A dozen years ago, I accepted an editor's suggestion that I take a Yuletide look at the status of peace on earth. It seemed a good idea at the time. The cold war was winding down, and with it the fear of nuclear holocaust. Perhaps, one hoped, peace on earth might become not simply St. Luke's prayer but a tangible possibility. And so a tradition was born, the annual peace on earth wrap-up.
I don't know how you measure these things, but peace on earth seems further away than ever. One can cite a few places where violence has diminished: Bosnia and Kosovo in the Balkans, Afghanistan (if you keep your fingers crossed), Sumatra and Sri Lanka in Southeast Asia, and a few civil wars in Africa.
But the hardy perennials of conflict remain with us. Nationalist and religious struggles like Chechnya in Russia, Kashmir between India and Pakistan, and Palestinian vs. Israeli in the region where the words "peace on earth" were first uttered.
It has become necessary to redefine peace, as it has become necessary to redefine war. War can be a lethal instrument called a suicide bomber, or - we're not sure yet - it could be germs in an envelope or poison in a reservoir. Peace today is a nervous look at your neighbor, an X-ray of your baggage, a color-coded alert, and a president who says he is at war in defense of a place called homeland.
Peace has become a sometime thing, a search for enemies without return addresses operating from the shadows. Not a whole lot of goodwill toward men, either.
And finally, peace today is waiting for the next war to begin: the war against Iraq that we are promised will make the world safe again. If you don't count a nuclear North Korea.
Sorry about the gloomy note. Maybe there'll be a happier assessment of peace on earth this time next year. If not, I'm going to beg off doing these annual wrap-ups.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at NPR.