett Ratner, Dustin Hoffman) to the news business (top morning hosts Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer) to the music world (Russell Simmons) to politics (Sen Al Franken, Alabama candidate Roy Moore) to the food world (Mario Batali).

The accused lost jobs, TV shows, book deals, a Senate seat — with dizzying speed (Spacey was even erased from a completed movie.) Some simply apologised, while others fought back — like Simmons, with his hashtag #NotMe.

Says law professor Catharine MacKinnon, of the University of Michigan and Harvard law schools, “any time any victim is believed, it’s a miracle. That’s why the events of late 2017 have been unprecedented. That’s never happened before in the history of the world. They feel they can no longer afford to be associated with this. This is cultural change. This is real social change.”