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Hurtling Toward Sarajevo
March 15, 2002
By birdman

Gavrilo Princip was a terrorist and in June of 1914 he set out with six other members of the Bosnian group Black Hand to murder the heir to the throne of the Austrian Empire during his visit to the Bosnian city of Sarajevo and strike a blow at a government he despised.

To meet his date with evildoer destiny Princip had to get very lucky. One of his co-conspirators had hurled a bomb at the Archduke's car as it entered the city, injuring several people but leaving Franz Ferdinand and his wife unharmed. After angrily denouncing the mayor at the official welcome ceremony the Archduke asked to be taken to the hospital to visit those who had been injured by the grenade. A General traveling with the Archduke suggested an alternative to the normal route to the hospital in case there were other terrorists in the area. The driver, however, turned down the wrong street and the General demanded that he stop the car and turn around.

He stopped the car, incredibly, a few feet from the café where Princip had gone to drown his sorrows after concluding that he would not be able to get a shot at the Archduke.

Princip took advantage of his good fortune and fired two shots killing the Archduke and his wife and in the process helped to bring about 80 years of war and political turmoil. Princip could not accomplish this all by himself, of course. The crowned heads of the sclerotic dynasties, a succession of inept leaders in England and France and the tragically flawed idealist, Woodrow Wilson, gave Princip all the help a sickly, unemployed evildoer could possibly want. In fact with the crumbling Austrian, Ottoman and Russian empires and the emerging nationalist and socialist movements the world has rarely been in as volatile a situation as it was in 1914. In addition military technology had advanced to the point where the carnage wiped out almost an entire generation of European males. Princip may have lit the fuse but the powder keg was sitting there waiting for him.

Today a war has already started prompted by another terrorist act but up to now it's been narrow war with a vague, elusive enemy. Yet the conditions that allowed a loser like Princip to send the world over a deadly precipice in 1914 are staring the world in the face again.

The Muslim world contains more than a billion people in a vast area stretching from Indonesia to East Africa. The countries that have oil money tend to be sparsely populated and ruled by autocratic governments. The ones without oil are often heavily populated political cauldrons with unstable governments struggling to contain the increasingly radical elements of their own people. What's ominous for the world is that not a single government of a Muslim county would dare denounce the extreme elements of Islam. They can speak up (mildly) when one of them knocks over a skyscraper or blows himself up in a pizza parlor but the sentiments that prompted such acts are totally off limits. They've allowed schools to be taken over by radical Islamics who are now in the process of creating future generations of insular, paranoid fanatics ready to take their culture war to the rest of the world.

At the center of the turmoil are the Palestinians and Israelis who are in their sixth decade of fighting over the same small piece of land. The hard liners on both sides have succeeded in only in ratcheting up the violence and creating a demand for an even harder line. There may be a peace settlement there for all to see - the 1967 borders and a divided Jerusalem - but the emotions on both sides make it impossible for either to seize it. An outbreak of war could pull both hemispheres into a death struggle and cause an economic chaos that would vaporize the prosperity that the West has become accustomed to.

The country that provided the world's stability through most of the last century has embarked on an unrealistic crusade to eliminate terrorism, much as Wilson thought he was fighting the "War to End All Wars." But like Wilson's unrealistic vision the quixotic campaign against the faceless terrorist has morphed quickly into a war against countries we don't like, and this week the specter of using weaponry previously considered unthinkable. Even worse America has telegraphed its intentions, signaling to the Saddam Husseins of the world that if they've got the nukes or the bugs or the gas they'd better use it. The country that wants to be the world's beacon of freedom may through recklessness or anger or plain ineptitude be ready plunge it into its darkest hour.

The seething emotions that convulsed the world in 1914 are in place again - or maybe they just never went completely away. On the street where the Archdukes driver made his fateful wrong turn sits a small monument in HONOR of Gavrilo Princip who died in 1918 without seeing a fraction of the human anguish he helped cause. And somewhere in the world sits the next Gavrilo Princip with a gun or a vial or a suitcase bomb and the potential to do even more damage. And as we learned in 1914 he may only need to be in the right place at the right time.

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