2012 – The Year That Was…

2012 – The Year That Was

Gerard J. Zarella, 2012

Lost  time is never found again.
Benjamin Franklin

Self-Portrait of Curiosity by Rover's Arm Camera    We are constantly bombarded by information,  thanks to the 24 hour news cycle and virtually instant and personal access to worldwide, real-time streams of history making events.  Sometimes, things happen so quickly that, events that occurred as little as 6 months to a year ago, can already feel like ancient history; and a future farther than a few months out can seem like a faint blip on the radar horizon. So, here are events and people, in order of interest to me, that caught my eye and imagination from a list of the top 15 news stories of 2012, according to Pew Research Center’s News Interest Index.

     In August, we Americans stood a little taller and prouder as NASA scientists reinvigorated American exceptionalism, imagination,  and scientific progress when Curiosity, the Mars rover, made the over 350 million mile trip to land safely on our neighboring planet, Mars. Over the past few months, the surface explorer has been collecting soil and rock samples, sending back unprecedented photos and scientific information about the red planet.

     Red Bull Stratos - Felix BaumgartnerWe marveled as Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian daredevil, broke the world record for the highest altitude free fall from the edge of space, more than 24 miles to the outer edge of the stratosphere. As he plummeted back to earth, his body accelerated to 833.9 miles per hour; he broke the sound barrier. With a top free fall speed of an amazing Mach 1.24, he became the first human to do so, wearing only his specially designed space suit.  He also set records for the highest manned balloon flight and the biggest manned balloon in history. I know my heart skipped a beat as I watched, live, with millions of others around the world, as Baumgartner stepped off of the narrow step of his balloon supported spacecraft, to fall into the world record books and history.

     Baumgartner’s adventure was largely funded by Red Bull, the popular energy drink.  NASA struggles with budget cuts that have become all to common, as the powers that be in Washington DC attempt to use austerity to decrease the national debt and reduce deficit spending.  The retirement of the shuttle program shouldn’t be the retirement of our quest to stay ahead in the space race. Aside from national pride, space supremacy is a matter of our national security.  Government funding for science and education should not become a victim of the austerity chopping block. Government should partner with the private sector to promote and support the development of technology, commerce, education and exploration. Neither the private sector nor the government can go the next step in manned space flight and deep space exploration, alone.

Official photographic portrait of US President...

President Barack Obama (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Half-way through 2012, President Obama won a major moral victory as well as the legal battle against his Conservative detractors when the Supreme Court, tilted in favor by the lone vote of no-less-than Chief Justice John Roberts himself, who split with the conservative majority of the Court and voted with the minority liberal justices to uphold the Affordable Care Act, which has affectionately become known as “Obamacare.”  As conservative pundits wailed and gnashed their teeth, Justice Roberts made sure that President Obama’s intent of making sure all Americans have access to health care was protected under the banner of a Supreme Court ruling.

      In November, at least “47%,” although of course, we now know many more, Americans breathed a collective sigh of relief as our first African-American president was re-elected by a considerable, dare I say ‘mandate,’ margin of the vote.  That should have sent a clear message to Congress that we are tired of their games and inability to accomplish anything.  Ahh, but American politics isn’t quite that simple and straight forward, and our still popular president is  forced to continue fighting an uphill battle, with an obstinate, obstructive Republican tea party controlled House of Representatives that seems obstinately determined to go down in history as having accomplished the least of any US Congress.

      As if to provide the encore at the end of the three-ring-circus that was the Republican race for the party nomination and eventual run for the presidency, the challenger’s son, Tag Romney, famously remarked to a reporter from the Boston Globe, “He (Governor “Etch-A-Sketch” Mitt Romney) wanted to be president less than anyone I’ve met in my life.” Soooo, nooooow he tells us. It’s just another gaffe added to the many missteps, pratfalls and guffaws provided by the questionably sane, hopelessly lost, hapless field of Republican candidates over the course of their contentious and long run for the White House.  The drivers may have changed several times over the course of the long, drawn out run-up to the Republican Convention, but the clown car’s wheels never stopped spinning to the hoots and laughter of an often otherwise un-amused electorate.

     Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner and recalcitrant House Republicans have managed to garner the lowest approval ratings of any government in recent history.  As the “fiscal cliff” looms at the end of the year, promising increased taxes for all of us, the Republican party continues to disintegrate before our eyes, incapable of the slightest movement forward, leaving the Democrat controlled Senate and the Obama Administration stymied as they watch the 98% suffer, while the Republicans continue their unpopular support of the 1% richest in the country. Fortunately, government wasn’t the only news maker in 2012.

     We also saw the ugly side of America.  Horror unfolded on the TV, as we witnessed the aftermath of the killing of 20 children, just babies really, in one of the most horrific events of the decade. During a season that should have been full of joy and excitement for children and their families, 27 families in the little town of Newtown, Connecticut mourned the loss of life and innocence that took place on December 14 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School after a deranged young man entered the school and in cold blood, shot the principal, assistant principal and several other staffers and teachers who valiantly attempted to protect the lives of the young people left in their charge.A true #hero. News worth sharing... #VictoriaSoto

      Especially in our worst moments, human spirit being what it is, unlikely and unpredictable heroes reach for unknown strength and determination to answer the call to help each other when the chips are down.  On that day, heaven was joined by the souls of heroes like Principal Dawn Hochsprung who died lunging at the gunman, and first-grade teacher Victoria Soto, who selflessly put herself between the attacker and her classroom full of children.  The children were able to escape as the gunman shot the teacher, who attempted to shield them from lethal bullets, after hiding many in a bathroom and closet.  After shooting his mother in her home, the shooter went to the school, terrorized and killed, and finally ended his own life as police closed in, responding to the carnage in the classrooms and halls of an elementary school shaken to the very foundation by an act of unthinkable horror.

     The Sandy Hook tragedy became another traumatic story in a long list of mass killings that have infected the country over the past several years.  In early December as people started their Christmas shopping, a lone gunman entered a suburban mall in Oregon, near a place ironically called “Happy Valley,” and killed three shoppers, as others hid behind store shelves or  ran terrified from the facility.  After his gun jammed, the gunman shot himself as police sirens were heard approaching the mall.  English: GSG-5L semi-automatic rifle in .22 Lo...Another mass shooting in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, earlier in July, that left 12 dead and 50 injured. The shooter, dressed in black military style clothing, including gas mask and bullet proof vest and helmet, entered the premier of “Dark Knight Rises” allegedly released a smoke canister and opened fire on hundreds of unsuspecting movie goers. He was arrested in a parking lot behind the theater by police responding to the calls for help from the theater.

Trayvon Martin shooting protest 2012 Shankbone 10In March, the killing of Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin, by an armed private citizen performing a Neighborhood Watch patrol, in a gated housing complex in a Orlando suburb, launched allegations of racism, inequality under the law and unjustified killing.  The shooter, George Zimmerman, was finally, albeit not quickly enough according to the opinions of some, indicted and arrested in the killing.  He has already launched a self-defense and ‘stand your ground defense’ to keep himself out of prison.  The story, according to some sources, graphically highlighted the racial divides that still exist in our country today. The story was closely watched and commented on by about 70% of African-Americans, while only 30% of white Americans took more than a passing interest in the questions raised by the incident.  Should “Neighborhood Watch” security personnel be armed? Was this incident an example of Florida’s “stand your ground” law going tragically wrong? Is racial profiling a problem in American neighborhoods?  Are black and white defendants treated differently by the American legal and judicial systems? Another battle that will rage on, unfortunately.

     There are no simple answers to the amount of violence that has stained the American landscape.  Too many guns in the hands of too many unstable people; Just what were we expecting? We need to work together to figure out what cultural and societal changes we need to make to stop the killings.  In the mean time, we need to recognize the reality that our world is becoming a much more dangerous place to live in. We’ve got to spend time and money in making our schools and public buildings safe through the use of technology and trained personnel.  We don’t need more guns in schools or on the streets.  What we need is more common sense in dealing with the guns and guns rights issues as they are now.

While terror in the homeland knocked on our front doors, and Mitt Romney stumbled ahead in the Republican horse race for the White House, Americans had some other moments when we could once again bask in American pride and feel a unifying connection with the rest of the world, if only for a few moments.

American swimmer Michael Phelps, along with hi...    On the world stage, we watched as the people of Great Brittain and the world came together to present the Games of the XXX Olympiad, or the 2012 Summer Olympics. Even Her Majesty, the Queen, and the Royal Corgies got into the act with James Bond, her royal protector, delivering her to the Olympic venue in a manner and style fit for a queen and world renown super hero.  After a diverse and entertaining opening ceremony, we watched Americans win 46 gold medals, with Michael Phelps surpassing the previous gold medal record by earning an unprecedented 18 career gold medals, becoming the most decorated Olympic athlete in history with a total of 22 medals. Team USA gymnast Gabby Douglas became the first woman of color and the first African-American gymnast in Olympic history to become the individual all-around champion, and the first American gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics.  The United States proudly topped the medal tables with 104 overall medals, including leading the pack with 46 goldGo Team USA!

 Same Sex Marriage    In other positive news, President Obama, in early May came out in support of marriage equality.  In an action, that came as somewhat of a surprise to many observers, Mr. Obama expressed his agreement with many marriage equality proponents that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional and that gays and lesbians should be able to marry the person they love.  Not to be outdone, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner and the conservative House of Representatives, in a number of largely secretive administrative moves, have  authorized and re-authorized an ever-growing amount of money to a right-wing Washington legal firm to defend DOMA.  Though the Republicans have decried paying government funds to the homeless, elderly, veterans and the environment, they have no qualms about spending our tax dollars to use the power of government to continue to discriminate against a large segment of the population.  They say, freedom does not come easily.

   The battle over marriage equality is hardly over.  In a step forward, in November “(v)oters secured equal marriage rights in Maine, Maryland and Washington, and defeated a marriage ban in Minnesota.”  President Obama has been touted as the “most pro-equality” president of all time by a leading gay-rights organization, the Human Rights Campaign.  More openly gay legislators are picking up the torch from retiring Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass), bringing the cause of equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual Americans (GLBT’s) into the halls of Congress and to the courts in American cities.  Each victory is a step in the long struggle to provide all Americans with the same rights and liberties, without regard to sexual orientation.  It is a battle that will be moved to the halls of the United States Supreme Court, as early as the first half of 2013.

Dried marijuana bud.     Progressive causes took a forward step in Washington state and Colorado, where voters approved the  decriminalization of personal-use marijuana.  Legislators in at least 13 other states as diverse as Pennsylvania, Vermont, Delaware, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota and New Mexico are considering joining the states who have already authorized medical marijuana.  States with liberal personal use or medical use laws are now looking at how to regulate and tax marijuana use.  Have we found the new cash crop for American farmers?  It is still controversial and still elicits a good deal of emotional reaction, but it looks like the tide of the “war on drugs” is shifting away from marijuana use. Marijuana could be taxed and regulated like alcohol and tobacco, a source of revenue rather than a burden on the legal and judicial systems.

      Natural disasters, the economy, gas prices and foreign relations also dominated the news in 2012.  Despite a few set backs and slow overall growth, the economy did keep climbing out of the deepest recession in history.  Gas prices slowly came down, to provide some relief before the holidays.  Jobs continued to grow bit by bit, as unemployment numbers inched down.  Overall optimism of many Americans continues to improve.  We’re not there yet, but prosperity has returned for some Americans, and the outlook in many sectors looks better.  What remains to be seen though, a big “WHAT IF,” is what happens if the US falls over the proverbial “fiscal cliff,” as it seems will happen, having been created by our do-nothing Congress to avoid exactly this kind of thing.  What impact will new costs associated with “Obamacare” have on the recovering economy?  The US debt will continue to grow. Poverty in America is still staggering. And communities throughout the country continue to struggle with less revenue and less federal and state support for local service, public safety and education programs.

      Two powerful hurricanes, Isaac in September and Sandy in November, wracked the eastern seaboard, destroying the historical Boardwalk in New Jersey and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless from seaside towns in Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey, much of New England and causing massive destruction in New York City.  Draught, snow storms, tornadoes, floods and fires continued to stretch and test the resolve and resources of emergency responders throughout the nation.

     The killing of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in the diplomatic consulate in Benghazi, Libya opened a messySusan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN. episode that once again aired our dirty political laundry on the world-stage, while exposing the weak underbelly of our diplomatic mission.  Republicans were quick to pounce on US envoy Susan Rice’s misstatements early after the attack, accusing her and the Obama administration of intentionally misleading the American people into believing the attack was a spontaneous uprising by Muslim demonstrators angry over the airing of a video demonstrably critical of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed. It was soon learned that the early information given to Rice by intelligence sources in the government were wrong, and the attack was in fact a well planned and coordinated act of terrorism meant to further destabilize the American presence in Libya. While GOP stalwarts like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham were particularly cruel in their attacks on Ambassador Rice, they and the rest of the drooling hyenas of the Grand Ol’ Party failed to mention that part of the fault lies with the Republicans’ refusal to fund security for our diplomatic missions.

      2012 also saw the loss of many whom we’ve come to know and love over the years.  Just a few days ago, General Norman Schwarzkopf the commander of coalition forces during Operation Desert Storm died at age 78.  Genuine American heroes Astronauts Neil Armstrong, who amazed us by taking that “one small step,” and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. American political figures, Hawaiian Senator and WWII hero Daniel Inouye, Judge Robert Bork who was nominated by President Reagan for a seat on the Supreme Court in the 80’s, Senators Arlan Sepcter, George McGovern, and Warren Rudman all left behind their worldly duties.  We have been left with the large and small screen legacies of actors Charles Durning, Jack Klugman,  Larry “JR” Hagman, “Sheriff Andy” Griffith, and Sherman Hemsley, who strutted on to the stage of our hearts; the humor of Phyllis Diller, the wit and wisdom of Zig Ziggler, the music of Ravi Shankar, Davey Jones and Robin Gibb (BeeGees). And Dick Clark and Don Cornelius who orchestrated our New Year’s celebrations for years, and took us for a ride on the “Soooooul Train!” Donna Summer’s and Whitney Houston’s untimely deaths left us with a void in our collective souls, however musically richer. Whitney’s nationally televised celebration of life taught us what “going home” is all about. As we mourn their loss, we also celebrate the great gifts that each of these and many more left with us, testaments and testimonies to their greatness and their human frailty.  And we remember too, those not-so-famous people, the friends and family members who may only be known to a few of us, but left a non-the-less hole in our hearts when they departed from this life.  Godspeed.

      2012 saw many victories and some losses.  What will 2013 bring?  Almost assuredly, 2013 will bring more political strife as the gridlock in Washington DC doesn’t seem to be heading toward any type of relief any time soon.  Our President will continue to have an uphill struggle to write his legacy into the history books, as Republican politicians, disappointed at their failure to make him a “one term president,” do their best to make his second term as miserable for him as his first.  The Republican tea party has proven over and over again that their Draconian right-wing agenda is more important than the needs of the American people, so don’t expect to see that change soon.  Some people are fond of saying that both parties are to blame for the lack of progress in Washington DC. But experience has shown that it has been the Republicans’ refusal to work with Democrats on mutually agreeable and beneficial goals, and an insistence on pushing a sometimes radical right-wing agenda that has our government in a deadlock.

     In spite of the government’s failure to work, I believe that the economy is coming back slowly.  After falling into the deep hole dug by the greed and recklessness of the Bush years, it will continue to be a struggle to correct the problems that caused the Recession, retool America for a post-industrial, information driven age and to meet the needs of a growing world population.  America will have to work with Europe and Asia to move the entire world into a greater era of prosperity.  We will also need to work together with our international neighbors to relieve poverty in the world, feed hungry populations, repair an already damaged and fragile environment and maintain tenuous peace in diverse, troubled areas of the planet.  Our New Year will be one full of opportunities and inevitable challenges.

       To my friends and readers, here’s to a  New Year full of hope and promise for you and your loved ones.


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