Events show power of individuals to make history

KARL RITTER Associated Press Published:

STOCKHOLM (AP) -- In France, a motorcycle gunman throws a presidential campaign into turmoil. In Afghanistan, one U.S. soldier's alleged slaughter of civilians shifts the narrative of the Afghan war more than any policy conceived by the Obama administration.

The past month exposes the limits of leaders who try to shape the world -- and how unexpected actions by individuals can influence the course of history.

"The drama of a singular event can supersede years of policymaking," says Philip Seib, director of the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy.

And in the information age, there is more space for individuals who are not in positions of power to make a footprint in history, by design or by accident. Consider how the Arab awakening started: a Tunisian fruit seller's self-immolation following a public humiliation by police triggered protests that spread across the Arab World, fueled in part by social media.

And how many people knew of African warlord Joseph Kony before an online video about him went viral this month? Or Pastor Terry Jones of a tiny church in Florida, who stole the global spotlight in 2010 by threatening to burn Muslim holy books?

"If you talk about burning a Quran, and you have access to the Internet, all of a sudden you can inflate your importance in a way that would have been much harder in the age of broadcast and print media," says Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, a former head of the National Intelligence Council.

The biggest of all such wild card events, however, happened long before Facebook or YouTube.

Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old Serb nationalist, was a nobody until June 28, 1914, when he shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, triggering the clash of alliances that became World War I.

Historians still argue over whether history would have been different had the archduke's car turned a different corner. Some say there's a tendency to exaggerate the importance of individuals. Who lit the match, the argument goes, may be less important than who placed the firewood.

The underlying pressures that can foment major changes in society are typically building up long before an unpredictable event provides the trigger, says Professor Michael Oppenheimer of New York University's Center for Global Affairs.

"It's a surprise because people haven't really been paying attention. Then suddenly a spark sets off these forces that have been gathering below the surface of reality, and there's a sea change," he says.

Sometimes that sea change is catastrophic, like in World War I, and other times it spins the world in a more positive direction.

Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Alabama, and set in motion a chain of events that ended racial segregation in the American South.

Individuals who stood up to oppression have a special place in history: The unknown Chinese man who stood before a tank at Tiananmen Square in 1989 or Nobel Peace Prize winners like Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar or Lech Walesa in Cold War-era Poland.

Geir Lundestad, a Norwegian historian and the nonvoting secretary of the peace prize committee, says that when individuals tap into "deeper forces" in society they can have major impact on the world. Major changes are almost always driven by local events, he says, and people tend to "overestimate" the ability of policymakers -- especially in Washington -- to chart the world's direction.

"There is an assumption, particularly in America but also other countries, that because the U.S. is clearly the most powerful country in the world it can in a major way influence developments everywhere," Lundestad says.

No doubt, political leaders of major countries still play a huge role in world affairs; wars were started in Afghanistan and Iraq because of policy decisions in Washington, reacting to the terror attacks of 9/11. But the 19th century "Great Man" theory, stipulating that history is written by kings and generals, no longer holds true in today's interconnected world.

Since 9/11, the relationship between the West and the Muslim world has been fraught by wild cards that forced policymakers on both sides to react to random acts by individuals.

Before Muslim holy books were burned in a trash pit at a U.S. base in Afghanistan this year, and before Pastor Jones threatened to light his own Quran bonfire, there was Europe's cartoon crisis.

Twelve Danish newspaper caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad went largely unnoticed for nearly half a year. Then in early 2006, after the drawings filtered to Muslim countries, Danish and other Western embassies and consulates were torched and scores of people were killed in riots from Libya to Indonesia.

Denmark -- the country that gave the world fairy tales about mermaids and ugly ducklings -- was thrust into the cross-hairs of al-Qaida. It took months of diplomacy to soothe the crisis, but Denmark's relations with the Muslim world have not fully recovered.

This month, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly slaughtered 17 Afghan civilians, including nine children, in a nighttime shooting rampage outside Kandahar.

Military officials say he crept from his base to two villages, shooting his victims and setting some of them on fire. The killings sparked outrage in Afghanistan, and could ultimately do more to hasten the return of other U.S. troops than any negotiation.

In France, the fallout of the attacks on French soldiers and a Jewish school by a suspected Islamist extremist is still unclear. But they have given an unexpected bounce to tough-talking President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had been trailing badly in polls and widely expected to be heading into defeat.

A Norwegian's rampage last July, massacring 77 people -- mostly teenagers -- in the name of an anti-Muslim revolution, underscored that the threat of solo raids by individuals can come from any direction.

Many say Norway's response to that event deserves recognition.

Instead of a knee-jerk response -- tightening laws or clamping down on civil liberties -- Norwegian policymakers decided that the best way to defy individuals bent on changing society by deadly force is to change as little as possible.

Says Lundestad of the peace prize panel: "I do think there's something the world can learn."