Review of America in 1999

Los Angeles Times - Thursday, December 16, 1999

By ROBERT TANNER

The streets grew safer as the crime rate continued to fall, yet we worried more than ever about deadly violence in schools and at work.
     The stock market soared as the U.S. economy powered ahead, though real wages for many workers lagged. And while many high-flying Internet companies made money for investors, they operated at a loss.
     This year capped a century of astonishing progress, yet the computers central to life in the late 20th century seemed vulnerable to a simple flip of the calendar on Jan. 1. So Y2K frets swept the headlines.
     Fears, real or imagined, shadowed the nation. Was 1999 the year of the Phantom Menace? The end of the millennium brought apocalyptic visions, from end-timers to survivalists to environmental anarchists.
     The year kicked off, however, with the looming impeachment of President Clinton. By February, the Senate had acquitted, though bitterness lingered. So did Monica Lewinsky, who hawked her book (and handbags), while former friend Linda Tripp turned to direct mail to pay her legal bills.
     But it was at schools, with children pulling the triggers, where America looked in the mirror and gasped. A transfixed nation, too frightened to tear itself from the TV, watched on April 20 as students fled Colorado's Columbine High. A pair of disaffected students packing an arsenal of weapons killed 13, wounded 23, then killed themselves.
     No phantom, this menace continues to haunted us, the country questioning violent movies and videos, and how cliques ostracize outsiders. Schools instituted policies of zero-tolerance for weapons.
     Yet copycat threats followed, as did the real thing in nonfatal shootings in Oklahoma and Georgia. After an eighth-grader wounded four schoolmates in Fort Gibson, Okla., authorities asked him why. His answer captured the nation's angst: "I don't know."
     Violence spilled beyond schoolyards.
     At day trading offices in Atlanta, a frustrated investor killed nine. At a teen church service in Fort Worth, a man fatally shot seven, then himself. At a Jewish community center in Los Angeles, a white supremacist killed a Filipino-American postal worker and wounded five people, including three boys. At a Xerox warehouse in Honolulu, a copier repairman killed six coworkers and a supervisor.
     A 13 -year-old boy was charged as an adult and convicted of murder in Michigan. In a turnabout, Missouri spared a triple murderer from execution -on an appeal from Pope John Paul II.
     Sick of bloodshed, the nation's cities took gun manufacturers to court, inspired by the states' earlier successes in fighting the tobacco industry. The argument? Gunmakers should pay the monetary costs of gun violence -for police, courts, hospitals. Yet in Congress, gun-control efforts stalled.
     Despite the fears, statistics showed that the crime rate continued to fall, with violent crime at its lowest since 1985. The rate among juveniles dipped, too.
     While we struggled with man-made chaos, natural catastrophes tested us even further. Droughts in the East, Midwest and Southwest; hurricanes aplenty, especially Floyd and its floods. "Nobody expected this," said Tommy Moore, wearing chest waders to get around Rocky Mount, N.C., while rivers rose days after the storm. "It's like a war zone."
     Investigators struggled for the cause of EgyptAir Flight 990's dive into the Atlantic, killing 217. Or why golf champion Payne Stewart's business jet zigzagged before crashing 1,400 miles off-course, killing him and five others.
     En route to a family wedding, John F. Kennedy Jr. was flying his private plane when it crashed off Martha's Vineyard with his wife and her sister aboard. An agonized nation recalled the little boy saluting his father's casket.
     "It was like he was a part of our family, a hope for the future," said Walter Musto, near a driftwood cross stuck in the sand.
     The nation paused, too, to remember New York Yankees great Joe DiMaggio. In a sweet tribute to Joltin' Joe, the Yankees won their 25th World Series.
     Basketball star Michael Jordan retired for the second time. Hockey's Wayne Gretzky, football's John Elway and tennis' Steffi Graf retired for the first.
     Other news came back to haunt us. A special prosecutor reopened the Branch-Davidian tragedy in Waco, Texas, examining the FBI's role six years later. School systems once again debated creationism, 74 years after the Scopes' "Monkey Trial." The Woodstock festival returned, but the '99 version turned ugly -a twisted resurrection of the '60s with Limp Bizkit instead of Jimi Hendrix, rape in the mosh pit instead of free love.
     Hillary Rodham Clinton generated early political waves before tiptoeing New York's U.S. Senate race. Her likely opponent, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, egged her on. Another George Bush arrived -George W., the Texas governor who quickly became the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president. The 2000 race picked up speed with Al Gore, John McCain and Bill Bradley.
     But so far, this election has not been about the U.S. economy, as the Dow Jones indicator broke 10,000, then 11,000. High-tech companies and the e-commerce revolution helped fuel the boom, though red-hot companies such as Amazon.com and eToys.com still failed to show a profit.
     Headlines at home: Olympic-size bribes shake Salt Lake City. Giants of communications merge. Investigators allege the Chinese stole U.S. nuclear secrets. A judge rules moneymaker Microsoft violated federal anti-monopoly laws.
     Abroad: America leads the 78 -day NATO bombing of Kosovo that ended in June. And from a long-ago war, American soldiers tell a horrible story: On the orders of commanders, they had shot hundreds of refugees in the early days of the Korean War. U.S. officials promised to investigate.
     For some, the menace was the man in blue. Police killed an unarmed man in New York. A police corruption scandal in Los Angeles led to convictions overturned. Racial profiling became a national concern.
     The secrets of the red planet proved elusive. First, a metric mixup sent the Mars Climate Orbiter to burn up in the planet's atmosphere. Then, NASA heard only silence after the Mars Polar Lander attempted to land in December.
     Some headlines came with lists: The year's top news stories (this one included). The century's top 100 books. The millennium's top 10 religious news events.
     Others came with laughs: The invasion of the Pokemon. Livin' La Vida Loca. Tinky Winky gay?
     Today's ghost stories filled movie screens and echoed an innocence past. "The Blair Witch Project" and "The Sixth Sense" relied on creepy suspense, not the heart attack of horror. Fans waited in line for weeks for "Star Wars: Episode I -The Phantom Menace," a story that began in the 1970s.
     Of course, the millennium out-hyped the hype, with visions of bad times -and good.
     American end-timers -those expecting imminent fulfillment of biblical prophecies -were deported from Israel, where authorities claimed they plotted violence. "America is Babylon the Great," one believer said upon departure.
     For others, it was to be a New Year's Eve to end all New Year's Eves. A curious competition invited revelers to far-off places -a volcano, the Sphinx, a South Pacific island. The crush of partyers didn't materialize despite this pitch:
     Come see the sun rise on the first day of the new year, the first year of a new century, the first century of a new millennium.
     Not a bad way to chase the shadows.

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