"Most of us know, now, that Rousseau was wrong: that man, when you knock his chains off, sets up death camps. Soon we shall know everything the 18th century didn't know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us." - novelist and poet Randall Jarrell.
If not apocryphal, the quote of 2003 came from an unlikely Spec. 4, only 19, standing over a surrendering Saddam Hussein: "President Bush sends his regards." Iraq was so much the year's dominating story that everything else came in close to last. President Bush led the way, with key congressional Democrats supporting him yet seeking to weasel out of that support later as they sought the Democratic presidential nomination. The United Nations, which some insisted be given the job, got going (out of Iraq) when the going got tough - and is having trouble even considering returning because it deems the place too dicey.
Right in there with the UN in the cowering department was a coterie of continentals combined with an aggregation of Arabs such as our abiding friends the Saudis. Iraq gave the vocabulary WMDs, shock and awe, embedding, coalition of the willing, IEDs (improvised explosive devices), asymmetric threat and MOAB (the Mother of All Bombs). It also gave us the uncommon valor of American forces (more than 450 of whom lost their lives), three dozen allies, lost artifacts later mostly found, and Donald Rumsfeld at his zenith. Though guerrilla atrocities persist, the war freed Iraq, ended the Saddamite terrorization of the Iraqi people, and will lead to self-government.
Elsewhere abroad, the year was SARS, the Saudi bombings, the Middle East road map and the Israeli Fence. It was Slobodan Milosevic and other Serb executioners on trial. It was steadfast Britain, Australia, Poland and Spain. It was Canada freaking out.
Stateside, 2003 gave us a federal judiciary - even a Supreme Court - confused, with Senate leftists insistently refusing to confirm judicial nominees who would inject the courts with sense. The macabre loss of the shuttle Columbia may have killed not only seven venturesome astronauts but U.S. manned space flight. An adamant homosexuality rattled our live-and-let-live moralism and shook some of our most estimable institutions.
Last year gave us the Bush tax cuts, an economy resurgent - and unrealized concerns about deflation. It was Bush on the Lincoln, Sammy Sosa on cork and Martha Stewart in the soup. It offered debates about cross-ownership, electric power transmission "deregulation," and compulsory universal service. It had Essie Mae Washington-Williams saying similar paternity things about Strom Thurmond as Sally Hemings' descendants have said for years about Thomas Jefferson. It was California wildfires, one of them named Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was Mad Cow, West Nile, Monkeypox and the flu.
And it was these names in the national news: Jayson Blair, Annika Sorenstam, Michael Jackson and Rush Limbaugh. John Muhammad and Lee Malvo - convicted. More-or-less heroes Aaron Ralston and Eric Rudolph. The Dixie Chicks. Howard Dean. Britney Spears and Madonna - frenching. Elizabeth Smart. Jessica Lynch. Tiger-tamer Roy Horn. Hillary Clinton the nation's most popular office-holding Democrat.
The year blew "Taps" for, among many elsewhere: 450 American combat troops liberating Iraq. The Columbia astronauts. Bob Hope, Madame Chiang, David Brinkley. Senators Russell Long, William Roth and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Michael Kelly, Bill Mauldin, David Bloom, Sarah McClendon, Robert Bartley. Lester Maddox. Fred ("Mister Rogers") Rogers. Edward Teller, Idi Amin, Laci Peterson, Maynard Jackson. Althea Gibson and Bill Shoemaker. Laleh and Ladan Bijani. Gregory Peck, Charles Bronson and Katharine Hepburn. Dr. Robert Atkins.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, perhaps the foremost philosopher of the Enlightenment, held that man - born good - is corrupted by his institutions. Was Saddam - was Osama, were Palestinian suicidists, were sympathizing sleepers Muhammad and Malvo - corrupted or simply born bad? We are still learning, as Jarrell said, the vastness of the death camp and torture chamber Saddam created across Iraq.
And oddly, it becomes daily more difficult to live with ourselves. At least in Iraq, thanks to the perseverance of George Bush and the fortitude of allied forces, America resolved not to tolerate the intolerable - and did something about it. Domestically in 2003, morality and civility lost ground; unreason made its way forward in the person and strange ideology of Howard Dean; educational and cultural collapse were averted, but barely.
As in every other year, good men and women spent 2003 leaning into the wind and sending their regards. Such may be their lot - and their fate.