Exactly 100 years ago, at this hour, almost no one saw it coming, not yet. Less than 48 hours after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand -- the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne that once ruled much of central Europe -- there was surely still no sense of what the act of a few proto-terrorists had triggered: A global war involving virtually all of the world's industrialized nations that would kill an astonishing 9 million combatants, with so much of the death and dying occurring in brutal and senseless trench warfare, with vast armies charging into machine gun fire to gain a few yards of territory. Many nations in Europe collapsed, broke apart or convulsed in revolution, most importantly Russia.
The irony is that the years before World War I were an era of remarkable culture, of great beauty, even. Artists like Pablo Picasso reinvented modern painting in the early 1910s, while composers like Igor Stravinsky put an exclamation point on the end of the era of classical music. It was also an astonishing time for science and technology, from Einstein's theory of relativity to Henry Ford's Model T. Indeed, the advances were so rapid that none of the world's aging generals seemed to understand the risks of waging 19th-Century-style war amid the new machines of death that humankind had also created. The wondrous art and the explosion of knowledge seemed powerless pitted against people's dark impulse to kill.
And for what?
This is the thing that has always fascinated me about World War I. Not the "how?" but the "why?" Why did the fallout from one act of terror by anarchists put the world's most powerful -- and supposedly most civilized -- nations on an unstoppable path toward bloodshed and death? Could anything have stopped the Great War? Has humankind learned from the cascading series of mistakes in that long hot summer, exactly 100 years ago? Is 21st Century society smart enough to prevent one horrible deed from touching off a worldwide conflagration?
As long as people are walking the earth, there are going to be nihilists and whack jobs convinced that they can become the next Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old Serbian and member of the Black Hand who murdered Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie as they rode through the streets of Sarejevo on June 28, 1914. Remember the husband-and-wife beyond-Tea-Partiers out in Las Vegas who recently murdered two cops (and, later, a Wal-Mart patron), draped one of the officers in the "Don't Tread on Me" flag, and shouted "This is a revolution" -- except of course, it wasn't.
The tendency is to mourn the dead but also scoff at the pathetic notions of these revolution wannabes. But under the right circumstances, even today, a seemingly random individual act can have widespread unanticipated consequences -- if it touches the right chord. In 2011, a modest Tunisian street vendor named Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protect the corruption of his country's government -- a suicide that touched off "the Arab spring," a wave of revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East that still reverberates today.
The death of Bouazizi mattered because it spoke to frustrations about inequality and deep-rooted corruption that exist not just in Tunisia and Arab nations -- but around the world, including here in the United States. People are increasing frustrated -- at the flaws in capitalism that keep making income inequality worse and worse, but especially at the notion that the deck has been stacked by "crony capitalism" and democracy has devolved into something that somehow belongs to billionaires and not to rank-and-file voters.
On the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and the start of World War I. I was struck by the appearance of this op-ed -- written by an obscure American tech billionaire named Nick Hanauer:
Many of us think we’re special because “this is America.” We think we’re immune to the same forces that started the Arab Spring—or the French and Russian revolutions, for that matter. I know you fellow .01%ers tend to dismiss this kind of argument; I’ve had many of you tell me to my face I’m completely bonkers. And yes, I know there are many of you who are convinced that because you saw a poor kid with an iPhone that one time, inequality is a fiction.
Here’s what I say to you: You’re living in a dream world. What everyone wants to believe is that when things reach a tipping point and go from being merely crappy for the masses to dangerous and socially destabilizing, that we’re somehow going to know about that shift ahead of time. Any student of history knows that’s not the way it happens. Revolutions, like bankruptcies, come gradually, and then suddenly. One day somebody sets himself on fire, then thousands of people are in the streets, and before you know it, the country is burning. And then there’s no time for us to get to the airport and jump on our Gulfstream Vs and fly to New Zealand. That’s the way it always happens. If inequality keeps rising as it has been, eventually it will happen. We will not be able to predict when, and it will be terrible—for everybody. But especially for us.
The most ironic thing about rising inequality is how completely unnecessary and self-defeating it is. If we do something about it, if we adjust our policies in the way that, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt did during the Great Depression—so that we help the 99 percent and preempt the revolutionaries and crazies, the ones with the pitchforks—that will be the best thing possible for us rich folks, too. It’s not just that we’ll escape with our lives; it’s that we’ll most certainly get even richer.
I worry that Hanauer is right -- if the lack of opportunity for the broad working class can't be solved at the ballot box, then how exactly will it be solved? Like a valve that's about to burst, our leaders have two solutions. They can try to slowly release the pressure, by creating job opportunities and requiring an honest minimum wage for honest work, by making basic education more equitable and by making higher education accessible and affordable, by ensuring that decent health care is a right. Or they can try to tighten the valve, with the idea that more militarized police forces will head off problems at home and that modern high-tech weaponry can stop threats abroad, with pinpoint precision.
Just last week, a bipartisan panel of military and intelligence experts looked at the Obama administration's drone weaponry program, and it found that the idea that any perceived threat halfway around the world could be wiped out by flying death robots is instead creating a world in which war would be "endless." The panel, according to the New York Times, criticized "how two successive American presidents have conducted a 'long-term killing program based on secret rationales,' and how too little thought has been given to what consequences might be spawned by this new way of waging war." I would go further and argue that these two successive presidents who thought they could drone away their international problems without consequence have been delusional.
For one thing, is this really our answer to the gross spasms of worldwide violence of the 20th Century -- to harness our improved technology to craft a secret, unaccountable program of killing without end? This clearly is not the most moral solution, nor is it the best one. The more we clamp down the pressure for a more just and equitable world, the more likely that the entire works will rupture one day. Humankind has had one entire century to learn from the mistakes of 1914, to not take the tragedy of a double-murder and compound it by a factor of 4.5 million. I pray that the world is a more rational and safer place than it was 100 years ago, but I worry -- deeply -- that it is not.