Sickeningly, but perhaps predictably, the disaster quickly turned into political theater. The comment by Jan Egeland, United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, about "stingy" Western aid prompted an outcry in the United States, especially from conservatives who took the remark to be a slam at America, even though Egeland was talking about wealthy nations in general.
The initial U.S. pledge of $15 million for the relief effort was raised to $35 million, to be followed by more. (Notably, private contributions to the American Red Cross through the Amazon.com Web site surpassed $2 million in two days. Why do discussions of Western nations' generosity or stinginess toward the world's poor focus solely on governments spending taxpayer money, rather than individuals giving to charity of their own free will?)
One conservative blogger wondered aloud how long it would take for someone on the left to blame President Bush for the tsunamis. As if on cue, a letter-writer in the New York Times suggested that while Bush might not be to blame now, he would be the next time because global warming would make natural disasters worse.
This unseemly political squabbling, the equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns, is all too typical of the year that has passed. We have lived through a nasty, brutish, and regrettably far-from-short presidential campaign in which who did what in Vietnam 30 years ago seemed to get more attention than what is happening in Iraq right now. One candidate would not admit to a single mistake; the other seemed to have never met a problem he couldn't fix if elected.
Among the politically active segment of the public, the dominant emotion of the campaign seemed to be hate for the other side's candidate. A hate-filled campaign was followed by a hate-filled morning after. The sore losers railed at the knuckle-dragging Bible-thumping rednecks who elected Bush and clung to conspiracy theories about voter fraud. Quite a few sore winners jeered at the latte-sipping godless elitists who voted for Kerry and suggested that 48 percent of Americans should just shut up about any policies they don't like because, hey, their guy lost.
Politically, 2004 was also the year of the blog. The Internet sites that offer up-to-the-minute commentary and analysis have sometimes upstaged the major media -- mostly notably on the fake memos allegedly related to Bush's military service -- and brought fresh voices into the fray. Sadly, they may have also exacerbated the shrill partisanship and the polarization that pervades public discourse today.
The venom of 2004's debates also spilled over into discussions of religion. The year started with the brouhaha over Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ -- a controversy in which some rushed to condemn the movie sight unseen, while others took any criticism as a sign of anti-Christian bias. It ended with the battle over Christmas, in which the excesses of a few zealots who saw a threat to the separation of church and state in a Santa suit at a school party were vastly overmatched by the hysteria of zealots shouting that "they" are trying to stop "us" from saying "Merry Christmas."
But this annus horribilis, a year of never-ending chaos and carnage in Iraq and bitter political wars at home, has not been without its glimmers of hope for humanity. In Ukraine, grass-roots democracy seems to have triumphed over an attempt to reestablish Russian hegemony as voters rose up peacefully to reject the results of a fraud-ridden election. In the Middle East, Yasser Arafat's death may signal the arrival of a more moderate Palestinian leadership.
And finally: On Christmas Eve, a 40-something man who chose to remain anonymous drove up to a homeless shelter in Denver and began handing out $100 bills to the residents. When he was done, he had distributed $35,000. There's a lesson in the Christmas spirit that all of us, regardless of faith, should be able to appreciate.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe. Public Eye, which usually runs in this space, will return next week.