The year in review

A month-by-month account of 2011


In the tiny desert nation of Tunisia, a food-cart vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi dies two and a half weeks after he set himself on fire to protest the dictatorial government’s confiscation of his cart. His self-immolation sparks widespread, anti-government protests, and after a month, the protests topple the repressive regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The success of the Tunisian revolution triggers similar protests in several other Arab nations; in Egypt, hundreds of thousands of protesters flood the streets of Cairo demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. In the U.S., Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is meeting with constituents in a parking lot at a mall near Tucson when she is shot in the head at point-blank range by a schizophrenic gunman, Jared Loughner. Loughner also kills six bystanders—including an aide to Giffords, a federal judge, and a 9-year-old girl—and injures 13. Giffords survives despite losing part of her brain to the bullet. At a moving memorial service for the victims, President Obama pays tribute to those slain, and says the tragedy should remind Americans what can happen “when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do.” He asks for a new civility in public discourse.


Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Hosni Mubarak resigns as president of Egypt after nearly 30 years in power. The news sets off joyous celebrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of what is now a successful revolution. The wave of pro-democracy fervor, dubbed the “Arab Spring,” continues to roll through the region, with fresh protests in Yemen, Bahrain, and Morocco, and, in Libya, an armed uprising against the 42-year dictatorship of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. Qaddafi responds with a brutal crackdown, threatening to “burn everything” and vowing to defend his regime to the death. “Muammar al-Qaddafi is history, resistance, liberty, glory, revolution,” he tells supporters. “I will die as a martyr at the end.”


A devastating earthquake hits Japan. At magnitude 9.0, the quake is the most violent in Japanese history and triggers a massive tsunami, more than 130 feet high in places, that sweeps across coastal areas in northeast Japan. The one-two punch of natural disasters kills at least 15,000 people, many of whom are sucked out to sea, and leaves millions without water and power. It also causes the world’s worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, as cooling systems at the Fukushima nuclear plant are knocked out. As a result, three reactors melt down, and four others are severely damaged. President Obama orders U.S. planes and warships to join NATO forces in enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, but rules out any U.S. troop involvement. With presidential primaries now less than a year away, polls show real-estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump with a one-point lead over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has failed to capture the hearts of many conservative voters. Trump gets a big boost to his unofficial candidacy by reviving the allegation that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States and is therefore not eligible to be president, a view shared—according to a PPP poll—by 51 percent of Republican primary voters.


In Washington, D.C., President Obama finally releases a photocopy of his original “long-form” birth certificate in hopes of putting the issue to rest. “We do not have time for this kind of silliness,” Obama tells reporters. “I’ve got better stuff to do.” Republican Rep. Paul Ryan releases a new deficit-reduction plan that would cut trillions over a decade by turning Medicare into a voucher program in which seniors would get a specific amount of money to buy private insurance. The plan wins immediate praise from most Republicans, but presidential candidate Newt Gingrich dismisses the Ryan plan as radical “right-wing social engineering”—a comment he later retracts. In Britain, Prince William marries longtime girlfriend Kate Middleton in a ceremony watched by an estimated 24 million people around the world. The show is nearly stolen by the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Pippa, whose “perfect” posterior is widely remarked upon by commentators and earns her the nickname “Her Royal Hotness.”


Osama bin Laden, founder and leader of al Qaida, is shot and killed by U.S. special operations forces during a nighttime raid on a walled compound in a residential neighborhood of Abbottabad, Pakistan. His body is dumped into the Arabian Sea. The location of bin Laden’s compound, near Pakistan’s top military academy, raises questions about Pakistan’s commitment to the U.S.-led war against Islamic extremism. In cyberspace, a lewd photograph of a man’s underwear-clad groin is “tweeted” from the smartphone of U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.). Weiner blames unspecified hackers for sending the image—although he tells reporters he cannot say “with certitude” that the groin depicted is not his own.


After a week of increasingly convoluted denials and the emergence of more—and more graphic—photos from the same account, Rep. Weiner admits to numerous inappropriate “sexting” relationships with women on the Internet and resigns his seat. In Syria, protests intensify against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and the government responds by killing scores of protesters. In Washington, President Obama unveils plans to draw down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan at a faster rate than that recommended by the Pentagon and generals in the field. Mitt Romney delivers a polished performance in the first major debate of the GOP primary season, which cements his front-runner status. Pundits declare Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who formally announces her candidacy during the debate, the evening’s other big winner.


In Washington, Democrats and Republicans battle over the question of whether or not to raise the federal debt ceiling. Republicans, energized by the recent influx of fiscally conservative Tea Party members, say they will only vote to raise the debt ceiling in return for drastic cuts to government spending. Just days before the U.S. defaults on some of its debt payments, the White House and party leaders agree to raise the debt ceiling by $900 billion, in return for cuts of $917 billion over the next 10 years, and the appointment of a bipartisan “supercommittee” to identify $1.5 trillion more in cuts. In Norway, Anders Behring Breivik, 32, a right-wing extremist angered by Muslim immigration and other social changes, sets off a car bomb in Oslo that kills eight people, and then shoots dead another 69 at an island summer camp run by Norway’s ruling Labor Party. In what he calls “the most humble day of my life,” conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch testifies before Parliament amid fresh revelations of phone hacking by reporters at his British tabloids. Murdoch, 80, denies any knowledge of wrongdoing. When a protester jumps out of the audience and attempts to hit Murdoch with a shaving-foam “pie,” he’s blocked by a lightning-fast slap from Murdoch’s wife, Wendi Deng Murdoch, 43, a former volleyball player.


Gabby Giffords gets a standing ovation on the floor of the House, where she returns to vote in favor of the debt-ceiling deal. Nevertheless, days later, the Standard & Poor’s rating agency downgrades the U.S.’s credit rating for the first time in history because of Congress’s failure to come up with a long-term deficit-reduction plan. Michele Bachmann’s brief tenure as GOP front-runner is cut short by a series of verbal gaffes—she says, among other things, that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly to end slavery”—and the entry into the race of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. A folksy, unabashedly devout Christian conservative, Perry is an immediate favorite of the Republican base. Hurricane Irene, the most powerful storm to hit the East Coast of the United States in two decades, kills at least 50 people, knocks out power to millions, and causes an estimated $15 billion of damage. In Libya, rebel forces reach the capital city of Tripoli. After a weeklong battle with Qaddafi loyalists, the rebels seize control of Qaddafi’s compound, bringing his 42-year dictatorship to an end. Qaddafi flees the city, and his whereabouts are unknown.


Rick Perry’s poll numbers start to slide after a series of shaky debate performances, and attacks from the Right over his 2007 executive order requiring Texan schoolgirls to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer. The GOP nomination race gets yet another new front-runner when Herman Cain wins the Florida straw poll. A radio host and former pizza executive, the charismatic Cain has no government experience, but insists that his radical “9-9-9” plan for tax reform can turn the economy around. In New York, leftist activists take over a small park in downtown Manhattan and begin an indefinite protest against corporate greed, the corruption of government by the banking sector, and rising wealth inequality in America. Behind the slogan “We are the 99 percent,” the leaderless—and largely agenda-less—“Occupy Wall Street” protest spawns a national movement, with Occupy camps springing up in cities from Los Angeles to Philadelphia.


Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple computers, dies of cancer at the age of 56, and admirers set up makeshift shrines at Apple stores across the country. In Libya, members of the rebel National Liberation Army discover Qaddafi hiding in a storm drain in the outskirts of Sirte, the city of his birth. Cellphone video shows a mob beating and taunting a dazed and bloodied Qaddafi, who is heard saying, “What did I ever do to you?” He is shot, and his body put on display in a supermarket meat locker. Herman Cain holds on to his lead in the GOP race, despite making no secret of his ignorance of foreign policy. “When they ask me, ‘Who’s the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan?’” Cain tells an interviewer, “I’m going to say, ‘You know, I don’t know. Do you know?’”


After a decade of deficit spending and economic malaise, Greece’s government reaches the brink of default, forcing euro zone leaders to take emergency steps to save the common currency of 17 nations. The congressional supercommittee fails to agree on a deficit-reduction plan amid more partisan rancor. GOP poll leader Herman Cain is hit with revelations that he was accused of sexual harassment several times during his tenure as head of the National Restaurant Association. Cain says the accusations were false, but suffers another setback when he stumbles through a rambling, incoherent response to a question about President Obama’s handling of the Libyan crisis. Cain blames his confusion on “all this stuff twirling around in my head.” Also struggling is Rick Perry, who in a televised debate vows to eliminate three federal departments if elected president: “Commerce, Education, and the...uh...what’s the third one there...” For a full, excruciating minute, Perry cannot remember “Department of Energy.” He quickly plummets in the polls.


After a woman comes forward alleging a 13-year extramarital affair with Herman Cain, Cain says he is “suspending” his presidential campaign. But just as it seems that the field is now clear for the “inevitable” Mitt Romney to seize the nomination, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich shoots past him and becomes the GOP front-runner, based on strong debate performances and persistent conservative suspicion of Romney. As the year winds down, a Gallup poll shows Gingrich leading Romney nationally by 34 percent to 25 percent. “It’s very hard,” a confident Gingrich tells ABC News, “not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee.”

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us