There’s an old Chinese theory according to which the best way to understand historical events is not to reconstruct the sequence of “causes” by which the events were “produced,” but rather to look at the unique characteristics of the moment in which the events occurred. I know there’s an old Chinese theory for most anything, but this one has stayed with me ever since I first read about it in an essay by Carl Gustav Jung, and back in the Eighties it occurred to me that Pope John Paul II had understood its wisdom. The pope once remarked that there were times when dramatic change was impossible, and at such moments anyone who tried to achieve it was like the fool beating his head against a stone wall. But there were other times when the acts of a single individual could change the world. He knew he was living at such a time, and he saw his mission as inspiring individuals to take those actions, and change the world for the better. That was one reason why his famous call, “be not afraid,” was so right for those times, and why a handful of brave individuals famously changed the world.
This historical moment is not easy to understand, since we are in transition from a relatively stable world, dominated by a handful of major powers, to something we cannot yet define, since it is up to us to shape it. It seems clear, however, that there is a greater rapidity of change, accompanied–inevitably–by the passing of the leaders of the old order. This is particularly clear in the Middle East, where seven key figures have been struck down in the past six years: King Hussein of Jordan in February, 1999. King Hassan of Morocco in July of the same year. Syrian dictator Hafez al Assad in June of 2000. Yasser Arafat of the PLO in April, 2004. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia in May of last year. Ariel Sharon of Israel was incapacitated by a stroke in early January. And, according to Iranians I trust, Osama bin Laden finally departed this world in mid-December. The al Qaeda leader died of kidney failure and was buried in Iran, where he had spent most of his time since the destruction of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Iranians who reported this note that this year’s message in conjunction with the Muslim Haj came from his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, for the first time.
This remarkable tempo of change is not likely to diminish, as old and/or sick men are in key positions in several countries: Israel’s Shimon Peres is 82. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is 82 (and his designated successor, Prince Sultan, is 81, and was recently operated for stomach cancer). Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, although probably in his sixties, is said to have serious liver cancer, and is not expected to survive the next year.
And, of course, the patient activities of the Grim Reaper are not the only source of revolutionary change in the region. Saddam was a relatively young man (mid-sixties) when he was toppled by Coalition forces; the deposed Taliban leaders were relatively young as well (Mullah Omar is barely 50); and the likes of Bashar Assad, the Iranian mullahs (Khamenei is probably in his early sixties), and even the legions of the Saudi royal family have to contend with mounting animus from the West, and mounting cries for freedom from their own people.
Much of the demographic component of rapid change comes from the enormous disparity between leaders and people. The wizened ayatollahs of Iran, like the gerontarchs of Saudi Arabia, seek to contain the passions of a population one or two generations younger, which is probably one reason why the mullahs turned to a youngster, the fanatical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to crush all potential opposition to the Islamic republic. Most Iranians, two thirds of whom are younger than 35, do not take kindly to the white beard and beturbaned tyrants who have banned Western music and just last week began speaking of segregating the sidewalks of the country by sex; males on one side, females on the other, even as they announced the execution of a woman who dared defend herself against a rapist.
In short, both demography and geopolitics make this an age of revolution, as President Bush seems to have understood. Rarely have there been so many opportunities for the advance of freedom, and rarely have the hard facts of life and death been so favorable to the spread of democratic revolution.
The architect of 9/11 and the creator of Palestinian terrorism are gone. The guiding lights of our terrorist enemies are sitting on cracking thrones, challenged by young men and women who look to us for support. Not just words, and, above all, not promises that the war against the terror masters will soon end with a premature abandonment of what was always a miserably limited battlefield. This should be our moment.