I have been personally (and later professionally) interested in the extent to which mathematics could help forecast historical trends ever since I read the fiction of Isaac Asimov way back in the 1960’s. When I shared my first office at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory with a staff meteorologist working on air quality dispersion models, I had many discussions with him about the limits to forecasting. I think it was he who first called my attention to a quote by Edward Lorenz:
“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”
Three months ago I ran across that same quote in a lengthy article by Michael J. Totten in his World Affairs Journal blog that I shared with the other regular Wheat and Tares bloggers on Facebook. The article discusses how it could happen that a simple woman performing the job equivalent to a “meter maid” for food carts could go to work one morning like every other morning, get an order to enforce a city ordinance by clearing a cart away from a prohibited area, and become the flapping butterfly that set off a geopolitical tornado that has blown away stability across much of the Mediterranean Basin and on into the Mideast with no signs of loss of intensity.
I heartily recommend the entire article (and Totten’s work in general) for people who want to understand in depth how the Arab “Spring” is morphing into something much larger in scope, and yet impacting normal people in ways our self-obsessed news cycle allows no time to contemplate. However, I want to excerpt some of the article here to emphasize a particular point — the inability of policy makers to control events by selecting “correct” policies once the butterfly flaps.
Totten interviewed the woman, Faida Hamdi, in a street-side cafe more than a year after her confrontation with a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, led the latter to burn himself to death in protest:
“I had been tolerating his illegal work for a long time,” she said, “but that week I had an order from the ministry to confiscate any merchandise sold from any illegal vendor from that particular place. So I was doing my job. When I confronted him he said, ‘why are you targeting me? If I paid you bribes, you wouldn’t target me.’”
She says she doesn’t take bribes, but the city is known to be crooked. Maybe she’s clean. I don’t know. But her bosses are not…
“He pushed me,” she said, “and actually wounded me. So I screamed.”
Some local men told me he may have grabbed or hit her breasts. No one seems to be sure. I didn’t ask her about it. Why embarrass a modestly dressed Muslim woman with such a question?…
According to the international news media, Bouazizi was a university graduate struggling to eke out a meager existence, the Tunisian equivalent of an American with a master’s degree in literature or philosophy working the barista counter at Starbucks. It made for a great story, but it wasn’t true. His family says he did not even graduate high school. Lots of kids in towns like Sidi Bouzid don’t finish high school. Their families sometimes struggle so mightily that it makes at least short-term sense for the kids to drop out and work…
The city government, in his view, was a corrupt and obnoxious regulatory state that made it hard—well nigh impossible, actually—for him to work and support his family. Thirty percent of the town’s population was and remains unemployed. Enterprising people like Bouazizi who took the initiative to work for themselves were held down by the state. And for what? For not having a license to sell a banana?
Totten noted that Islam had nothing to do with Bouazizi’s attitude. He made it sound almost libertarian, and then went on:
Hamdi understands. She was and remains a part of the state, but she understands.
“I believe in the law,” she said, “but it’s unfortunate that my job is the suppression of somebody else’s job. I believe the law should rule, though, so I have to do it. It’s like when a police officer pulls you over for running a red light. You might think, ‘ack, why is he doing this to me,’ but it has to be done because it’s the law. You obey the laws in your country, right? Why shouldn’t it be the same here?”…
Her self-image was and is an honorable one. She wanted to be a part of order, law, and good government. And she was willing to accept an exploitatively low salary in return. How long can a decent and idealistic person serve an arbitrarily repressive regime? She managed for ten years, but the roof still caved in…
“I was sentenced to five years in prison for extreme violence against citizens,” she said, choking up. “Before Ben Ali left the country, no lawyer would represent me. But after the revolution a lawyer helped free me. So the revolution was a good thing”…
The Butcher of Damascus is currently in the fight of his life as an indirect result of something routine she did a year and a half ago. Violent clashes between Sunnis and Alawites are breaking out in Lebanon now as a (very) indirect result of something routine she did a year and a half ago. The suppurating catastrophe in the Levant could suck in the United States just as the war in Libya did. Who knows? It could even widen to Israel and draw in Iran. History is exploding in dangerous and unpredictable ways. All these events can be traced back in a straight line to her encounter with Bouazizi on December 17th, a date she’s sure not to forget.
We all change the course of events by existing in this world, but most presidents can hardly leave marks that are this big. [emphasis added] Her own act was a small one, but it lit the fuse.
Since Totten wrote, Egypt has passed from an uneasy balance between the old military regime and the Muslim Brotherhood to the rapid emergence of a new Presidential power center that, in less than two weeks, has taken control of the Army, the press, and is moving to remilitarize the Sinai Peninsula in ways forbidden by the Egyptian-Isreali peace treaty. We hear the same “don’t-worry-he’s-a-reformer” refrain we heard three years ago about Assad. We’ll see sooner than we wish whether that refrain represents any more than a wish. We also see Turkey, unmentioned in Totten’s article, being drawn toward the conflict as fighting centers on Aleppo, near its borders, and the Kurds take advantage of chaos in Eastern Syria to ally with Assad and Iran and carve out a Kurdish homeland in parts of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.
And then we have Iran and Israel, and yet another butterfly.
I watched again the 1977 movie “Raid on Entebbe” a couple of weeks ago. The movie chronicles events from 1976 in which a group of Palestinian terrorists hijacked a French airliner on the second leg of a flight originating in Tel Aviv and forced it to fly to the country of Uganda. There, the terrorists separated about 100 Jews from other passengers and held the former as hostages in the Entebbe airport terminal. Ugandan soldiers, under the direct orders of dictator Idi Amin, acted as protectors of the terrorists and guards preventing any escape by the hostages. The terminal was wired with explosives and a deadline was given for the release of jailed terrorists from throughout Europe.
Separated from Israel by more than 2000 miles and seemingly out-of-range of Israeli air assets, everyone presumed Israel would be forced to capitulate. Instead, they launched a long-range commando strike on the airport, killing the terrorists and several squads of Ugandan troops who tried to stop them from freeing the Jews, and blowing up a squadron of Mig fighters that could have pursued the cargo planes evacuating the hostages. Several hostages died in the attempt, but most were saved, and there was only one Israeli soldier who died in the mission.
Now, this was a very pro-Israeli film. There was only one terrorist portrayed as having any humanity — and that was shown by his willingness to die in a blaze of machine gun fire against Israeli troops, forgoing the opportunity to detonate the explosives in the terminal and kill all of the hostages. But that’s not my point. This film, as I noted, was made in 1977, with no way of foreseeing the political situation in 2012. And there’s the butterfly.
The Israeli soldier is shot by a Ugandan enlisted man, an ordinary “grunt” in US military slang, who survives the explosion of an artillery blast on his position in the aircraft control tower, and takes a parting shot at the Israeli troops. The target he picks, and kills, is the officer who leads the part of the raid on the terminal itself.
The officer killed was Jonathan Netanyahu, and if you recognize that name, it is because his brother, 36 years later, has become the Prime Minister of Israel. It is he who has to decide whether to entrust the safety of his nation to an international community that has shown no ability to put a stop to an Iranian nuclear program most Israelis regard as strategic over watch for ever more terror directed at them.
If you think that family history isn’t weighing in his thinking, consider how such a family trauma and legacy would affect your thinking.
A Ugandan soldier doing his duty and striking back for his squad mates. A grocery inspector enforcing a licencing law. A depressed vendor who can’t feed his family, let alone find a health care clinic to treat his depression. An officer being faithful to a family tradition. No obvious evil there, yet in combination with all the independent actions of all the other butterflies, we arrive where we are.
The idea of being in control of our own fate is something to which we cling. “If only I had done this; if only they would do that.” But I would suggest that is a stage of grieving, and it is illusionary. The world is changing faster than a new “conventional wisdom” can become conventional.
We do not know which, if any, of our personal choices of conscience will die away in only-local impacts, which will grow and then plateau, and which may become part of something much larger even if they seem to have no impact at all. Our “good” may serve “evil”; our “cruelty” may be turned into “good”. We choose and pray that our choices will be blessed, because we have to accept that neither we, nor our political and societal leaders, are in control of what is happening right now.