international analysis and commentary

The power of one

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The world’s epicenter, its largest economy and  geopolitical superpower, is burning from east to west, and from north to south. The fire is engulfing all of its major cities – to varying degrees but with no exception – with protests varying from civil war-like to entirely pacifist: from looting evoking images of havoc wreaked by the French Gilets Jaunes, to bodies spread on the grass, repeating George Floyd’s last words “officer, I can’t breathe”, nonviolent as Mahatma Gandhi’s demonstrations.

For weeks now, America has been burning with anger and overflowing with rage like a soup that its chef-in-chief left unattended without turning down the heat beneath. It would be historically incorrect to suggest that this is the first outpouiring of similar force in the country’s history; nor alas, will it be its last. Yet, it seems that the patchwork making up the eccentric quilt of its fifty states is coming apart at the seams.

Donald Trump points his finger like a gun

 

There are a myriad reasons for this and – if America was a patient – the psychologist on duty would duly inform it that the reason for which the soup one day overflows, has almost nothing to do with the soup, but much ado – to paraphrase Shakespeare – with all that proceeds its creation. George Floyd’s grotesque and unwarranted death of on 25 May – accidentally filmed by a sympathetic passerby – may be a “tipping point” in American history, in the words of Malcolm Gladwell.

As the crowds have stormed the streets, at a peril to themselves, defying lockdowns and social distancing rules, the President has retreated further in his bunker and prodded the Governors into deploying military force, including to protect the White House lawn. He appears to have adopted a wait-and-see strategy, being ready to use force to quell demonstrations, perhaps expecting that time will wear them out. In so doing, he has gravely underestimated the power of one.

And he is certainly not the first one to do so. When Mohamed Bouazizi, a name which has become synonymous with the Arab Spring, set himself on fire in a Tunisian village now almost a decade ago, no one expected the events that followed. From his palace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Tunisia’s President Ben Ali, certainly could not imagine that less than a month after, he would be disposed after 23 years in power. After all, his neighbors included Muhammar Qaddafi, in power for four decades and Hosni Mubarak for three.

And yet, as Bouazizi’s image echoed with millions across the country, the power of one prevailed. Although comparing Tunisia and America might appear bizarre, President Trump might well be reminded of the potent elixir of this single digit number. Precisely since the power of one can today conjure imaginations of thousands, if not millions of people, it is a force to be reckoned with: a matchstick that in one gesture, may set the whole haystack on fire, not only burning it to ash, but also obliviating its surroundings.

Although America today is still the largest military spender in the world – accounting for over a third of the global trade in conventional weapons – its Commander-in-Chief may be forgetting that while wars are fought with guns, they are won with words. And, as the Tunisian and the other Arab uprisings have aptly demonstrated, social media is the currency of today’s wars. While President Trump may have understood this, given his erratic Twitter use, one can wonder if he is miscalculating the influence of social media in amplifying the power of one, when that one is not him.

The White House appears to have forgotten that one image can speak a thousand words. The image of George Floyd pinned down and strangled by those meant to defend justice is now forever lodged in the imaginations of millions. And, as the President is fighting Twitter which has decided to factcheck his statements, he appears to ignore that his other declarations such as the now infamous “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” have been amplified by the same medium.

The power of one has been miscalculated throughout history and no one could today imagine what Europe would look like if Hitler never came to power in Germany in the 1940s or if Osama Bin Laden did not decide to escape his native Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan in the 1980s. Their shoes, left empty, have luckily never been filled again. Although many have attempted, no one has really grasped how they have determined history, and how a sole voice could bring empires crumbling down.

What would the world appear like without Napoleon, Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King? We can imagine, but we shall never know. We will however, soon know what America will look like without George Floyd, now emblematic of the one thousand Americans to perish yearly in the hands of its police. It might not happen tomorrow, but the symbolism of his death will, one way or another, leave a vivid scar on the American psyche and a further dent its future as a global hegemon.

The transmission channels may be numerous and contemporaneous: it might be a serious and much overdue backlash to anti-African-American racism in the US, it might be an unbearable death count brought on by another Covid outbreak as a result of the demonstrations, or it might be via external political events linked to this outpouring. Each of these might have a ripple effect the impact of which no one can yet fully envisage.

For while the President of the world’s most powerful country is hiding in a bunker, the world’s other powers including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the closest European partners of the US, are discussing their political alliances in light of the emerging US weakness. Whatever the outcome of these talks may be, the poker hand facing the United States after the upcoming presidential election will not be the same: it might in no small measure be due to the ostensibly infinitesimal yet determining power of one.