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Chronicling the passage of peace

A decade ago it seemed a neat idea to chronicle, at the yuletide season, the progress of peace on earth.

In 1991, it was a mixed bag. Iraq beaten back in the Gulf War, defeated, but not vanquished. A grizzly massacre in Yugoslavia. But, then, a hopeful-looking Arab-Israeli peace conference. A cooling off in Central America. Communal warfare ended in Africa. And a big enchilada, the 50-year cold war ended, and with it the fear of nuclear Armageddon.

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At Christmastime in 1991, I mentioned briefly Afghanistan, saying the Soviet-American proxy war was over; the fighting among rival Afghan factions, not yet. I said about Afghanistan, "Peace is a maybe, no better than that."

In succeeding years Afghanistan didn't make it into my annual peace-war balance sheet. Not until a year ago, when I mentioned, "in Afghanistan, a last-ditch fight against the ruling Taliban, with no reliable casualty figures."

So now this year, what is there to say about peace on earth after Sept. 11 that is not profoundly depressing? One can look for consolation in the relative peace in the Balkans, in divided Korea, in divided China, but one has to scrounge for the good news.

This year war has become no longer simply a matter of cross-border hostilities or internal feuds. The melancholy fact is the war has taken on an entirely new dimension, transcending borders. War today is a young Palestinian with a bomb strapped to his body. On a much vaster scale, it is the meticulously trained hijacker turning our technology against us as his ticket to glory. How do you cope with war by suicide?

There are organizations that annually tally the number of armed conflicts as a way of judging how peaceful the year has been. A year ago the National Defense Council Foundation in Alexandria, Va., counted 68 cross-border and internal conflicts around the world, an increase of three over the previous year. In the age of the war against terrorism, counting conflicts no longer works. There is one great transcendent conflict, a 21st-century version of struggling with the barbarians at the gates.

When St. Luke spoke of peace on earth, it was not a prediction, but a prayer. With it went another prayer - "goodwill toward men." It was to say you can't have one without the other. This year, sad to say, in much of the world we had neither.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at NPR.