In a word, extremists, i.e., those who prefer to use force to achieve their goals, benefit from chaos. A worldly extremist, e.g., a politician fomenting international tensions to justify his accumulation of dictatorial power, will claim only he can “save society.” (The Roman Republic, in some ways more sophisticated than contemporary democracies, created the concept of a temporary, elected dictator, who was given a year to “save society,” after which not only did the dictator have to resign but his emergency powers evaporated. They did not serve as precedents to enhance the power of the next [non-dictatorial] leader. Parliamentarians should read Livy.) An ideological extremist, e.g., the leader of a religious movement or a non-religious ideology such as communism, will use chaos as a cover for compelling society to bow to his ideology. A fundamentalist extremist will use chaos as the opportunity to bring about a goal, e.g., a restructuring of society or a “final solution.” Extremist groups are typically small minorities with no hope of persuading society to accept their goals except in times of emergency and chaos, when the average person ironically lays reason aside and throws himself blindly into the arms…of his real enemy.
It is time for suspicion, not trust, when a politician paints an opponent as a giant and an implacable enemy, especially if the opponent is not actually doing anything but just allegedly “planning” all manner of evil. It is time for suspicion, not trust, when a politician refuses to negotiate without getting his adversary to surrender in advance (e.g., “we will only talk to Hamas after they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which implies accepting Israel’s ethnic cleansing campaign in 1948 and the second-class citizenship of Israeli Arabs today but conveniently sidesteps the issue of recognizing Palestine, thus achieving key Israeli goals while leaving all Palestinian goals for “later”).
But the initial clue about what is going on during a struggle against extremism (fundamentalist or not) is even simpler: if chaos is spreading, extremism is winning. Body counts, precision bombing photo ops, deaths of insurgent leaders, and battlefield victories are of limited significance and, indeed, may steel the determination of insurgents rather than weakening them.
Measure progress by refugee flows. If the number of refugees is increasing, the extremists are winning; if refugees are accumulating in camps faster than they can be relocated to, employed in, and absorbed by normal communities, insurgents are winning.
Measure progress by treatment of social groups. If religious or racial or ethnic groups are being condemned, even by your own leaders, the extremists are winning. If an ethnic group is being held in bondage, walled in, surrounded by hostile military forces, then the extremists are winning. In the first place, the hostile military forces manning the prison walls are under the control of extremists – jailing an ethnic group is extreme. In the second place, extremism among the jailed population is surely growing, whether visible or not.
Measure progress by the nature of new laws being passed in the moderate societies under attack. Are democratic societies so terrified that they burn down their own political village in order to save it? Are people being jailed and tortured without legal procedures to determine their guilt? Is everyone being watched/searched/restricted? Are internal passports not only being required but being used for political gain? To the degree that democratic society gets down in the gutter with extremists in order to compete with them, the extremists are winning.
Measure progress by the nature of new forms of behavior being tolerated in moderate societies. Are vigilante groups carrying weapons on the streets? Are union leaders, teachers, social organizers being assassinated in the name of “order”? Are rich institutions, e.g., large cattle ranches in
Measure progress by the intensity of political taboos. Is dissent being equated with treason? Are certain government policies considered by politicians and the media “beyond discussion”? Are those courageous enough to question such policies insulted rather than being met with thoughtful counterarguments? Taboos are the first defense of the guilty.
Those are some clues to figuring out an inherently messy situation. Of course, it’s not really that simple: once you have figured out that extremists are winning, you still have to figure out whether you are truly facing a fundamentalist revolution or whether the fundamentalists are being duped by worldly extremists just out for personal gain. But that is another story.