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Brief interlude

The '90s now seem a golden time, a pleasant break between eras of anxiety and conflict.

September 11, 2005|Jonathan Freedland | JONATHAN FREEDLAND is a columnist for the Guardian of London.

FOUR YEARS LATER, few doubt that 9/11 ushered in a new epoch. What's less obvious is that that day also marked the end of an era. For Sept. 11, 2001, was the last day of the 1990s.

Of course that's not literally, chronologically true. But just as the great British historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote a history of the 19th century, which, he decided, started in 1789 and ended in 1914, so we can look back on the 1990s and see that they too were not an exact match with the dates on the calendar.

That was not obvious at the time. But now it's possible to speak of the 1990s as an era of sharp definition, the way we recall the greedy '80s or the swinging '60s (which you might say began with the Kennedy assassination in 1963 and ended along with the Vietnam War in the mid-'70s). They were the no-worry '90s.

Viewed from here, the 1990s were a kind of vacation, a pause between two eras of anxiety and conflict. They began on Dec. 8, 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union and ended on Sept. 11, 2001, with the fall of the twin towers.

Before the '90s, the world was consumed by the Cold War. Since the end of the '90s, we have been haunted by fear of a "clash of civilizations." A standoff between East and West before -- as the West battled global communism -- and a standoff between East and West after, as the West faces global jihadism.

But for 10 years in between, the world was granted a kind of intermission -- a break from the fear of imminent Armageddon.

Just look at the dominant figure of 1990s politics. Bill Clinton's presidency was defined, largely, by peace and prosperity. Yes, there was military activity in Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan and Serbia. But it was not the all-out war endured in the Vietnam of the past or the Iraq of the present. The 1990s were a rare pause for breath.

The preoccupations of the time tell the story. Clinton was not asked to choose between Iran or Iraq but between boxers or briefs. His first-term scandal centered on the purchase of land in the Arkansas countryside, not the torture of prisoners in a Baghdad jail. And Clinton's undoing was not a natural disaster that drowned a city but a dalliance with an intern that damaged nothing but his own reputation.

Indeed, the Monica Lewinsky saga shared its place as the compelling national drama of the age with the O.J. Simpson trial. In Britain, the dominant story of the period was the breakdown of the failed marriage of Charles and Diana. One looks at that from today's vantage point with a warped kind of envy: Lucky are the societies so untroubled that they have nothing graver on their mind than a series of glorified soap operas.

Of course, that was not true everywhere or throughout the decade. The 1990s was also the era of the Oklahoma City bombing and the Waco siege. But few believed those events portended a mortal threat to the nation itself.

More grave was the bloodletting of Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda -- events to which the world's response was shameful apathy. But even that moral lethargy was typical of the age. For no one saw either of those wars as part of a larger, existential threat. They were not battles against a Soviet menace, as they might have been regarded before 1991, nor were they fronts in a war on terror, as they doubtless would have been seen after 9/11. They were waved aside as regrettable troubles -- nothing to do with us.

It was a complacency that would cost the world dearly because international problems did not go away; they would have to be dealt with eventually. Just not in the 1990s.

Besides, those years felt like the era of peace. Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn in 1993. A year later, apartheid crumbled with barely a shot fired. In Northern Ireland, the IRA declared a cease-fire that would culminate in a peace accord in 1998.

And let's not forget the prosperity. The dot-com boom may have been built on air, but it felt good to those who watched stock markets soar, apparently defying gravity. Year after year, the economy just grew and grew.

That all seems a golden time now, when we could indulge ourselves at the movies with nothing more troubling than "Forrest Gump" or "The Lion King," reading nothing darker than "Bridget Jones's Diary" or "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus."

We are in a different age now, a new age of anxiety -- and the 1990s feel a long, long time ago.

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