An acrid whiff of 1914? Ambassador's killing comes at a nervous time

Story highlights

  • Assassination of Russian ambassador is a shocking reminder of the tense world political situation, writes Frida Ghitis
  • in 1914, the killing of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary set off a cascade of events that led to World War I, she notes

Frida Ghitis, who contributes regularly to CNN Opinion, is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)On June 28, 1914, a 19-year-old Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip fired into an open-top car traveling through the streets of Sarajevo, carrying Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austria-Hungarian Empire.

Within a month, the assassination set off a chain reaction that unleashed World War I, leaving tens of millions dead and ultimately setting the stage for World War II and, indirectly, many of the conflicts we see today.
On December 19, 2016, a 22-year-old Turkish police officer named Mevlut Mert Altintas, pulled out a pistol in an art gallery and killed the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov.
Much like in 1914, the world today is brittle with tensions. Nationalism is on the rise, political ideas are causing ferment. The old order seems to be breaking down.
Is the killing of the Russian ambassador going to set off a new world war? At this moment, the immediate risk that this particular event will be the trigger for a new global conflagration seems quite low.
In 1914, Austria-Hungary demanded from the Serbs that they destroy all terrorist organizations. The Serbs, feeling threatened, asked the Russian czar for help. With the Russians mobilizing, Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia exactly 30 days after the assassination. Other countries followed, believing the war would be brief and glorious. They could not have been more wrong.

Russia, Turkey are cooperating

In today's world, the governments of Russia and Turkey are clearly coordinating their response. They are not about to start fighting each other. Both are blaming terrorists for trying to derail relations between the two countries, and vowing to prevent that. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued very similar statements, a sign that they will use the grim milestone as an opportunity to crack down even harder on the groups they had each already been targeting.
And yet, there is an ominous feeling in the air. The gunpowder, the terrorism, the virulent sectarianism and nationalism, are wafting up from the flames consuming Syria, spreading out over national borders and across the sea.
The killer in Ankara shouted, "Allahu Akbar," the familiar proclamation in Arabic, "God is greatest." He added, in Turkish, "Don't forget Aleppo, don't forget Syria." It was all visible in a surreal video recording of the assassination, so crisp and stylized that it seemed like a scene from a movie, with everyone, killer and victim, neatly dressed in a dark suit and tie, cast sharply against the while walls and the hanging paintings of the art exhibition.
We are living in strange, distressing times. So much appears unreal that we have to remind ourselves the events that fill the news are, in fact, occurring. Above all, there is a sense of uncertainty and foreboding.
Russia and Turkey say the attack aimed to divide them. Perhaps. Or perhaps it aimed to do exactly what the shooter claimed; to call attention to Aleppo, where civilians have been massacred by an alliance that includes Russia.
That is, of course, no justification for murdering a diplomat. Nothing justifies that. But the killing is a chilling warning of the dangers rising across our turbulent world.

Another horrific scene

A few hours after the Ankara killing, another horror-movie scene unfolded in the heart of Europe. In Berlin, a truck sped into a crowded Christmas market in one of the most powerfully symbolic parts of the city. Witnesses say the driver plowed into the crowded market around the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a partly destroyed church whose bombed out spire was left in ruins as a reminder of the devastation of war.
At this writing there is no confirmation that the incident, which left at least 12 people dead and 48 injured, was a terrorist attack, but it has all the hallmarks of one, closely resembling the deadly attack in the French city of Nice last July, which left 87 dead.
The Islamic State claimed one of its "soldiers" carried out that attack, but it is unclear to what extent, if any, the perpetrator and the organization had worked together.
In fact, it really takes just one individual to inflict enormous damage.
Just one person, with a grudge, a rage, an ideology and a weapon -- which can be an everyday truck -- can kill a statesman, an ambassador, or a crowd of holiday revelers. We have seen it over and over, in the seemingly endless series of attacks by radical Islamists, some of them mentally disturbed, all of them imbued with a dangerous, deadly ideology. Hundreds of people have been killed in terrorist attacks in Turkey alone this year, scores more in Europe and in other parts of the Middle East.

The greater risk

The danger is not only that they kill and spread fear. There's an even greater risk. They inject instability into a tense, friction-filled world. They throw sparks into the air, when the air is charged with the fuel of nationalism, triumphalism and authoritarianism; when calls for revenge can pressure political leaders.
Terrorists are lighting matches in a gas station where the ground is damp with spilled fuel.
The accusations, charges and countercharges that followed the Ankara attack show just how many ways this edge-of-the-abyss era could tip over. Turkey blamed Erdogan's political rival, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the United States and who issued a statement condemning the killing. A prominent Russian official blamed the "Western media," for causing the attack. Another blamed NATO.
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Nerves were already frayed. President Barack Obama said last week that he confronted Putin over election-related hacking in September. And according to NBC News, he recently used the iconic "red phone" system in the White House to issue a stronger warning to Russia a week before election day. The communication channel is a relic of the coldest days of the Cold War; another reminder of how tenuous global stability has become.
The chances for a misunderstanding, for a retaliatory move to trigger an unstoppable cascade are easy to see.
These are times that call for cool heads, for careful decision-making. But moderation, it seems, is going out of style. Will the next president of the United States, Donald Trump, act wisely and thoughtfully. Can he?
There is an acrid whiff of 1914 in the air. We can only hope this, and no more, is the worst of it.