Journalists get a bad reputation for their taxi driver stories.
The pretence that you know a place by talking for two minutes to the stranger behind the wheel wore thin long ago. Sometimes, nevertheless, you get odd bits of authentic wisdom.
So it was that in Belfast once in the sleeting rain I asked the ageing man who took my fare what he made of the peace process notion. "Well," he said finally, "we've tried every other (bad word) thing."
Allow the driver marks for brevity. The north of the island had indeed attempted every other imaginable variant of politics, protest, argument and war. He did not misrepresent anyone, either. Everyone was saying the same. Peace was what came along when all concerned were sick and tired of and disgusted with the alternatives.
Those are not words you will find on a Nobel citation. They do not describe that cadre of international diplomatists who have "peace-making" on the CV. But sometimes the mere absence of organised murder is the most noble and desired thing imaginable for common folk. When we mock "peace", the facts of life get forgotten.
It would be easy, then, to make cheap jokes about this year's award from the Nobel people. They gave their award to Barack Obama, after all, just before he unleashed his filthy drones. Their prior record, embracing Kissinger et al, was none too impressive. Now they hand an honour to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons before any shred of useful work has been done in Syria.
The weapons hardly matter. Assad persists with his campaign of extirpation regardless. His opponents are not picky, either, in their methods. Across the world, some thug or other is threatening a child, a family, a community at each hour of the day or night. The Norwegian Nobel committee's decision already looks like little more than another pious gesture, as though talking about peace is a kind of incantation.
Experience, in Ireland or elsewhere, says that you get the semblance of peace only when the local representatives of the species have had enough for a while. You get peace when the big powers find other games to play. You get peace when big money can see no profit in war. Experience says that everything else is just talk.
That's mostly true, and most of it is self-evidently true. It is almost tempting fate, in fact, to write a big speech for the chemical prohibition group before Assad has had his chance to play his games with places and dates. Does the Nobel confer persuasive moral authority? Perhaps so, but it has never made much of a difference in the past. Does the award make peace happen? That would be a first.
Does the award convey the common opinion of humanity, then? No doubt. You hear few declaring that war and oppression are terrific ideas, after all. Yet still, despite everything, there might be something in the idea of declarative force. Perhaps the simple act of asserting that peace really isn't such a bad idea is our last restraint in the face of barbarism. A nice thought, sometimes, but it doesn't truly help.
How do you make peace? The challenge is a version of proving the negative. You make peace if you do not make war, if you hinder power, if you refuse to accept the things done in your name. Make a little peace and you do not make people happy, or prosperous, or safe. You don't feed anyone. You just acknowledge, as that Belfast driver acknowledged, why nothing else is still plausible.
Without knocking the Nobel people, it is a strange world in which we give important awards in the name of peace. Another species might say that it's like giving a prize for breathing. In honouring the idea of peace, we simply prove that we have elsewhere made a very ugly world for ourselves. The gesture makes us small.
The 500 staff of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons represent 189 countries. That sounds like a decent majority. Such numbers, such a consensus, could cause you to wonder why "peace" would involve any sort of argument. They could equally make you wonder why we give big prizes to mark the absence of something so simple and so obvious.
We are not a pleasant species. There's another piece of old news. What the Nobel reminds us annually, however, is of how easily we take the fact for granted, of how, in this 21st of the Christian centuries, we are as inept as ever in the simple business of not killing one another.
Who's against peace? Not a single one of the big talking heads. Why is there a problem, then? Perhaps because the big talkers lie, as ever, and perhaps because the rest of us are hypocrites. Peace-loving Britain, for one, will renew Trident in due course. We would never - but of course - use those missiles against anyone. But we would rather spend billions that could be better spent on anything else than give up our toy.
Peace is a strange concept. For this species, it has no substantial connotation. It means, roughly, "things we would not otherwise do". It means the dream of cessation, of being cured finally of the habits we have had since the caves. The elementary fact is the one known to all. We could have peace across the planet tomorrow. Will that happen? Who's giving odds?
The Nobel is an expensive and elaborate means to cause us to think twice. In that regard, it doesn't work. The best it summons, in this culture, is a cheap John Lennon joke. We don't even get as far as to remember how costly our constant state of not-peace has become just in terms of mass impoverishment and daily suffering. We do not think, not for an instant, what we could be instead.
But this, too, is pious. Most of us honour warfare and those who make war. War's a thrill. We think, still, that there is glory in doing in the other lot with anything we have to hand. And we think that "peace" involves a kind of hippy comedy. In summary, we are not very bright.
The nice Norwegians who hand out Alfred Nobel's prize for peace might want to consider taking a couple of years off, for the sake of a gesture. Just as a crude idea, roughly, "No-one gets anything until the human race can get through an entire 12 months without committing a hideous act". But that doesn't even work as a joke. The very idea is fantastical. And we see nothing, nothing at all, bizarre about that fact.
So the hope remains that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will wave the big prize under Assad's nose and cause him to think twice about poisoning children again. For the human race, that's close to the peak of a rational ambition. It's not much. But then, neither are we.
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