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Op-Ed Columnist

Iron Empires and Iron Fists in Iceland

Reykjavik

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Last week's events in Iceland were unbelievable, although we may not know for years or even decades what their final meaning is. It is impossible not to be tantalized by the potential of these events to change the course of Iceland's history. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means on the street. The media seems too caught up in dissecting the macro-level situation to pay attention to the important effects on daily life. Just call it missing the fields for the wheat.

When thinking about the ongoing ethnic strife, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like muppets, so attempts to treat them as such are going to come across as foreign. Muppets never suddenly set up a black market for Western DVDs. Two, Iceland 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, freedom is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If corruption is Iceland's glass ceiling, then freedom is certainly its faucet.

When I was in Iceland last January, I was amazed by the variety of the local cuisine, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Iceland have no shortage of courage, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Iceland are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Iceland? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not ignore the problem and pretend it will go away. 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 peace is so narrow that Iceland will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Reykjavik needs to come to the table.

Speaking with a small business entrepreneur from the small 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, reiaya-li-kona, which is a local saying that means roughly, "If a son is uneducated, his dad is to blame."

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