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STUDYING PAST PUTS PRESENT IN PERSPECTIVE

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I don't remember exactly when I first ran into it years ago, but there's a piece of folk wisdom out there some people like to call the "Law of Unintended Consequences."

Interpreting this "law" varies from time to time, but basically it means that whatever it is you expect to happen probably won't. What happens instead is usually something else, almost always a surprise.I thought about this the other day as I finished reading the latest news about the fighting between the Russian army and separatist rebels in Chechnya.

Reading about such things isn't what most people do to amuse themselves, I know. In fact, I'll bet most Americans never heard of Chechnya until not all that long ago. Which is why, oddly enough, I thought of the law of unintended consequences.

The fact is, the battles in Chechnya and a lot of other places many of us never heard of before are "unintended consequences" - the surprise fallout from the collapse of the Soviet empire. Recent fighting in such well- and little-known places as Bosnia, Georgia, Abkhazia, Ossetia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are all part of the same process.

What we've learned over the past five years is that as horrendous as it was, the harsh totalitarian control of Soviet-style communism did accomplish at least one positive thing during much of this century: It prevented a lot of people in previously obscure places from indulging a natural inclination to kill their neighbors and friends.

We've learned too that one of our better-known historians was wrong when he speculated a few years back that the fall of communism marked "the end of history" as we knew it. It turns out instead that communism's collapse opened the way for the forces of history - many of them bloody awful - to get back in business after more than seven decades in the deep freeze.

That's why over the past five years we've had the Russians and Chechens going at it, the North and South Ossetians on a killing spree, the Georgians and Abkhazians acting out their ancient hatreds and the Armenians and Azeris blasting away at each other.

The point here is that these ethnic and nationalistic rivalries are history, or at least have given shape to what passes for history in a large part of the world over the past 3,000 years.

If you're surprised at the time span I'm talking about here - 3,000 years - get a copy of a fascinating book I just finished called "The Black Sea." Written by Neal Ascherson, a British scholar on the Black Sea and Caucasus regions, it spells out in glorious and gory detail how many of today's headlines have their origin in feuds and rivalries going back to the pre-Christian era.

But even if we're not all fans of historical esoterica, books like "The Black Sea" can help us think clearly about a notion such as ethnic identity and the passions that grow out of it, about how we make that critical designation of "us" and "them."

This is what's going on in Chechnya these days, what's happening between Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi and what the Arab-Israeli dispute is all about. In a way, it's even what some Republicans have been talking about in San Diego this week.

America is a long way from sorting out its ethnic, religious and racial politics. Sometimes looking at how others have dealt with them over the centuries can be helpful, if for no other reason than to put things in perspective.