On a weekend last January I sent Alex Marquardt, our newly minted Mideast correspondent, to cover a protest in Egypt. Tunisia’s long-time dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had fallen in stunningly fast fashion a week before, and together Alex and I had wondered whether something similar was stirring in the Egyptian capital.
I really didn’t think so—certainly we didn’t think Hosni Mubarak’s rule was in real danger. Tunisia’s uprising had been kindled (almost literally) by what seemed a local story: a produce vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi—enraged by a series of official abuses and indignities—had poured gasoline over his head, lit a match, and set himself on fire. He died two and a half weeks later.
The rest, as they say, was history. Bouazizi’s plight and story galvanized his nation, and the ensuing public anger and protests drove Ben Ali from power. Ten days later, the first protests flared in Cairo. Sending Alex Marquardt to Cairo proved a good thing; in short order, as the uprising spread, he was joined by several fellow ABC correspondents: Lama Hasan, Terry Moran, Aaron Katersky, Jim Sciutto, David Muir, and Christiane Amanpour. By February 11, Mubarak was gone. Then came Libya. Then Bahrain. Yemen, and Syria. And so on.
The world had not spun this way, revolution upon revolution, since 1989’s season of revolt across Eastern Europe. Hungary to Poland, East Germany to Czechoslovakia to Romania—that cascade had ultimately unraveled and doomed the Soviet Union. The “Arab Spring” was different, in that its uprisings and crackdowns were less clear-cut, and more violent; relatively few protestors died in the 1989 revolts, and the only European leader to meet a Gadhafi-like fate was Ceausescu of Romania. But from the perspective of the newsroom it was much the same. Bulletin after bulletin, and near-constant discussions which not long before would have boggled the mind: Will Mubarak step down tomorrow? Is Gadhafi dead? Where is Assad?
Those early months reminded me of a parlor game I used to play with friends, making New Year’s Eve predictions about global events. They almost never came true, of course, but 2011 was proving particularly prediction-proof. What on earth would come next?
We were in something of a quiet spell—it was early March, Bahrain bubbling, Benghazi in question—when I was awakened by a call at a little after one in the morning. “Huge,” the voice on the phone kept saying. “This quake is huge.”
Within the hour I was at the news desk. An earthquake of staggering strength—9.0 on the Richter scale—had struck Japan. A colossal tsunami (the adjectives fail, now that we know what happened) was ravaging the country’s northeast coastline. One of the world’s richest nations appeared to have been stopped dead in its tracks. Tsunami alerts were issued across the Pacific, including one for Hawaii.
It was bad enough, already an epic disaster, but then, as we roused our Tokyo staff and marshaled reporters, producers, and technical teams for travel to Japan, it got worse. This bulletin came via colleagues at the Japanese network NHK: “Japan has declared a nuclear emergency. Attempts to cool the reactor at a northern plant are not going as planned….”
Still trying to comprehend the humanitarian calamity, we turned to watch the reactors and learned to pronounce the word— Fukushima. And the mentions came like thunderbolts: The plant’s cooling system had failed; residents were told to evacuate; states of emergency were declared at all five reactors. “No Chernobyl is possible,” a University of Tokyo professor said that first day, but soon after he made that promise a radiation leak was detected at the Fukushima plant. Then came word of a “possible meltdown” and then—at about 2:30 in the morning New York time, a day after the quake—came the first explosion.
It is hard now to remember what it was like, the barrage of apocalyptic headlines coming, rapid-fire, each seemingly worse than the one before. Instead of worrying about correspondents caught in some Arab-Spring crossfire, we worried about dosimeters and radiation levels and evacuation plans for Tokyo and points north. It is hard to remember, too, that it was only one weekend later (another working weekend for most of us) that a little something called the NATO campaign over Libya began. As if Tunisia, Egypt, and Japan were not enough, we had a pseudo-war, the US and its allies flying bombing missions to protect civilians from a Mideast dictator. One more giant story. One more patch of uncharted territory.
On the following Monday, the ABC News President marveled aloud at our morning editorial meeting: “We could do our year-ender piece now,” Ben Sherwood said. “And we’re not even three months in.” Sherwood had it right; we’d had a year’s worth of material already, with three quarters of the year still to come.