There was a lot of commotion recently about some nutty pastor in Florida who announced he was going to burn Korans on the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. First he was…then he wasn’t…then he might after all…then finally he didn’t.

There were many reactions to this minister’s announcements. It was opposed by the White House, General Patraeus, and the Vatican, among others around the world. He also wasn’t too popular in his home town.  Meanwhile, Muslims in many places were vehemently opposed to his plans, while some right wing wackos thought they were swell.

But not many raised an important question that was asked by a commenter on a Washington Post blog:

This “church” has around 50 members. 50 whackjobs who are now front and center on the world stage with everyone from Hilary Clinton to Angelina Jolie commenting on their proposed lunacy. How did this happen? It’s so discouraging that an ignorant and intolerant few can cause so much trouble.  Posted by: calgrl75

This is an important question for the time we live in. After all, it was another small group of “whackjobs” that were behind the 9/11 attacks in the first place. It seems that a by-product from our hyper-connected world is that a tiny group can have an out-sized effect on the world we live in. Andy Warhol’s claim that in the future everyone would have 15 minutes of fame doesn’t seem to do this phenomena justice.

What’s going on here? Robert Wright has suggested that this phenomena is a reflection of our increasingly interlinked, interdependent world. Writing in November 2001, he observed:  “…more and more, even fairly small groups with intense grievances will have the power to disrupt the world…”

Michael Gerson also noted our interlinked world when he said:

It is a horrifying wonder of the Internet age that a failed, half-crazed Florida pastor with a Facebook account can cause checkpoints to be thrown up on major roads in New Delhi, provoke violent demonstrations in Logar province south of Kabul, and be rewarded with the attention of America’s four-star commander in Afghanistan and the president of the United States.

That such tiny, nutty groups can have profound impacts on our world appears to reflect a kind of butterfly effect on steroids, in which minor actions in one place can unexpectedly set off major storms someplace else in the world.

Our natural instinct in dealing with these cases is to try to control them; we want to silence them, arrest them, even – in the case of al Qaeda – bomb them back to the Stone Age. However, such actions are often as likely to inflame the situation as anything else, making the wackos victims or even martyrs. In addition, by reacting to their actions, we inadvertently give these nut cases a form of control over our behavior. Rather than acting on the basis of our beliefs and values, we wind up reacting to theirs.

But if we can’t control them, what can we do?

We might start by considering a suggestion made by Margaret Wheatley in her book Leadership and the New Science: “What if we stopped looking for control and began, in earnest, the search for order?”

People have a variety of ideas about where that order may be.

Robert Wright suggested in 2001 that these nut cases would push nations to become even more interdependent:  “…more and more, it will be in the interest of nations to perceive and address simmering discontents, not just the discontents of Muslims, even if these discontents are the most pressing right now.”

Geneva Olelhoser has suggested that letting people like Terry Jones be heard can produce public benefits. Referring to Jones’ provocations, she notes:

Gatherings of clergy across all faiths took place. And those conversations got attention they’d never have gotten without the crisis. People have been awakened to prejudices and fears within their own communities, and to the global impact that these seemingly local occurrences can have.

If you think about it, this is pretty much the way we move forward as individuals: crises strike, they seem impossible to understand or accept, yet eventually we grow from them. The new media ecology makes it much more apparent (compared to the old top-down, “only what’s appropriate” method) that we humans tend to behave in unruly and undignified ways. But it also makes it much more likely that we will see the full range of opinion among our fellow human beings, and that we can all learn something together.

Alan Wolfe also suggested that giving extremists some space could be the best defense against extremism:

Publicity may be what extremists crave but it is also the best defense against extremism. No society can rid itself of those who burn with hatred. A wise society will give them the space to burn themselves out. When the ashes cool, we will recognize that although Jones thought he was using the media and commanding the attention of the powerful, they were at the same time using him.

This isn’t to say a forceful response is never called for. Certainly al Qaeda’s terrorism had to be dealt with. But it’s important to understand what the ultimate goal in such a response is.

Lawrence Wright , author of the excellent book on al Qaeda “The Looming Tower,” has argued that Osama bin Laden’s ultimate goal in his terror attacks was to draw the United States into a ground war in Afghanistan. Wright notes that bin Laden felt once that happened, the U.S. would be worn down in a lengthy war of attrition, just as the Soviet Union had been previously. When that plan blew up in his face with the routing of his forces by the Americans, bin Laden and al Qaeda were “repudiated throughout the world.” According to Wright, the U.S. had won its war against al Qaeda. But the American invasion of Iraq and that war’s subsequent chaos had “…given them (al Qaeda) new life.”

As Wheatley notes, the success of a society – like any other organization – in dealing with chaotic influences depends on whether its leaders are up to the task before them:

Anytime we see systems in apparent chaos, our training urges us to interfere, to stabilize and shore things up. But if we can trust the workings of chaos, we will see that the dominant shape of our organizations can be maintained if we retain clarity about the purpose and direction of the organization. If we succeed in maintaining focus, rather than hands-on control, we also create the flexibility and responsiveness that every organization craves. What leaders are called upon to do in a chaotic world is to shape their organizations through concepts, not through elaborate rules or structures.

This assumes that the leaders’ primary focus is on the well-being of their society in the first place. If they instead are consumed by a lust for power and control, or are devoid of firm beliefs rooted in reality rather than ideological delusion, then all bets are off.

In that case, the nut cases will take over the asylum.


About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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