n 2015 the West marks 70 years of peace. Not Asia. Not the Middle East. Western nations alone among 20th-century world war participants have successfully if precariously avoided battlefield relapses. Led by the United States and Russia, they have burrowed into battlefields elsewhere — in Korea, in Vietnam, in Afghanistan — while avoiding the kinds of wholesale internecine tangles that once ruined continents.
This is something of a triumph, which the U.S. helped accelerate by showing the planet the future face of big-time warfare when it dropped two atom bombs on Japan in 1945. The result leveled two cities and left once-churlish sides reluctant to consider involvement in anything but mostly surrogate conflicts played out far from their heartlands. America, alone among large Northern Hemisphere states in never having endured full-scale war on its own soil, was especially eager to keep conflicts oceans away, a feasible scenario for an idealistic and powerful country buffered by two wide oceans.
War, like argument, is a genetic norm. People quarrel, as do states. Hostility is a genetic source code. What the chastened West managed to rein in, for reasons of self-preservation, was war in its own neighborhood.
But one part of the world agreeing to repress its instincts doesn’t stop an otherwise epileptic planet from suffering seizures, nor does it limit big-power interference.
States that once fought each other have been — and in some cases remain — enmeshed in lesser skirmishes: the U.S. and Britain in Iraq and Afghanistan; Russia in Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine (and previously Afghanistan); France in Mali and Somalia. The fallout from these opaque and awful fights have stirred animosities potent enough to unravel whole countries — behold stained Syria — and create streams of refugees eager to reach a war-free but increasingly less hospitable Western sanctuary.
So what about life in that sanctuary? What is its tone and quality? What does the war-free West do as the world turns, and burns?
It grows, with great difficulty. It absorbs, also with great difficulty. It takes in many who’ve escaped tyrannies, famines and flames. It revels in its righteous resistance of barbarism. It treasures its place in a post-vindictive pantheon of nations that have agreed in not to fight each other in public.
The only way such states can be ruffled — pricked as it were — is through terrorism, a kind of symbolic if small-scale pillaging, rape and murder that has proved capable of pushing victimized states past the point of restraint and into reprisal wars (in the way Israel responds by rote to any attacks on its citizens, soil or interests).
The West’s second postwar, which began after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has witnessed a string of lethal attacks that whenever they occur make the collective Western citizenry angry and fearful — feelings that peaked in 2001, coiffed by mass media. But that collective is far more ethnically eclectic than in 1945. Kipling’s white man’s burden, its colonial embers barely alight after World War II, no longer holds sway over a West of disparate origins.
That doesn’t stop members of the West’s now secular but once-Christian club from imagining messianic tides and overreacting to medieval-styled attacks whose dramatic flavor (particularly if Muslim extremists are involved) seem to presage a barbaric second coming. Never mind that the attacking zealots remain profoundly inferior in numbers to decades of immigrants who have invested themselves, and their values, into the West’s social and institutional life. Most of these new Westerners, no matter the precise depth of their integration, prize the sense of security their more stable lives guarantee.
The West’s 70-year gift to its citizens has less to do with pledges about social equality, many of which have remained rhetorical, than with ensuring a landscape in which violence and mass arrests are not a part of daily life. It is a gift of inestimable value, one that so far has transcended even the worst of economic times.
For that reason, terrorism — whatever its provenance — will always serve as a pitchfork at the behest of religious or ideological militants eager to overturn what they perceive as an unnatural if not unfair peace, unfair because it unnervingly appeals to too many, speaks the wrong languages, or exists free of religious dicta.
The wages of any long-term peace include political and economic instability as well as the public right to debate what’s working and what isn’t. Another basic price may well be terrorism, war’s petit mal, which peace theatrically attracts to evidence its own fragility. Prevalent peace is not casual but the result of an applied vaccine, and all vaccines contain an antibody-building dose of the malady they’re intended to combat. An incongruously necessary condition of any lasting peace is that those who enjoy it — some of whom have never known war — are intermittently reminded close up of the leprosy against which they guard.
What should matter most to the now 70-year war-free West is that it remains in possession of the vaccine, and that despite some quaking the vial rests safely atop its once-scarred mantelpiece.