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Now and Then

As I conduct research for my next mystery book, I’ve been delving into the events that shaped America in 1981. Exploring how life looked at that time helps to contextualize the current state of the world. Today, we’re convinced that international politics are an unprecedented disaster and domestic conflicts are tearing apart the nation. While things look pretty grim in 2015, let’s consider what was happening 35 years ago.

In January, 53 American hostages were finally released by the Iranians. In February, a hotel fire in Las Vegas killed 8 and injured 198 people. In March, Michael Donald was lynched by the KKK in Mobile, Alabama and President Ronald Regan was shot by John Hinckley, Jr. That summer, the country entered a severe recession, the Centers for Disease Control reported the first cases of AIDS, the perpetrator of the Atlanta child murders was arrested after 28 killings, a man armed with a machine gun took hostages in the Georgia Federal Building before being killed in a shootout, the Hyatt Regency walkway collapsed in Kansas City killing 114 people, and the Israelis bombed a PLO hideout in Beirut killing 300 civilians. Later that year, authorities found the severed head of a 6-year-old child in a canal in Florida, John Lennon’s killer was sentenced, President Reagan signed the notorious directive that led to the Iran-Contra affair, the US and USSR failed to negotiate a reduction in intermediate-range nuclear missiles, the US Air Force base was bombed in West Germany (there was also an East Germany back then), hunger strikes blended into an unending civil war in Northern Ireland, an American general was kidnapped by the Italian Red Brigades, and a mine explosion in Tennessee killed 13 workers.

There you have it: American hostages, lynching of a black man, nuclear war, terrifying disease, presidential assassination attempt, serial murders, political corruption, bombing of a US military base, mine disaster—hardly the stuff of nostalgia. Are today’s problems worse? I don’t know if there’s solace in knowing that 1981 was a scary year, but there’s something to be said for historical perspective. Maybe misery loves company. At least the struggles and worries of the characters in my next book will resonate with today’s readers.

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