2012: The year of the slow motion crisis

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People gather at a mass burial for the victims in the Houla massacre in May 2012
People gather at a mass burial for the victims in the Houla massacre in May 2012 Photo: Reuters

2012 was the year of the slow motion crisis. Other years have been slammed by Tsunamis or shaken by earthquakes, assassinations and sudden wars. For the most part 2012 was dominated by crises that began sometimes years earlier.

The foreign story that has dominated the news this year is Syria.

Syrian security members inspecting damaged building after explosions near the intelligence forces in Damascus in March 2012
Syrian security members inspecting damaged building after explosions near the intelligence forces in Damascus in March 2012 Credit: Reuters

To be in Damascus this time last year was to be in a city in denial. The violence, which had claimed 10,000 lives (absurdly, that seems a small figure now), was concentrated in several provincial cities and rural areas. So much so that the people of the capital could dream it would never reach them. At a coffee shop in the centre of the capital, I talked to young men and women who thought that they would be safe, that their country would never plumb the depths of the sectarian killing in next door Iraq and that their President would find a political way to end it, because, they said, he was a good man.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in July 2012
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in July 2012 Credit: Reuters

How much more complex and tragic it all looks now. On my last trip, the black plumes of smoke from bombarded areas were drifting over Damascus, the warplanes and attack helicopters circling, the death toll rising. It is well over 40,000 now. Two hundred a day on many days. The fighting has destroyed a third of Syria's second city Aleppo. Islamist rebels have joined the fight, not to replace Assad with another secular regime, but to impose strict Muslim law. The war has come to Damascus.

And so Syria descends further into chaos.No revolution is over when the targeted, despised leader falls. And so it is in Egypt, another slow burning crisis.

Anti-Mursi protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo in November 2012
Anti-Mursi protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo in November 2012

The revolution there is far from over; President Mursi far from immune to a bullet himself. He has exceeded the power he grabbed and there is everything to play for in Cairo.

Across the Mediterranean, Europe has been living through a crisis of petrol bombs and rising petrol prices, of recession, austerity and a currency on the brink. Greece has teetered on the edge at times and, again, this is a story that is far from over. Italy too, which seemed more stable under Mario Monti has been plunged back into political uncertainty and the economic anxiety that follows by The Return of the Mummy, Berlusconi (as one French newspaper aptly called him).

President Obama celebrates with his family at their election night victory rally in Chicago, November 7, 2012
President Obama celebrates with his family at their election night victory rally in Chicago, November 7, 2012 Credit: Reuters

Nor is America out of the woods yet. The fiscal cliff will be avoided - at least the most feared effects of it. But it has a debt problem to solve. 2012 saw the predicted re-election of Barack Obama. But the Republicans remain in shock and in denial about how toxic some of their political ideas are, especially in the area of sexuality, morality and rape.

Half a dozen of the world's biggest economies had a leadership election or change. China may have a transformational leader; it is just too early to tell. Russia has Putin back, but he never really went away. And France has ditched Sarkozy and got a man who has broken the cosy consensus with Berlin for the first time in decades. Watch that space.

Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande hold up hands during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony at the City Hall in Oslo December 10, 2012
Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande hold up hands during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony at the City Hall in Oslo December 10, 2012 Credit: Reuters

Hurricane Sandy's chronicle of deaths foretold and the extraordinary, slow motion tragedy of the Costa Concordia's meeting with shoreline rocks provided some of the year's most vivid images.

The Costa Concordia ran aground off the west coast of Italy in January 2012
The Costa Concordia ran aground off the west coast of Italy in January 2012 Credit: Reuters

Israel's quick war in Gaza seemed to come out of the blue, but the tensions, rockets, threats and assassinations have been building there for some time. It is another slow burning fire that has plenty of fuel left and shows no sign of extinguishing. Quite the opposite,as Israel prepares for an election and to decide what to do about Iran's growing nuclear capability.

Israeli air strikes in Gaza City November 2012
Israeli air strikes in Gaza City November 2012 Credit: Reuters

And Afghanistan bleeds on, foreign troops dying as often as foreign politicians insist it is all going to plan. It is not. The Afghan army can not operate to save its life. Which is precisely what it will have to do in a year and a half.

In a world awash with tragedy then, we can be profoundly grateful for the events that brighten our lives.

Fireworks at the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games
Fireworks at the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games Credit: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Although the ticketing verged on scandalous, with its unjust allocations to sponsors and politicians, the London Olympics were as good as it gets and better than most of us in Britain believed they would be.

Mexico's Arnulfo Castorena wipes his tears after receiving his silver medal for the Men's 50m Breaststroke SB2 Final
Mexico's Arnulfo Castorena wipes his tears after receiving his silver medal for the Men's 50m Breaststroke SB2 Final Credit: Reuters

In a world of occasional savagery, of economic gloom and deep anxiety about where we are all headed, it is not unreasonable to end this look back on 2012 with happier images; a swimmer with just one limb barrelling down the pool to claim a place in the Paralympic final; the unfettered joy of a supersized German athlete seconds after winning a medal, whooping on a lap of honour; the disbelief on a British rower's face as she realised she had won gold and a place on the nation's stamps; an unexpected Taekwondo winner pulling off her protective mask and hurling it into the air in triumph.

These are the images I will remember; of Mo and Jessica, Usain Bolt and David Weir. The angels of our better natures.

Katherine Copeland realises she and Sophie Hosking had won the women's lightweight double sculls final
Katherine Copeland realises she and Sophie Hosking had won the women's lightweight double sculls final Credit: Reuters