1. ARAB SPRING Sparked by the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi last December, the revolution against oppression and authoritarian rule spread across the Middle East and North Africa throughout 2011 and continues into 2012. The flames of change ousted Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January, Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarakin in February and longtime Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi this October. Protests and civil uprisings have emerged in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Iran, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and Saudi Arabia, among other nations, many marked with bloody reprisals from the ruling regimes. What, or who, will replace the toppled governments and which others will fall, remains to be seen.
2. JAPANESE EARTHQUAKE/TSUNAMI First came a March 11 monstrous 9.0 earthquake off the northeast coast of Japan; its sheer force knocked the Earth off its axis by a solid foot. Next, the catastrophically cataclysmic tsunami it triggered—which sent waves the size of buildings to wash away entire towns and cities, swallowing an estimated 16,000 people, transforming the Honshu coast into an apocalyptic wasteland and causing a major meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Besides the incredible loss of life and property, the triple-punch’s absolute decimation will cost hundreds of billions of dollars to remedy, forcing generations of Japanese to grapple with the worst devastation to hit the island nation since World War II.
3. CONTINUING GLOBAL ECONOMIC CRISIS From the cradle of western democracy came the first wailing of an ugly new economic disorder, as Greece stared at the abyss of default and the keepers of the Euro sought to spank its people for behaving like greedy children. Now the Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese and Irish all have to act like adults, or so the Germans and French say, or they won’t get their pudding. In fact, until the European Central Bank just stepped in with a $640 billion loan, it looked like the Europeans were going to get a spanking for their debt that they’d never forget, and the European Union would be thrown out of the crib like a broken baby toy. It’s not over yet, and the world is hoping for the best.
4. BIN LADEN KILLING The news provoked crowds to gather outside the White House, at Times Square and at Ground Zero, cheering, singing and chanting, “U.S.A.! U.S.A!” President Barack Obama had gone on national TV, on a Sunday night, to announce that Osama Bin Laden was dead. In a daring night-time mission, Navy SEALs raided the al-Qaida leader’s compound in Pakistan and shot him in the head. Then they took his body, and threw it into the sea. Tellingly, Bin Laden had been holed up in plain sight near a Pakistani military base and the Pakistani Army’s military academy. The U.S. kept our allies in the dark until the mission was accomplished.
5. OCCUPY WALL STREET MOVEMENT What began as a call for dissent by Adbusters resulted in a two-month-long encampment in Lower Manhattan that spread to a national and global protest against Wall Street and big banks’ stranglehold on the world economy. It changed the public discourse in the United States and challenged the status quo of many governments and leaders around the world. Because of the movement, the issues of income inequality, accountability for the global financial crisis, unchecked corporate greed, and the overall plight of the “99 percent” vs. the increasing fortunes and machinations of the “one percent” (not to mention millions of taxpayer dollars spent on overtime for NYC police) will remain topics for discussion and causes for revolt or reform long into the foreseeable future. What will happen next is an open question.
6. CONGRESSIONAL BRINKMANSHIP Congressional Republicans have been rocking the House all year, thanks to their majority. Driven by the energized Tea Party contingent, the 112th Congress—dubbed “the worst ever” by observers—has been roiled by extremes. After avoiding a government shutdown in the spring, the GOP Representatives practically dared the U.S. Treasury to default rather than raise the debt ceiling last summer, which used to be a bipartisan routine (and led to the first U.S. credit downgrade). Last week they took it to the brink again, as they looked willing to let payroll taxes go up on 160 million Americans on Jan. 1 and allow millions of others to start losing their long-term unemployment benefits. The House Republicans’ goal was to shame the Democrats and embarrass President Obama, but their strategy session involved sitting in a conference room quoting their favorite lines from “Braveheart,” which only wound up giving House Speaker John Boehner heartburn as he had to eat crow.
7. CONGRESSWOMAN GABRIELLE GIFFORDS SHOOTING For Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, it was just another meet-and-greet at a Tuscon, Ariz., supermarket on Jan. 8 when 23-year-old Jared Loughner shot her in the head with a 9mm Glock Semi-automatic pistol fed by a 33-round magazine, then randomly opened fire on the crowd around her. Six people, including a 9-year-old girl, a federal judge and a Giffords’ aide, were killed in the massacre. Thirteen others survived the gunfire, including Giffords, who made a brief return to Congress in August to vote for raising the debt ceiling. Loughner, a schizophrenic who was arrested at the scene, was later found incompetent to stand trial. Giffords, who is continuing to undergo intense rehabilitation, has yet to decide if she will run for re-election next year. All the talk in the aftermath of bipartisanship and cooling the heated rhetoric is but a memory.
8. HYDROFRACKING The controversial and potentially environmentally catastrophic process of pumping millions of gallons of volatile and toxic chemicals—many of them still legally prohibited from public identification—in order to extract the hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of natural gas embedded deep underground in the Marcellus Shale, a 390 million-year-old rock formation under Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio, exploded onto the national stage in 2011, fueled by concerns about its ramifications on the environment and public health. Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifted a ban on hydrofracking this summer. Thousands have weighed in to the state Department of Environmental Conservation already; a public comment period about proposed regulations in New York State has been extended until Jan. 11.
9. MURDOCH/NEWS OF THE WORLD SCANDAL News Corp. overlord Rupert Murdoch bears an uncanny resemblance to Lord Voldemort, but only one is fiction, the other is a real-life wizard, skilled in the dark arts of tabloid journalism as practiced by his minions at the now defunct tabloid News of the World and who knows where else in the media mogul’s oft-times malevolent empire. Murdoch’s ink-stained wretches hacked the cell phones of the royal family, targeted victims of a London terrorist attack, and deleted voicemail messages of a missing 13-year-old girl, making her family falsely think she was still alive. And don’t forget “journalists” bribing police officers for juicy tips. The growing scandal has already led to arrests, paper closures and firings. Not to mention what it’s cost the reputation of Murdoch’s American holdings.
10. EXTREME WEATHER/CLIMATE CHANGE A record 12 climate and weather disasters each caused $1 billion or more in damage (along with a tremendous amount of human life) this year in the United States, earning 2011 a notorious place in the annals of extreme weather, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Nations across the planet experienced equally historic weather events and natural disasters in 2011, ranging from the brutally decimating March earthquake and tsunami in Japan—the most expensive quake on record and one of the five most powerful in recorded history—to the devastating ongoing drought and famine ravaging East Africa. Meanwhile, more and more scientific studies pointed to a warming of the oceans and atmosphere, as more and more glaciers and ice sheets, from Greenland to China, melt faster than expected.
11. GAY MARRIAGE It was an historic Friday night that coincidentally landed on Pride Week—an annual gay pride event in New York City that marks the anniversary of the modern gay rights movement—when the GOP-controlled state Senate passed the Marriage Equality Act in New York. A month later, hundreds of same-sex weddings were held across Long Island and beyond. The law had failed to pass two years prior but when it passed June 24, New York became the sixth and largest state in the nation to legalize gay and lesbian marriage, joining Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa. Opponents quickly filed suit to challenge the new law, but it remains on the books so far. It will be remembered as the summer that New York reclaimed its long-lost progressive stripes.