This is a global moment unlike any in memory, perhaps in history. Yes, comparisons can be made to the wave of people power that swept Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989-91. For those with longer memories, perhaps 1968 might come to mind, that abortive moment when, in the United States, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, and elsewhere, including Eastern Europe, masses of people mysteriously inspired by each other took to the streets of global cities to proclaim that change was on the way.
For those searching the history books, perhaps you’ve focused on the year 1848 when, in a time that also mixed economic gloom with novel means of disseminating the news, the winds of freedom seemed briefly to sweep across Europe. And, of course, if enough regimes fall and the turmoil goes deep enough, there’s always 1776, the American Revolution, or 1789, the French one, to consider. Both shook up the world for decades after.
But here’s the truth of it: you have to strain to fit this Middle Eastern moment into any previous paradigm, even as—from Wisconsin to China—it already threatens to break out of the Arab world and spread like a fever across the planet. Never in memory have so many unjust or simply despicable rulers felt quite so nervous—or possibly quite so helpless (despite being armed to the teeth)—in the presence of unarmed humanity. And there has to be joy and hope in that alone.
Even now, without understanding what it is we face, watching staggering numbers of people, many young and dissatisfied, take to the streets in Morocco, Mauritania, Djibouti, Oman, Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, and Libya, not to mention Bahrain, Tunisia, and Egypt, would be inspirational. Watching them face security forces using batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and in all too many cases, real bullets (in Libya, even helicopters and planes) and somehow grow stronger is little short of unbelievable. Seeing Arabs demanding something we were convinced was the birthright and property of the West, of the United States in particular, has to send a shiver down anyone’s spine.
The nature of this potentially world-shaking phenomenon remains unknown and probably, at this point, unknowable. Are freedom and democracy about to break out all over? And if so, what will that turn out to mean? If not, what exactly are we seeing? What light bulb was it that so unexpectedly turned on in millions of Twittered and Facebooked brains—and why now? I doubt those who are protesting, and in some cases dying, know themselves. And that’s good news. That the future remains—always—the land of the unknown should offer us hope, not least because that’s the bane of ruling elites who want to, but never can, take possession of it.
Nonetheless, you would expect that a ruling elite, observing such earth-shaking developments, might rethink its situation, as should the rest of us. After all, if humanity can suddenly rouse itself this way in the face of the armed power of state after state, then what's really possible on this planet of ours?