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Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 1999 /10 Kislev, 5760

Charles Krauthammer

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Where's the 2000 Buzz? -- WHERE IS THE PANIC? Where is the hysteria? Where are the men in robes and placards warning of the imminent end of the world? There are just six weeks left before the turn of the millennium, and things are so quiet and sober that one hardly senses a fin-de-siecle atmosphere, let alone millennial trepidation.

The hounds are not barking. Why is the most portentous, widely anticipated turn of the calendar being greeted with such apparent equanimity?

One answer, I suppose, is that ours is a far less religious age than 100, 200 or certainly 1,000 years ago. The millennium of the birth of the Christian savior is accordingly less fraught with meaning.

But in a culture as suffused as ours with secular superstitions -- belief in UFOs, psychic phenomena, astrology and psychoanalysis, for example -- the advent of a rare and magical number, regardless of its religious origins, might be expected to generate some anticipatory, if not agitated, buzz.

It hasn't.

Hence a more plausible explanation: We have already had our burst of millennialism. It came early -- about two decades early. The late '70s and early '80s saw a remarkable, if brief, efflorescence of apocalyptic dread.

Why then? Because a mere odometer rollover is not sufficient to cause millennial stirrings. Bad times are required, too. And the '90s are good times. The bad times hit two decades ago, a time of oil shocks, stagflation and post-Vietnam demoralization.

It was a time rife with foreboding and trepidation, from the influential Club of Rome report predicting catastrophic resource depletion and economic collapse, to Hal Lindsey's "The Late Great Planet Earth," a fundamentalist tract linking modern events to the biblical apocalypse.

The hunger for apocalypse was insatiable. "The Late Great Planet Earth" went through 21 printings in its first 26 months. (It was the No. 1 nonfiction bestseller for the entire decade of the 1970s.) Its secular equivalent, Jonathan Schell's "The Fate of the Earth," laid out in equally lurid detail the coming nuclear apocalypse. It begat the granddaddy of panics, the nuclear hysteria of the early '80s.

A rehearsal of sorts occurred in 1979, when the coincidence of Three Mile Island and the movie "The China Syndrome" stoked a mini-panic over nuclear power. But it was the specter of nuclear war that soon invaded the mass consciousness.

Give it up, guys.
Text was provided by Schell. Video was provided by "The Day After," the ABC-TV movie depicting a nuclear attack on the United States. (It sparked such alarm that psychological counselors were assigned to schools throughout the country to deal with the morning after "The Day After.") Drama was provided by now forgotten organizations like Ground Zero that offered symbolic reenactments of all the burning, melting and exploding that would attend the coming Armageddon. Heavy thinking was provided by such fashionable figures as psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who diagnosed those resisting the anti-nuclear hysteria as suffering from "psychic numbing" and "nuclearism."

The panic engendered countless demonstrations, culminating in the New York City disarmament rally of June 1982, by some estimates the largest demonstration in American history.

And then it all vanished.

Perhaps every generation has only one millennial panic in it, and we've already shot our wad.

But I'd venture one more reason why the millennium is being approached with such psychic equanimity: the Y2K computer problem. My theory is that Y2K is ironically having a dampening effect on the free-floating anxiety one might have expected with the advent of the millennium.

The Y2K computer problem, being real, has taken that anxiety and focused it. It has taken an irrational dread--2000 is, after all, just an arbitrary number--and rationalized it. For the first time in history, the turning of the calendar corresponds to a real event in the physical universe. Y2K takes the new millennium out of the realm of metaphysics and reduces it to a problem of engineering.

With everyone racing to fix their computers, there is very little time for idle speculation about the apocalypse. True, a minor cottage industry of catastrophe speculation has grown up, with suitably millennial predictions of airplanes falling out of the sky, elevators and economies coming to a halt, and general dislocation and chaos on Jan. 1.

Yet what little credence these predictions have been given--and it is not much--has actually helped deflect more cosmic millennial fears. The Y2K apocalypse, unlike any other ever anticipated, is fixable by human agency: a few lines of computer code.

The fix may cost a lot--by the reckoning of experts, some $100 billion to $300 billion. But it is a bargain, a small price to pay for the service Y2K renders during a potentially mind-addling metaphysical moment: keeping us sane and focused on the plumbing.

Comment on Charles Karauthammer's column by clicking here.


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©1999, Washington Post Co.