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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

O'Reilly: Since the cicadas last came

A cicada sits on a fence at a

A cicada sits on a fence at a forest preserve in Willow Springs, Illinois. (June 11, 2007) Credit: Getty Images

They're coming!

Those boisterous, sex-crazed, red-eyed cicadas last seen in 1996 will pop up in New York any day now -- by the hundreds of millions. Once the ground temperature reaches a steady 64 degrees, we're told, it's show time.

It will be the third time this brood of 17-year cicada will announce itself in my lifetime. The first was in 1979 when I was 16, and the Shah of Iran was shopping around for a new country to call home; the second was in 1996 when I was 33, and Bill Clinton was "not having sexual relations with that woman." And now.

It's hard not to think how different the world is today from the one these cicadas last saw -- politically, sociologically, technologically. Seventeen years ago was the blink of an eye in some respects, and light years away in others.

In 1996, Prodigy, CompuServe and a company called America Online were battling it out for the nascent dial-up Internet market, which had a worldwide customer base of 45 million. Canada and the United States had the lion's share of Internet users at 30 million -- about one in 10 Americans. The Palm Pilot was a year away from development; the Motorola StarTAC sold 60 million units in 1996 at $1,000 a pop. Apple stock closed out the year at $23 per share, and a company called Gateway 2000 began rolling out retail stores in a bold move to wrestle the exploding personal computer market away from Dell.

In his 1996 State of the Union address, President Clinton announced that "the era of big government is over." The federal debt was just over $5 trillion, federal deficit spending was $107 billion, and Ross Perot was setting up his debt charts in his second bid for president as an independent.

Today's government makes Clinton's government look like a petting zoo. Federal debt will hit $17 trillion this year, when we will spend $642 billion more than we take in. The dreams of the next generation are being devoured by government borrowing in today's world.

In 1996, Japan's economy dwarfed China's. Next year, China's gross domestic product output is expected to double that of its historic rival.

In 1996, almost no one thought gays should have the right to marry -- the idea was barely on the horizon, even among most gay-rights advocates. Today, 50 percent of Americans view gay marriage as a basic civil right.

It's incredible how quickly attitudes can change -- and how self-righteous the newly enlightened can be about recalcitrants who hold opinions a thousand years old. But that's not new; the last batch of cicadas would have already seen that.

The average annual cost of a private four-year college in 1996 was around $15,000; Harvard would have set you back $29,000. A gallon of gas was $1.23 on average, and SUVs hadn't yet arrived on the scene.

The most talked about terrorist attacks in 1996 were committed by the Irish Republican Army. That same year, a little known 39-year-old Saudi named Osama bin Laden issued his first fatwa against the United States. He would issue one more before being taken down by a SEAL Team Six bullet to the head 15 years later. In the intervening years, more than 8,000 Americans perished as combatants or victims of terrorism, and another 42,000 were wounded. That count continues.

The most striking difference between the last visit of the Brood 2 Cicada and the coming one, to me anyway, is in how America perceives itself. In 1996 we were chock full of beans. The tech boom was beginning. Rudy Giuliani was proving that crime can be arrested on a large scale, that the big American city can come back from the edge of abyss. The first Gulf War -- the only Gulf War then -- had shown American military superiority beyond anyone's imagination. No one in the world could touch us. The 21st century appeared brighter for Americans than the 20th had been.

That's hopefully still the case, but, with growing debt, a lagging economy, and persistent unemployment, I don't hear a lot of Americans crowing about it. That cocksureness we enjoyed for decades is nowhere to be found today.

It's amazing what can happen in 17 years. I can't venture to guess what the world will be like when the cicadas next return in 2030.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.