Iraq and the election, Israel and Hezbollah, George Allen and George W. Bush, Mel Gibson and Michael Richards: The people, issues, images and absurdities of 2006 were inescapable, playing over and over before our eyes.

It was all on YouTube – all in that index-card sized, pixellated box. And like the events of the year, the clips we scanned on the explosively popular Web site – itself a defining event of 2006 – spanned the hilarious and the heartbreaking, the ridiculous and the profoundly serious.

Sometimes, deadly serious: The war in Iraq entered its fourth year and neared its 3,000th American combat death. As the casualties mounted and sectarian fighting raged, the public increasingly turned against the Bush administration, and the war itself.

Near year’s end, the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, concluded George W. Bush’s war policy had failed nearly across the board. Even Donald H. Rumsfeld, on his way out as defense secretary, told Bush that his administration’s strategy “is not working well enough or fast enough. Change is needed.”

There was change – Saddam Hussein was convicted and hung, and Iraqi terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed – but the blood just kept flowing.

Should there be a pullout of U.S. troops? The administration’s supporters decried those who would “cut and run,” while critics dismissed those who would “stay the course.” And everyone, it seemed, debated whether the escalating violence amounted to a civil war.

But if semantic skirmishing distracted us from what was actually happening in Iraq, frightening reminders were always a click away. If Vietnam was the Living Room War, and the Gulf War was fought on CNN, think of this as the YouTube War.

So terrifying, so accessible: Here was a two-minute video – 133,000 views – titled “American soldier crying for their life in America war Irak,” featuring a disembodied voice that begged, “Please Lord, please let it stop.”

Here was a clip of snipers taking deadly aim at U.S. troops mingling in a crowd of Iraqis. Here was one of a mosque being blown to bits, turned into a giant cloud of billowing gray smoke.

None of it was verifiable, but it looked plenty real. And the comments posted alongside the clips were both real and intense.

From the video of the pleading soldier: “They’re not fighting for you, they’re fighting because of Bush,” someone wrote. Came the answer: “Support the country you live in or get the (expletive) out.”

The ranks of the discontented grew and grew, until on Nov. 7, an unhappy nation sent Republicans packing. Democrats surged back into power for the first time in a dozen years – a 31-seat edge in the House, plus control of the Senate and 28 of the nation’s 50 governorships.

They capitalized on a perfect storm of anti-Republican sentiment: Approval ratings mired in the 30s for President Bush, increasing public unhappiness with the war and a train wreck of corruption and sex scandals and blunders on the campaign trail.

Or, as expressed in a single word: “Macaca.”

Thank YouTube. Virginia Sen. George Allen’s use of the word, considered a racial slur, to describe a camera-toting aide to his opponent, James Webb, was viewed hundreds of thousands of times online.

Allen fumbled trying to explain where the term came from, was tagged as a racist, and lost to Webb in a race that ultimately gave Democrats their 51-49 Senate edge. Once a 2008 presidential prospect, Allen was reduced to a punch line.

Amid the war and upheaval, there was some good news. At the very least, 2006 was benign compared to the parade of misery that preceded it in 2005. There was no epic tsunami, no cataclysmic earthquake, no unending hurricane battery of the U.S. coast.

In the Superdome, they played football again. The resurgent New Orleans Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons 23-3 on a late September night; crying in the stands, in the arms of her sister, fan Martha Brown said, “Tonight wipes out a lot of hurt.”

But there was fresh hurt, plenty of it, elsewhere. In the year’s opening days, death visited West Virginia’s Sago coal mine, where an explosion unleashed deadly carbon monoxide.

This time there was a cruel twist: Families were mistakenly told at first that 12 miners were alive. Over three hours in the dead of night, their joy turned to puzzlement, then to concern and fury.

On YouTube and on the MySpace pages of perfect strangers, a handful of simple memorials sprouted for the miners – many set to music, a sort of high-tech roadside memorial.

“In honor of those that lost it all just doing their job,” one person wrote.

Other world events this year flashed and receded before us in what felt at times like a hasty montage, the type of 60-second quick hits you might find on YouTube.

There were pulses of the kind of anxiety all too familiar in the new century: British police announced they had thwarted a terrorist plot to blow up jetliners over the Atlantic, and items like toothpaste and hair gel were banned from carryon bags in a bid to stop liquid bombs. For a time, mothers were asked to taste baby milk at airport security. Lines swelled.

And for a brief, terrifying moment on an October day, there was fear in New York of a reprise of aircraft-into-building terror. As it turned out, a small plane carrying a New York Yankees pitcher had crashed into a Manhattan high-rise.

There was the world stage, growing ever more complex by the day: Israel and Hezbollah fought a monthlong war in the summer, with 900 people killed and Lebanon taking a battering – video available, you guessed it, online.

Hamas, designated a terror group by the U.S. government, won a Palestinian election. Iran made no secret of its designs on both a nuclear weapon and the utter elimination of Israel. North Korea, led by the peculiar Kim Jong-Il, conducted a nuclear test, drawing broad condemnation across the world. In India, Bombs exploded on Mumbai commuter trains in July, killing more than 200.

We argued mightily this year over immigration, global warming, stem-cell research. We even argued, or astronomers did, over whether Pluto deserved to be stripped of its status as the ninth planet. (Verdict: Yes – relegating it to humiliating dwarf status.)

But if the 21st century has been an age of discord, it has also been an age of dissonance. If nothing else, we have proved we are more than capable of setting aside the pressing issues of our time and focusing on ephemera, on cotton candy.

This year, that meant endless hours discussing, and watching cable gabfest dissection of, Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic eruption during a drunken-driving arrest. And Michael Richards’ N-word-laced rant at a comedy club.

And, inevitably, the fate of celebrities, particularly celebrity couples, the fantasy football of pop culture: Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. (And their baby. And Madonna’s.)

For this, YouTube was here for us as well. And if celebrities weren’t your thing, you could while away your hours watching the oddly addictive video that put YouTube on the map – a demonstration of what happens when you mix Mentos and Diet Coke.

The brilliant folks at Google were impressed; they ponied up the eye-popping sum of $1.65 billion to buy YouTube, which had just 25 employees and was created in a garage less than two years ago. This, Time magazine pronounced, was the invention of the year.

And yet there were moments that were the very antithesis of YouTube. Moments that made us forget things digital for a while and focus on how real, and how painful, life can be.

Really, how much farther away from the digital universe could you get than the horse-drawn buggies that sloshed through puddles on the country roads of Pennsylvania, bearing handmade coffins for five little girls?

They had fallen victim to Charles Carl Roberts IV, a 32-year-old milk truck driver – a father – who had barged into their one-room schoolhouse, tied up the girls and shot them to death.

“They were just little people,” Benjamin Nieto said, watching the simple funeral procession go by from a friend’s porch. “They never got a chance to do anything.”

Then something stunning happened: While the outside world looked on in outrage at Roberts – many of the Amish forgave him. His wife was invited to attend the funeral of one of the little girls, Marian Fisher.

It was a remarkable gesture: Basic forgiveness, set in a place untouched by technology. It stood out as much for its simplicity and humanity as for the drastic contrast it struck to our wired, cynical, YouTubed world.

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