There are some words that have accompanied me every day of my professional life for the last 20 years by now. One of them is “peace talks”. It is a word that arouses hopes, hopes for an end to the ever-identical images of bloodshed, destruction, misery and expulsions. But only rarely has this hope become reality. Quite to the contrary. If I’m not mistaken, the number of armed interstate and domestic conflicts has even increased in the last twenty years.
That I should put my speech on the topic “Describing the World – Information and Peace” into precisely this time frame requires a short explanation. In fact, I do so for shamelessly personal reasons. Twenty years ago tomorrow, on the first of October 1993, I began my service as a news editor with the editorial office for politics of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Back then, I was 33 years old, blond and had two children. Today, I’m 53, my hair is grey and three of my by now six children have become adults and have left our home. The world, however, has not become more adult in the last twenty years.
Back then, in autumn 1993, the columns of all newspapers were full of reports about peace talks. In the Norwegian capital of Oslo, there were negotiations brokered by the United States on peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In Geneva, everyone’s eyes were on the negotiators’ efforts to prevent a new war on the Balkans after the definite disintegration of Yugoslavia – the Bosnian War.
I need not explain to you what has become of the Oslo Peace Process and the Dayton Agreement that was reached in 1995. Yassir Arafat is long dead, Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated. In and around Israel, there are now not only two, but three, states, namely Israel including the occupied territories, the Gaza Strip controlled by Hamas and the West Bank, which is ruled by Fatah, at least that part of the West Bank that the Israelis have handed over to the Palestinians. And as far as Bosnia and Herzegovina are concerned, last year’s Peace Meeting in Sarajevo held by the Community of Sant’Egidio reminded us of the Bosnian War, whose main acts of war were yet to come after that time. Today the “Jerusalem of the Balcans” is a thing of the past, real peace between the ethnic groups that are defined by their religious affiliations is not in sight. But this is not all that needs to be said on peace since that time.
If we look at the course of history since the first of October 1993 in quick motion, we could say, almost cynically, that our world today would be a better place if the Palestine conflict and the Bosnian War had been the only conflicts. We did not yet know, but were then to successively write about, the Genocide in Rwanda (I can remember well doing late service when the news of the shooting-down of the presidential airplane came in), about the war in Afghanistan and the American invasion in Iraq as well a good dozen civil wars in Africa, the fates of several million displaced persons in Colombia and the so-called Arab spring.
This spring has not been followed by an Arab summer so far. Instead, the “Age of Confessionalization”, which kept Europe in its grip between 1600 and 1800, seems to be repeating itself in quick motion in the Arab world, so that the fight for the balance of power between the Sunni and Shiite regional powers is irreversibly destroying a Christian culture that dates back to Antiquity.
I do not want to lecture you on contemporary history, but I wanted to give you some idea on what is my “daily bread” as one of the responsible political editors of a daily newspaper with a worldwide reputation. I can assure you that none of this “bad news” with millions of untimely deaths is “good news”. Quite to the contrary, it is “good news” in my trade if twenty years of professional life and daily contact with “bad news” have not made you a cynic, if the daily news on terrorist attacs, massacres and threats of war have not dulled and hardened you, have not made you hopeless right from the start when you hear of “peace talks”.
I can tell you from my experience that, in the torrent of news, it is not easy to keep the ability to see the fates of people behind the words and images. In fact, this is not only an ability, a skill. Seeing is a decision, an act of one’s will. Will I look, or will I look away? Sometimes I get the feeling that the newspapers’ worldwide loss of subscribers is not only due to the rise of electronic media and so-called social networks. To my mind, the daily newspaper has always been the epitome of a social medium, as it gave persons and societies information about the world around them, made up of persons and societies, which they could use to guide their actions. If the death knell is sounded to printed daily newspapers in many places a considerable part of the younger generations are retreating into the new social media, I see this as an act of collective regression, of disdaining what we call public opinion.
But what feeds this disdain? If we consider the rise of the new social media to be the sum of many millions of individual decisions, there may be some logic in this rise. Where, in the face of an ever more complex and confusing world, there is a dominant feeling of helplessness, it is an understandable reaction to retreat into one’s private life. But also in this case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, the lack of a public opinion that is financed by the citizens means the lack of a body whose function as a guardian and monitor is indispensable
This function is generally described in connection to the three powers of the state, the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. It is often said that the media are the “fourth power”. This may be the case. But let me give you another, rather unusual perspective on this “fourth power”. The media have this function also in the sense that they have to see to it that conflicts are not forgotten, that hardship and misery do not disappear from the agendas of the Western saturated wealthy societies.
But what are “the media”? They are something very different from anonymous search engines running according to algorithms. These search engines – thank God – do not generate any contents, but spread or suppress them. As to the contents, they are still made by humans, namely by correspondents and editors. This is the human factor.
It is therefore far from insignificant who takes what decisions in the editorial office and who – if anybody – is sent out as a correspondent. I take it for granted that they all master their craft. But they are not all endowed with what young King Solomon requests from his Lord: an “understanding heart”, a “heart that listens” (1 Kings 3). For service to peace, this is more important than many other things. A heart that, amid the explosions of grenades and deafening propaganda of war that confuses the senses, does not fail to hear – to use Biblical language – the weak, the children, the old people, the widows and the orphans.
However, it would be naïve to try and overstress the metaphor of a heart that listens. You all know the saying attributed to the English writer Rudyard Kipling: “Truth is the first casualty of war”. Therefore, the first virtue that serves peace is not to dodge truth but to try and search it with all available means. Every day, we can see from the war in Syria how hard this is in many cases. Therefore, in my profession, the daily question is not only what “truth” is, but which of all the things that can be heard and seen are actually “true”.
Yet it is even harder to draw the right conclusions from a knowledge of “truth” that is often fragmentary, and be it only when writing an editorial. For instance, what does it mean that there is no doubt that it was the troops of the Assad regime that, by deploying poison gas against the civilian population, broke one of the few taboos that are valid worldwise? But then again, what does it mean that most Christians and their religious leaders only see a future for themselves and their communities in Syria as long as the Assad regime is in power? I have the strong feeling that very often, I know clearly that I don’t know anything at all – or at least that I don’t know as much as I would need to know in order to assess the ethical merits of a situation.
This finally takes me back to Solomon’s image of a “heart that listens”. I have just said that amid the explosions of grenades and deafening propaganda of war that confuses the senses, what matter is – if I can use Biblical language here – not to overhear the weak, the children, the old people, the widows and the orphans.
But in the dilemma called “truth”, there are also other voices that need to be heard, namely the voices of those who have never given up the hope for peace, against all odds and even in the darkest hours. If we look at the last twenty years, there aren’t many moments in which the hope for peace and reconciliation prevailed. One of them was certainly the brokering of the peace agreement in Mozambique by members of the Community of Sant’Egidio. Many initiatives, great and small ones, have since then taken this great gesture as their model. The yearly peace meeting is also in the continuity of this sign of peace – and in the continuity of the sign of peace that Pope John Paul II made with the Assisi Peace Meeting of 1986. As long as these signs exist and as long as there are people who lift themselves up with these signs and strengthen their “heart that listens”, hope for peace is not dead.