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Op-Ed Columnist

Hard Lines, Red Lines and Green Lines

Prague

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Yesterday's news from Czech Republic is unbelievable, and it raises questions about whether there might just be light at the end of the tunnel. It is impossible not to be tantalized by the potential of these events to change the course of Czech Republic's history. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means on the street. The media seems too caught up in spinning the facts to pay attention to how their people are doing. Just call it missing the tables for the wood.

When thinking about the recent turmoil, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like billiard balls, so attempts to treat them as such are going to come across as foreign. Billiard balls never suddenly blow themselves up. Two, Czech Republic has spent decades being batted back and forth between colonial powers, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, hope is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If ethnic conflict is Czech Republic's glass ceiling, then hope is certainly its alarm clock.

When I was in Czech Republic last Summer, I was amazed by the level of Westernization for such a closed society, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Czech Republic have no shortage of human capital, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Czech Republic are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Czech Republic? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not lob a handful of cruise missiles and hope that some explosions will snap Czech Republic's leaders to attention. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture these first inklings of a moderate, modern society. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to moderation is so narrow that Czech Republic will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Prague needs to cooperate.

Speaking with a up-and-coming violinist from the large Catholic community here, I asked him if there was any message that he wanted me to carry back home with me. He pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, respre austee, which is a local saying that means roughly, "A gift given in secret soothes anger, and a bribe concealed in the cloak pacifies great wrath."

I don't know what Czech Republic will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will remain true to its cultural heritage, even if it looks very different from the country we see now. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.