In a season of peace, is peace possible?

Stephen Vicchio

December 24, 1990|By Stephen Vicchio

In the arts of peace, man is a bungler.

-- George Bernard Shaw

There is something unnatural about parents burying their children.

-- Herodotus THE ROMAN deity Janus was a curious metaphysical creature. He was represented with two faces, joined along the line from ear to jaw. The two countenances simultaneously surveyed the past and the future, one keenly aware of history, the other possessed of a kind of pristine foreknowledge. It is not surprising that the Romans associated Janus with time, but they also saw in this two-faced god a symbol of war.

I'm thinking about this curious Roman deity. I've become convinced that we all share with Janus this ability to look in opposite directions. And I am more convinced that my vision about the past is much better than my vision of the future.

Last year at this time, just before Christmas, I wrote an essay that appeared on this page. It was about a short walk I took in the woods with a 3-year-old boy. We went looking for holly. I reminisced about my childhood, about how the Cold War hung over those holidays like an invisible Grinch, ready to steal Christmas and everything else.

This time last year, events in Germany and Eastern Europe had convinced me that peace was about to break out all over -- and just in time for the season of peace. I know now, of course, that my proclamations were more than a little premature.

At Christmas of 1983, I was on my way to Harrod's department store in London. Just before I got to the store, an IRA bomb nearly destroyed it. Members of the "army" had left their explosives in an empty baby carriage. The street in front of the massive store was strewn with glass and the carcass of a dead dog whose only sin had been to pick the wrong street on which to walk while the IRA was practicing its freedom-fighting.

Four years before that, just after Christmas, I left the Bologna train station on my way to Rome. That was the day the Red Guard decided to make what it later called "a gesture of defiance." By the time I reached Rome, the Italian television stations were broadcasting pictures of the splintered bench on which I had been sitting earlier in the day. The "guard" had exploded a bomb in a station full of widows and young families returning to their villages after the celebration of Christmas in the big city.

This year, I seem to have regained my sight in that pair of eyes that scour the past for some sense of what these former holiday seasons have meant, not just to me, but to the families of those people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mostly what those eyes see, at not yet too great a distance, are pieces of Flight 103 scattered across a Scottish countryside I once walked while preparing for the celebration of the birth of Christ.

Here in the dead of night, with that pair of eyes that focus on the future, I wonder if peace is possible -- not just in the Persian Gulf, not just in Northern Ireland, but in an entire race of beings which Konrad Lorenz tells us is the only species that gratuitously kills its own members -- for oil, for land, for a pair of sneakers or a basketball jacket.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame. His most recent collection of essays, "Ordinary Mysteries," will be published in the spring.

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