Columnist David Brooks recently opined (quoting Richard Haass) that the Middle East may be entering its Thirty Years War. The reference is to the cataclysm that engulfed 1600s Europe, mostly faith-based conflict, prosecuted with utmost savagery, causing monumental death and destruction. (It ended with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, basically establishing the modern concept of the sovereign nation state.)
We were long told that the Mid East’s repressive regimes provided “stability.” This was always nonsense: the deceptive stability of a volcano before eruption. Like volcanos, such regimes build up internal pressures leading to inevitable explosion.
The only hope is venting the pressures peacefully by means of an open society. That’s the path to genuine stability. But unfortunately most Middle Easterners seem too bloody-minded for this. Egypt blew its chance; its newly entrenched regime seems bent on trying to contain the pressures more fiercely than ever, and to destroy any chance for a civil society where disparate groups can coexist.
The poster boy is Syria, where Assad thinks he’s winning, as if creating a wasteland is a victory. Libya seems to be descending into a Hobbesian tribal war of all against all. Half of Iraq has fallen under a replica of a Seventh Century caliphate – a theme park you wouldn’t want to visit. Israelis and Palestinians are locked into a spiral of violence that can create only losers, no winners. Predictably, Israel’s Gaza operation has killed way more Israelis, and damaged its security more, than Hamas alone ever could have.
Thomas Friedman divides the world between the realms of order and disorder. In modern times, the former has actually expanded hugely overall, but it’s been a tough slog, and we don’t sufficiently appreciate the achievement. It’s a fundamental law of the cosmos that in the long run disorder (“entropy”) increases. Hence it’s much harder to build – and maintain – order than to disrupt it. It’s the difference between rolling a stone up a hill and rolling it down. The last few years have seen a great recrudescence of disorder. We mustn’t be complacent.
I’m always struck by how these situations reliably mobilize the requisite legions of young men to pick up guns and revel in nihilistic violence. Like in today’s Ukraine too; and the 1990s Yugoslav conflicts; and a thousand other examples one could name. That mentality seems so totally alien to my own. But some would say I delude myself, and we all harbor such proclivities. Philip Zimbardo explained his famous Stanford “prison guard” experiment* by saying people aren’t innately evil but, rather, conform to the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Some people (especially young men) seem all too eager to embrace circumstances empowering them to violence (especially if they see nothing better to do with their lives). Society’s Job One is to curtail such circumstances. And the fact is that our modern Western societies have done an absolutely terrific job of this. The Muslim societies of the Mid East, not so much. And they don’t give enough young men better things to do with their lives. Maybe it will indeed take a Thirty Years War before they find a better way.
Curiously, the fossil record suggests that in the Middle East, for tens of thousands of years, people actually lived side-by-side with members of – not different tribes, or races, or religions, or sects – but a different species – Neanderthals.
* Students assigned to role-play as “guards” got into those roles so thoroughly that the experiment had to be stopped because of “prisoner” abuse.