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Gary Younge
2002: A year on the brink

Eric Hobsbawm's 20th century was short. Finding that the events that shaped the century did not fit neatly into 100 years, the Marxist historian cut it down to 77 - starting with the first world war in 1914 and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The year 2002 similarly defies the confines of the calendar - but this year was long.

Standing at more than 1,360ft each, there never was any escaping the twin towers of Lower Manhattan. In their absence, they continue to cast a huge shadow. Even at this late stage in the year, September 11 still means September 11 2001, not the one just gone. Two years into the new millennium, and our past is already catching up with us. In terms of the political moments that have defined it, the year started on that day in 2001 and will not end so long as George Bush's finger hovers over the button that could trigger war in Iraq.

We live in a state of suspended animation, and the suspense has been killing us. Terrorist attacks in Bali and Mombasa left hundreds dead, as has the continuing conflict in the Middle East. We end the year still at war in Afghanistan, closer to war with Iraq and no closer to finding an effective response to terrorism. Al-Qaida is still at large and Bush has Bin Laden precisely where he wants him: dead or alive. The trouble is, nobody knows which.

Earlier this month, a Newsweek cover asked: "Is Anybody Safe?" It was the question that defined the year. Fear, anxiety and insecurity ran through us like the writing in a stick of rock, from the ethnic to the economic, the personal to the political, the local to the global. The most obvious source of this unease was the impending - at times, seemingly inevitable - bombing of Iraq. "The uncertainty surrounding war with Iraq and international terrorism has resulted in a further rise in the number of people naming defence/ foreign affairs as one of the most important issues facing Britain today, to 40%," the FT reported, quoting Mori's November polling figures. "[It] points to a heightened state of anxiety among the public."

It did not stop there. In Washington DC, the spiritual home of the war on terror, a sniper was on the loose. In the Indian subcontinent, two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, flirted with war and religious fundamentalism, while the joint assembly in Northern Ireland collapsed in acrimony. Stock markets plunged, wiping billions off the value of pensions and potentially adding years to working lives, while Enronitis, with its symptoms of fraudulent accounting and dodgy dealing, continued to infect the corporate world. In France, "insécurité" - both racial and social - threw 16.9% of the electorate into the arms of far-right extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen.

So, the answer to Newsweek's question is "No". In a year when Ethiopia again descended into famine and a restaurant owner in Los Angeles spent £22,000 at a charity auction on an Italian truffle weighing a kilogram, there was no escaping the absurdities for which we all share responsibility.

If we learned anything, it was that, so long as some are not safe, nobody is safe, even those carrying out the most mundane tasks in the most powerful nations. "We don't want to buy gas. We don't want our children to go to school. We don't want to shop . . . These days, we cringe beneath the roar of every low-flying passenger plane," wrote American crime novelist Patricia Cornwell in the New York Times. "Terrorism. Lead poisoning. We watch the stock market implode. Fear creates fear, and the more we fear, the more we create fear until the day will come when we don't need anyone to ruin our lives. We will become perfectly capable of ruining them ourselves."

Some might say that day has come already. For, while the fear was underpinned by real concerns, it was also propelled by its own momentum. In many respects we are far safer than we dared believe. Polls showed that 44% of us believed crime had increased "a lot" in the past few years, while the British Crime Survey, the most extensive survey conducted continuously by the Home Office, showed that it had, in fact, stabilised last year, having fallen by 22% since 1997. The fear that unknown paedophiles were lurking on every corner was evident, despite the fact that the number of children abducted and killed has remained fairly constant at around five per year, and that 95% of abducted children are taken by a family member. Concerns about race and immigration ran at what Mori described as a "historically high level" - not surprising, when you learn that the British public believe there are six times the number of immigrants to this country than there really are.

On January 1, we woke up to one of the most audacious multilateral projects of our time. As we welcomed the new year, we bade farewell to the drachma, deutschmark, punt and peseta which, along with eight other currencies from Athens to Amsterdam, were replaced by the euro. With bank machines around the continent whirring a new economic order into action, none of the predictions of chaos, confusion, fraud and farce that presaged its introduction transpired. None of which appeared to impress the British. By February, 52% of people had either used the euro or expected to; the same proportion were either strongly or generally opposed to Britain joining the currency.

But if multilateralism was finding its feet in Europe, unilateralism was up and running in the US. At the end of January, President Bush used his state of the union address to single out Iraq, North Korea and Iran as an "axis of evil". "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world," he told Congress. "By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger."

The international response ranged from confusion to contempt. Despite exhaustive efforts, no links had been made between the states mentioned and the terror attacks in New York and Washington the previous September. The Americans advanced the doctrine of the "pre-emptive strike", arguing that it was better to be safe than sorry. The question troubling others was, who would be safe and who would be sorry.

Former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine described Bush's speech as "simplism". His German counterpart, Joschka Fischer, insisted that alliance partners would not be reduced to "obedient satellites". Chris Patten, the European external affairs commissioner, branded it "absolutist" and simplistic.

And so began what some commentators described as the most serious transatlantic rift since Suez. According to the New York Times, Bush was angered by "weak-kneed European elites". US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused the Europeans of "hyperventilating". And secretary of state Colin Powell said that Vedrine had suffered "a fit of the vapours".

"We're on the edge of the abyss," said Dr Ron Asmus of the US-based council on foreign affairs. "Whether we step into it remains to be seen. I think a lot of Europeans have underestimated the paradigm shift that has taken place in this country since September 11. I think even most Democrats now see the internal debate as solely one about methods and tactics." The primary method was military might. In February, Bush called for an 11% increase in defence spending.

But, however isolated it might have been from huge sections of the world, the US never had to go it alone. For wherever Bush went, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, was sure to follow. "The alliance with the US is strong, it will remain strong," he insisted. "The Americans are absolutely right to emphasise the continuing importance of the war against terrorism and continuing the elimination of the weapons of mass destruction."

Blair's stance strained his relationship with his own backbenchers and with his European partners. In a scarcely veiled swipe at Blair, French president Jacques Chirac said: "In life, you know, one must not confuse friends with sycophants. It is better to have only a few friends than to have a lot of sycophants." Blair has described his role as a conduit; by speaking truth unto power on both sides of the Atlantic, he argued, he could both soften American rhetoric and stiffen European backbone. Since we can never be sure what the US military might have done otherwise, there is little to stop him claiming that this strategy has worked.

But a book, published in November, by veteran reporter Bob Woodward, uncoverer of the Watergate scandal, suggests that the many who withheld support wielded far more influence than the few who did not. "It's nice to say we can do it unilaterally," Powell is reported to have told Bush on August 5, "except you can't . . . You can still make a pitch for a coalition or UN action to do what needs to be done."

On September 12 2002, Bush did go to the United Nations and called on it to support him against Iraq, while making it clear that failure to do so would undermine its legitimacy. "Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?" he asked. "My nation will work with the United Nations Security Council to meet our common challenge. We will work with the Security Council for the necessary resolutions." A period of feverish diplomacy ensued within the Security Council over the remit for the return to Iraq of the UN weapons inspectors. France, Russia and China refused to sign up to anything that authorised the automatic use of force if Saddam Hussein failed fully to comply with the new demands; the US, meanwhile, argued that noncompliance should trigger bombing without the need for further UN approval. Britain wavered somewhere between the two.

In the final stages of the negotiations, the difference between bombing and not bombing appeared to hinge on semantics, with the French insisting on the substitution of "and" for "or" in the text. Such attention to detail might have mattered more if the Americans had not made it clear that, whatever was passed, they would do as they pleased, anyway. "The president still has all the authority he needs should he decide to strike Iraq, thanks to the Congressional resolution," said an administration spokesman.

On November 8, the Security Council unanimously passed a resolution ordering that the weapons inspectors be readmitted to Iraq with a strengthened mandate to stop and search at will. A week after the inspectors left for Baghdad in November, a poll conducted by a senior US Republican strategist for Channel 4 revealed that one-third of Britons now believed that Bush posed a greater threat to world peace than Saddam. But the problem for the war on terror was that all this talk of war appeared to have little impact on terror.

In February, Donald Rumsfeld was asked how confident he was that Bin Laden would be found: "I don't know it matters how confident I am. He either will or he won't. He'll live or he'll die. He's either in Afghanistan or someplace else. We intend to find him. If he's findable." In August, a report by a UN monitoring group said: "Al-Qaida is by all accounts 'fit and well' . . . the prime targets of the organisation are likely to be persons and property of the US and its allies." The organisation, it said, was "poised to strike again at its leisure".

Two months later, on the evening of October 16, the Sari Club and Paddy's Irish Bar in Bali were heaving with young, mostly Australian holidaymakers. Approaching midnight, car bombs went off outside both bars in the town of Kuta, a centre for backpackers and surfers, sparking infernos that would claim almost 200 lives in all and leave an indelible scar on both Bali and Australia, where prime minister John Howard declared a day of mourning. With neither refrigeration nor sufficient numbers of body bags, friends and relatives who came to identify their loved ones were met with charred remains and the stench of death. "That looks like his haircut," said one man dressed in shorts, scouting through bodies wrapped in see-through plastic. "Turn him over." Several people were arrested in connection with the bombing, which was suspected to be an al-Qaida attack.

A week later, at 9.13pm, during the second act of the hit musical Nord-Ost, Victoria Larina sent a text message to her husband from Moscow's Palace of Culture. "This is not a joke," it said. "We are hostages. There are Chechens all around." Fifty heavily armed Chechens, some with explosives strapped to their bodies, had stormed the building and demanded that Russian premier Vladimir Putin withdraw troops from Chechnya. Two days and three long nights later, at around 6am, another hostage called Echo Moscow on her mobile phone and went live on air: "They're letting in gas." The shooting started. Then she collapsed.

Russian special forces had pumped fentanyl, an opiate 100 times more potent than morphine, into the theatre, before troops stormed the building and shot many of the terrorists. The gas alone killed more than 100 hostages. It took a few hours for Blair to call Putin and congratulate him on ending the siege; it took a few days for the Russian government to tell anyone, even the doctors treating the victims, precisely what gas they had used.

At 8.35 on the morning of November 28, a troupe of Kenyan dancers was entertaining holidaymakers waiting to check in to the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa when a four-wheel drive smashed through the entry barrier and pulled up outside. One man ran into the lobby and blew himself up; two others detonated the car, which was packed with explosives. Sixteen people - 10 Kenyans, three Israeli tourists and three terrorists - died in the attack.

Meanwhile, back at Mombasa airport, a charter flight with more than 200 passengers on board had just taken off for Tel Aviv when captain Rafi Marik felt a light hit and then saw two vapour trails passing from the rear. Kenyan police later found two Russian-made shoulder-launch missiles 2km outside the perimeter fence. "Our hand will reach them," insisted Israeli defence minister Shaul Mofaz. Within a day, the Kenyan police were questioning 12 people - six Pakistanis, four Somalis, a Spaniard and an American woman - about the attacks. The woman, from Florida, and her Spanish partner have since been released. The Kenyan police this month issued Photofits of four more "critical" suspects.

On the same day that the bomb exploded at the Paradise Hotel, six Israelis were killed and more than 30 wounded when two Palestinian gunmen opened fire on voters in the Likud party leadership contest in the northern town of Beit She'an, Israel. Over in the West Bank city of Hebron, a four-year-old Palestinian boy was shot dead by Israeli troops as he stood near a window in his house.

It was just another bloody day in the Middle East, where the intifada moved into its second year with both sides in a state of siege. A siege that was physical for the Palestinians, who live under the state terror of the Israeli armed forces, and psychological for the Israelis, who live in fear of terrorist attack from Palestinian suicide bombers.

As the conflict worsened, nothing and nowhere, it seemed, was off limits - from a child's bar mitzvah to Yasser Arafat's compound. During the month of March alone, 70 people were killed in suicide attacks in Israeli towns and more than 100 died under Israeli fire in the West Bank and Gaza. A large-scale Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank prompted 120 Palestinians to take refuge in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where armed militants and clergy alike were under siege for more than a month. The standoff ended in a deal brokered by the US, the EU and the Vatican, with exile to Italy for some and jail in Gaza for others.

In early April, bulldozers followed the shells of Israeli helicopter gunships into the West Bank town of Jenin, where they razed entire neighbourhoods to the ground, notably the Jenin refugee camp, believed by the Israelis to be the home of many Palestinian militants. More than a week of international outrage passed before Israel withdrew its army. A report prepared by Kofi Annan concluded that 52 Palestinians, up to half of them civilians, and 23 Israeli soldiers died in the fighting, and was critical of both sides.

In June, Bush told the Palestinians that they could have a state of their own, but on his terms. "When the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbours, the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state," he said. In early November, the Israeli Labour party pulled out of the government after failing in their demands that £100m of the sum allocated to Jewish settlements in the occupied territories be diverted to the poor, the elderly and single-parent families, in the process sparking new elections to be held next month, which Sharon is heavily tipped to win.

Fear that the conflict was both spreading and mutating into other continents appeared to be confirmed with a sharp escalation in anti-semitic attacks in Europe. In Finsbury Park, north London, Jewish leaders described the ransacking of a synagogue as the worst such attack in this country for two decades. In France, there were twice as many anti-Jewish attacks in the first three weeks of April alone than in the whole of the previous year, among them assaults on synagogues, shops, cemeteries and a Jewish football team.

In January, the New Statesman had run a front cover showing a shimmering golden Star of David impaling a Union flag, with the headline "A kosher conspiracy?" This was evidence, claimed Israel's most liberal, mainstream newspaper, Ha'aretz, that "signs of leftist and Islamist anti-semitism are rife in Britain these days and Jews are worried".

But the clearest threat to minorities - racial, ethnic or religious - came from a more traditional source: the far right in overwhelmingly Christian countries. In April, the French political establishment was stunned when Jean-Marie Le Pen polled 16.9% in the first round of the presidential elections, beating Socialist contender and incumbent prime minister Lionel Jospin to the second round against Jacques Chirac. Given a choice between a scandal-prone Chirac and a race-baiter, the left adopted the slogan "Vote for the thief, not the fascist". In the ensuing run-off, Chirac was returned with an unprecedented 82% of the vote - and an uncertain mandate, given that the primary motivation of much of his support had been to keep out Le Pen, rather than get him in. "When the house is on fire," said Parisian François Giacalone, "you don't care too much if the water you put it out with is dirty."

The shock waves from Le Pen's strong showing crashed over the Channel. In between the first and second rounds in France, the Blair government devised a third way to combat the far right here. They decided neither to confront racism actively nor to champion anti-racism proactively, but instead to pillory far-right leaders while poaching their policies and rhetoric.

Blair aimed to "neutralise" the far right by "addressing the electorate's anxieties about crime and immigration". Home secretary David Blunkett, meanwhile, referred to the risks of asylum seekers' children "swamping" local schools. The following week, in early May, the far-right British National Party won three seats in Burnley. In July, policemen rammed down the door of a mosque in Lye, near Stourbridge, where an Afghani couple, Feriba and Farid, were seeking sanctuary, and later deported them, along with their two small children, to Germany, where they had first claimed asylum - a high court judge later ruled that the Home Office had acted illegally. During the appeal, conducted by video link from Nuremberg, Feriba, the mother, collapsed. In December, the Home Office tried to cut the couple's legal aid. If this get-tough policy on asylum seekers was supposed to quash the rise of the hard-right, it wasn't working - in November, the BNP won another local council seat, in Blackburn, foreign secretary Jack Straw's back yard.

Meanwhile, just as Chirac was moving into the Elysée in Paris, a prominent gay politician, Pim Fortuyn, was making his way to his chauffeur-driven Daimler in the Dutch city of Hilversum, when he was approached by a vegan in a white baseball cap and shot six times. It was just nine days before the country's elections and Fortuyn, an outspoken opponent of immigration who had shot to prominence in Rotterdam two months earlier with his slogan "Holland is full", had been expected to do well. The murder of Fortuyn, who reserved the full force of his vitriol for Islam and Muslims, sparked a brief but intense period of soul-searching in Holland. His party won 17% of the vote in the subsequent election, and won seats in government. But while the party, List Pim Fortuyn, bore his name, it was unable to survive without him - within five months, it was driven by infighting and in decline, taking the new government down with it and prompting new elections.

But the widespread drift to the right that had been widely predicted at the start of the year did not, in fact, happen. In Germany, the Red-Green coalition clung on, thanks in part to Chancellor Schröder's resolute performance after severe flooding had blighted the east of the country shortly before polling day, and also to his uncompromising stance against any German participation in the expected bombing of Iraq, which went down far better in Berlin than it did in Washington.

Elsewhere, in Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF rigged its way to victory yet again, while the EU gave the Irish, who had already rejected the Nice Treaty on enlargement the year before, a second chance to vote the right way. They duly obliged, paving the way for 10 new countries to join the EU in 2004. In Brazil, the electoral landslide of Lula da Silva, leader of the leftwing Workers Party, presaged a delicate balancing act between the demands of his poor supporters, who had put him in power, and those of global finance, who had been keen to keep him out.

In April, the democratically elected leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, was temporarily ousted in a 48-hour coup and replaced by the head of a private business lobby. When the coup crumbled, Chavez emerged not to warm support but to a stern warning from George Bush that he "hoped Chavez had learned his lesson". Chavez's tenure continued to be shaken by popular protests and threatened coups. In the US, meanwhile, voters gave Bush a free hand when Republicans took both houses of Congress.

While little of substance beyond the BNP victories could be gleaned from the local elections in May, there were some symbolic appointments. In May, Paul Boateng became chief secretary to the Treasury, and the first black cabinet minister. In July, Theresa May was named the first woman to chair the Tory party. But there were also political disappointments.

A government that likes to be judged by results failed its A-levels, after a fiasco over re-marking left thousands of university hopefuls in limbo. In a disarming display of candour, education secretary Estelle Morris resigned, stating, "If I am really honest with myself . . . I have not felt I have been as effective as I should have been, or as effective as you need me to be." At least she avoided the full heat of the row over top-up fees for university. With far less humility, following far more criticism, Stephen Byers also resigned: "By remaining in office, I damage the government," he said in May. "Having worked for the Labour Party all my adult life, it is not easy to admit to that reality, but I cannot and will not allow this to continue."

By the end of the year, a scandal involving an Australian conman, a topless-model-turned-guru and the prime minister's wife had engulfed Downing Street. In August, Alan Duncan became the first out Tory MP. Party leader Iain Duncan Smith said that Duncan's revelation would make no difference to the way he viewed him or his abilities. True to his word, in November Duncan Smith imposed a three-line whip on his party to block unmarried couples, including gays, from adopting. His insistence prompted a revolt that in turn prompted him to issue an ultimatum to the party. "We cannot go on in this fashion. We have to pull together or we will hang apart. If we are to be taken seriously, we have to work together. My message is simple and stark: unite or die." The speech was widely received as a gross overreaction - his bid to establish his authority on the party in fact demonstrated how little authority he wielded.

And in the elections that really mattered, we voted ourselves another year of synthetic stars - Will Young won Pop Idol, Kate Lawler won Big Brother, Mark Owen romped home in Celebrity (sic) Big Brother, and Tony Blackburn carried the day and the ratings in I'm A Celebrity - Get Me Out Of Here! But those who saw such success as a launch pad to a life of hedonism would do well to ponder the fates of Angus Deayton, whose predilection for cocaine and prostitutes got him fired from the BBC's Have I Got News For You, and of Michael Barrymore, who was shunned by the TV world, despite denials that he played any part in the death of a party-goer found floating in a swimming pool at his luxury home.

A suicide raid on India's parliament last December meant that the year started as it meant to go on in Kashmir - extremely tense and teetering on the brink of completely catastrophic. Thousands of Indian and Pakistani troops lined up on each side of their 1,100-mile border as the disputed region fulfilled its potential as the most dangerous place on the planet. Tit-for-tat missile tests, murderous incursions, an inconclusive election and increasingly shrill rhetoric all intensified the long-standing conflict.

When it came to the British monarchy, all that was scripted passed off well. The set pieces for the Golden Jubilee year - a mixture of pageantry and pop - were well received as modern enough to be relevant and traditional enough to be dignified. But in February Princess Margaret died. For the Queen, it was the dreadful beginning to a year in which all that was not scripted ended in tragedy or farce. Just over a month after she lost her sister, her mother also passed away. The Queen Mother's demise was not a surprise, since she was 101 and had been ill for some time, but her death sent the royalist faithful in search of heretics. They created one in Peter Sissons, whose burgundy tie and line of questioning after her death was slammed by the Daily Mail as insufficiently respectful. The BBC backed Sissons, but the assault on him set the tone for a period of Republican-baiting. When tens of thousands of people waited for hours in queues snaking along Lambeth Bridge and on to Albert Embankment in London to view the coffin, the eternal lure of royalty was, in their eyes, confirmed.

Six months later, the shine had worn off again, as lurid tales of theft, rape, trial-fixing, secret tapes, sinister skulduggery and cover-ups emerged after the trial of Princess Diana's former butler, Paul Burrell, collapsed. Burrell pleaded not guilty to three counts of theft in a trial that was front-page news from the outset, but in which the Queen took curiously little interest at first. Within two weeks, as it appeared that embarrassing royal revelations were about to emerge, she suddenly recalled that Burrell had told her that he planned to take Diana's papers for safekeeping. Her Majesty's memory blew a hole in the case for Her Majesty's prosecution service. "The Queen came through for me," said Burrell, and the fight was on for the tabloids to buy his story.

In the series of claims, shames and blames that followed, it transpired that an alleged gay rape in St James's Palace some years earlier had not been reported to the police and the alleged victim paid off. And the ink was barely dry on what some had branded the Royal Watergate when yet another royal butler trial collapsed - Harold Brown, one of Burrell's erstwhile colleagues, was found formally not guilty before his trial even started, when the prosecution saw little prospect of success in light of the Burrell case. Between them, the cases had cost the taxpayer around £2m. But while they secured no convictions, they did blow the lid off the ethics of royal gift-giving - a grubby world of patronage and largesse - which only added to the image of an aloof, outdated monarchy.

At 12.45 on May 10, the Cambridge cruiser service left King's Cross for King's Lynn. Ten minutes later it had run off the rails outside Potters Bar, leaving seven dead. Experts believed the accident was caused by nuts on a set of points being wrongly adjusted. Jarvis, the maintenance company responsible for that part of the track, claimed the derailment may have been the work of saboteurs, although investigators believed this highly unlikely. Survivors and the bereaved sued Jarvis, Railtrack and the health and safety executive, accusing the rail industry of going to "absurd lengths" to avoid admitting liability. Two months after the crash, it was revealed that Jarvis's chief executive had been given a 66% pay rise.

Daytime drinking became fashionable in June as the World Cup kicked off in South Korea and Japan. The tournament was full of shocks. Neither France, the previous winners, nor Argentina, one of the big pre-tournament favourites, got past the first round. Senegal made it to the quarter finals, South Korea knocked out Italy, and Turkey came third. But, for all that, there was little surprise at the two finalists- Germany and Brazil - nor at who would win: Brazil.

In July, the IRA apologised for "all of the deaths and injuries of noncombatants caused by us". Some condemned the gesture as too little too late, although the government welcomed it as significant. Within months it had all been forgotten as seven Land-Rovers pulled up at Parliament Buildings in Stormont on the morning of October 4, disgorging around 30 police officers who then rushed upstairs and raided the office of Denis Donaldson, Sinn Fein's head of administration in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

A few hours earlier, more than 200 officers, including Special Branch, CID and uniformed police, burst into a number of republicans' homes in north and west Belfast, where they seized documents and computer discs, and arrested three men and a woman. They were acting on suspicions that an IRA spy ring was operating within the party. The hardline Democratic Unionist party promptly pulled its two ministers from the power-sharing government, while David Trimble's Ulster Unionists threatened to do the same if Sinn Fein were not excluded from Stormont. Soon, with no one left to share power with, the assembly was suspended, leaving the Good Friday agreement in its most precarious state since it was signed.

Just after 5pm on Sunday August 4, Nicola Wells took a picture of her daughter Holly and her friend Jessica Chapman in their Manchester United tops, shortly before a family barbecue in Soham, Cambridgeshire. Three and half hours later, the Wellses realised that the two 10-year-old girls were missing and raised the alarm. Within an hour and a half, local residents and police were searching for them. Almost a fortnight later, two men and a woman out walking in a field near the village of Mildenhall, 10 miles east of Soham, found two bodies. Forensic tests confirmed the nation's worst fears.

Earlier that morning, school caretaker Ian Huntley, 28, and his girlfriend, Maxine Carr, 25, were arrested in connection with the murders. Huntley was later charged with the murders; Carr, a teaching assistant at the girls' school, was charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice. Throughout those two weeks, an almost ghoulish cloud had descended over the nation as concern for the fate of the two girls became tainted with a morbid voyeurism and media circus.

Rewards offered by tabloid newspapers sparked fears of crank callers and attention-seekers. Visitors from across the country, some in coaches, arrived in Soham over the August bank holiday to pose for photographs beside the memorial or to head for Huntley's home. At a private funeral service for the two girls, the families' vicar, Tim Alban Jones, said, "Holly and Jessica were two trusting and loving girls, and the way they lived is surely the right pattern for all of us. We must not raise our children to live in an atmosphere of constant fear and suspicion, where everyone is mistrusted." His words went unheeded - a 300-strong mob later turned out to hurl abuse at Huntley as he was driven to his first court appearance. Carr made her own debut court appearance via video link, for fear of a similar spectacle.

At the end of August, Johannesburg hosted the world summit on sustainable development. They had brought the date forward to avoid conflict with the anniversary of September 11. But Bush still refused to come. Powell was jeered, Blair was denounced but, beyond the grandstanding, little was achieved, thanks largely to US obstruction and EU obfuscation. The west, pointed out President Museveni of Uganda, was keener on "parasitical globalisation" than "mutually beneficial multilateralism".

In September, the Countryside Alliance organised a huge demonstration of 400,000 in London, cutting a strange but impressive sight in the centre of the capital. They were followed the week after by a no less impressive anti-war rally, protesting against the plans to bomb Iraq.

The nation was shocked at Edwina Currie's revelation that she had an affair with John Major, not so much because of any moral concern over fidelity, but because the idea of them at it took us to places we never, ever wanted to go. As the story rumbled on, once prominent members of our ruling class started to sound like guests on Jerry Springer: the former cabinet minister David Mellor called Currie a trollop, while Mary Archer, wife of jailbird Jeffrey, referred to the affair as "a lapse of taste" on Major's part. "If Lady Archer is accusing anyone of lack of taste, I think that is a case of pots and kettles," responded Currie.

At around six o'clock on October 2, James Martin, 55, was picking up food for his church's youth group in Wheaton, Maryland, when he was shot dead in the car park. He was the first victim of the Washington sniper. Over the next three weeks, a further nine people would be murdered, and three others wounded, as they cut their grass, filled their cars with petrol, packed their shopping or otherwise went about the business of their daily lives.

For most of October, the Washington area lived in a state of terror. Leaving tarot cards, phone messages and scribbled notes, the assassin taunted police in a gruesome fashion - one of his messages said, "Your children are not safe anywhere, at any time." Charles Moose, the Maryland police chief leading the investigation, became a household name - and a somewhat comic figure: in his surreal press conferences, Moose would often address both the sniper and the American public simultaneously. "You indicated that you want us to do and say certain things," he said at one. "You asked us to say: 'We have caught the sniper like a duck in a noose.' We understand that hearing us say this is important to you. However, we want you to know how difficult it has been to understand what you want, because you have chosen to use only notes, indirect messages and calls to other jurisdictions."

Then, in the early morning of October 24, police swooped on John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo while they slept in their car in a lay-by in Maryland. In the vehicle was a .223 rifle, which fires the ammunition used in the attacks. Muhammad had sent one cryptic note too many and had been traced to earlier murders in Alabama and, possibly, Louisiana. The race was on between the states to see which could try to execute him.

In November, Miss World contestants fled Nigeria for England after three days of rioting had left more than 200 dead. Long-standing religious tensions had been inflamed after an article suggesting that the prophet Mohammed might have chosen a wife from one of the contestants. The deputy governor of Zamfara State issued a fatwa against Isioma Daniel, the 21-year-old journalist who had written the offending piece, prompting her to go into hiding.

Throughout the year, the global economy lumbered on with the lowest growth in a decade. In Britain and the US - two countries faring better than most - consumer spending fuelled by growing debt kept us afloat, while interest rates kept falling and inflation remained steady. But stock markets continued to plunge from their millennial highs. The FTSE fell by just over 20% from the beginning of the year, the Dow by almost 15%. All of this left a huge dent in business confidence. We may, for the time being, have escaped boom and bust, but the slowdown played havoc with chancellor Gordon Brown's figures. In his pre-budget report in November, his growth estimates went down, borrowing went up and his faithful relationship with Prudence was suddenly declared on the rocks.

The economic downturn also dealt a severe blow to pensions. With final-salary schemes being slowly phased out, a combination of factors - including falling stock markets, low interest rates and higher life expectancy - sparked a full-blown crisis. In November, Equitable Life, the world's oldest mutual insurer, announced that it would cut payments to people who had with-profits annuities by up to 20% from February 2003. At Caparo, the steel group owned by Labour peer Lord Paul, an unprecedented series of strikes by angry employees forced management to restore its final-salary scheme.

On December 2, a man was arrested in Ashford, Kent, in connection with a series of rapes in the southeast. He had allegedly first struck in November last year, on his youngest victim, a 10-year-old girl. Two days later, the television presenter John Leslie was arrested in connection with allegations of rape and serious sexual assault, but later released without charge. Leslie had earlier been sacked from GMTV's This Morning, following widespread speculation that he was the "acquaintance" whom former TV weathergirl Ulrika Jonsson had accused in her autobiography of raping her many years earlier. Jonsson never named Leslie herself, but after his name had been inadvertently blurted out on Channel 5, several other women came forward with accusations of Leslie's sexual impropriety. Leslie insists that he is innocent.

Meanwhile, the party that had been created by the unions to represent their interests in parliament found itself continually at odds with its traditional support. At six o'clock on November 13, the firefighters went on strike, demanding a 40% pay rise, which would raise their basic salary from £21,531 to £30,000. They were offered 4% this year and 7% the next.

Talks aimed at averting the dispute were constructive at first, and the two sides came close to settling on a package of 16%. A night of shuttle diplomacy ended, however, with the union accusing the government of "wrecking" the deal. From the verge of a settlement, they journeyed to the edge of the abyss. Firefighters leader Andy Gilchrist said he was quite prepared to "replace New Labour with Real Labour". Blair said they "cannot win".

And therein lay the mood that described the year. For with the sense of insecurity came a sense of inevitability, an impression that destiny had somehow usurped democracy. The percentage of British people opposed to the euro stood at 58%; the percentage who thought we would join it anyway stood at 62%. Opposition around the world to a war in Iraq grew alongside a tacit understanding that it would probably happen anyway. The year was too long because it would end not when the clock struck 12 but when the finger eventually hit the trigger.

While that mood persisted, it did not completely dominate. In November, half a million protesters demonstrated in Florence against the bombing of Iraq. In Porto Allegre, Brazil, in February, the World Social Forum held a conference entitled Another World Is Possible. That only left the small issue of what it would look like, how it would come about and who would create it. But if the will was there in 2002, then maybe action would follow in 2003. In the words of African-American writer June Jordan, who died in June, "We are the ones who we've been waiting for."

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