Immediate causes and long-run causes
After nearly 70 years of relative peace around the world, we have forgotten that our civilization was originally established by force. Violence ruled the world directly for much of mankind's history, and there was no taboo against the use of private violence even as recently as 1000 years ago or less in Europe. As university students once learned in western civilization courses, monarchies established bureaucratic forms of government in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while the English-speaking world established genuine traditions of self-government. A parallel development occurred in the Ottoman empire, which ruled an astonishing conglomeration of peoples, including millions of Christians and Jews, for centuries. Then the American Revolution gave the world the idea of individual rights and true self-government, which repeatedly set the world on fire over the next 150 years. In the first half of the twentieth century those ideas tore apart one empire after another in Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The new nations that emerged all followed some form of the western bureaucratic or democratic model, but the process was not accomplished without millions of deaths. Then in the 1990s threev more multinational states disintegrated--two of them, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, without significant bloodshed.
The Arab world for half a century has been ruled by bureaucratic and military dictatorships, some of them heavily supported by western nations, including the United States. Meanwhile, thanks largely to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, the west in general and the United States in particular have become more and more unpopular among the Arab masses. In the 1990s, the late political scientist Samuel Huntington, who was never afraid to take a big idea and run with it, foresaw a clash of civilizations. Tragically, in the first decade of this century, an American President, George W. Bush, did his best to make that prophecy come true. I was struck that one of the two people behind the video that has outraged so many Muslims, Steve Klein, is a Vietnam veteran with a son who was wounded in Iraq. No matter how noble George W. Bush's purposes, the conquest of a Muslim nation was certain to arouse hatred throughout a region where memories of colonialism are still fresh. Barack Obama tried to show in his first year that his heart was in the right place, but he esa\calated the war in Afghanistan nonetheless. Meanwhile, among the tens of thousands of American casualties are a certain number who have come home bitter, or who have aroused bitterness among their families. The filmmaker, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, has now been revealed as a Coptic Christian--a minority in genuine danger in Egypt--and a petty criminal. And that leads us to the truly novel and terrifying aspect of these events.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries revolutionaries and anarchists often tried to set revolutions off with violent acts. The most successful, undoubtedly, was Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian terrorist who assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, triggered the First World War, and, although he did not live to see it, helped bring about the creation of Yugoslavia. But as late as 9/11/2001, such an act had either to kill a leading political figure, or several of them, or kill a large umber of innocents to have widespread consequences. That is no longer the case. A single internet video or cartoon from a newspaper is enough to send thousands into the streets, threatening the safety of westerners in much of the Muslim world and making a mockery of international law. It seems inconceivable that this will be the last such incident.
And these demonstrations are happening, of course, because the new governments in nations that have overthrown dictatorships lack the authority of their predecessors. It will take years for them to establish legitimacy, and the process, as in the great transformations of the past, is likely to be violent. Crucially, many Muslims obviously do not respect western ideas of free speech where religion is concerned. Attacks on Mohammed strike thousands as deadly insults reflecting shame not only on their perpetrators but upon foreign authorities who allow them to happen. In the age of the internet we cannot stop such attacks from arousing notice.
Two trends within the United States will also make things worse. The Republican Party is so desperate to return to power that it will try to exploit any setback for the US abroad and blame it on President Obama. He is in no way to blame for any of this, but we are already hearing that greater firmness would have avoided these problems. One would have thought that Republicans would know by now that attempts to impose our will and our values on Muslim nations do not work. Prominent Americans, however, cannot shake their sense of superiority. In a column two weeks ago Thomas Friedman bitterly criticized the new Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi, for attending a non-aligned summit in Teheran. I felt like screaming in Friedan's ear that Morsi does not care what he thinks, and that to Muslim nations the pariah in the Middle East is not Iran, but Israel.
The other American trend is now forty years old, and relates to our changing attitude towards free speech. I remain totally opposed to any restrictions on free speech, include laws against hate speech, but the time has come to face a necessary truth: free speech has to be exercised responsibly to work. Beginning in the 1960s the idea has grown that the purpose of speech is to be outrageous, and that the more outrageous speech might be, the more protection--if not celebration--it deserves. Free speech that, for instance, points out abuses by our own government or calls attention to real dangers overseas has enormous value, but free speech that simply insults millions of Muslims does not. Yet Mitt Romney initially criticized the Embassy in Egypt for attacking the video that caused the trouble.
The United States in my opinion is in for a rude awakening, because we simply have no means of imposing our values upon the rest of the world any more. As I have mentioned many times, governmental authority is in the midst of a huge long-term decline that began in the 1980s, if not the 1960. Populations have grown worldwide while armies have shrunk. (One of the half-dozen nations remaining with a large army by historical standards is, not coincidentally, Syria.) For the first time, the mass of people in nations like Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Iraq are asserting their rights--and they do not share our values. That, sadly, will make effective, informed diplomacy all the more necessary. We could not afford the loss of Christopher Stevens.