The centuries-old ethnic strife roiling in the Balkans was being joyously transformed by the miraculous power of democracy. The gunpoint tension on the Korean peninsula was being dissipated by the democratic reformer Kim Dae Jung in the south, who last week won the Nobel Peace Prize, and his unlikely partner in the north, Kim Jong Il. And the unholy struggle in the Middle East looked, for a few moments at least, as if it was being narrowed mainly to semantic nuances about control and sovereignty over a mere 14-hectare mount of land in Jerusalem.
Then came the explosions and mutilated bodies.
In the span of a few hours last Thursday, Middle East gunfighting and its bastard cousin terrorism burst back into our lives with split-screen bulletins and double-deck headlines that hammered home again both the volatility of that region and the vulnerability of the entire world. It was a reminder that the horror facing the 21st century will be the one left unresolved in the 20th: after the end of the great confrontations between shifting alliances of nation-states, we are still faced with the bloody terrors wrought by ethnic, religious and tribal hatreds.
The Middle East violence began with skirmishes after Israeli superhawk Ariel Sharon visited the disputed holy site in old Jerusalem, escalated with the gut-wrenching televised death of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy shot as his father tried to shelter him, and then erupted when seething Palestinians (whom Yasser Arafat seemed at first unwilling and then unable to control) murdered and mutilated two Israeli soldiers. Prime Minister Ehud Barak ordered a military retaliation, which halted his lonely reach, or perhaps overreach, for a comprehensive peace.
The same afternoon that Israel's helicopters were shelling near Arafat's compound, suicidal terrorists on a small boat crept up to an American destroyer refueling in Yemen, stood at attention and set off an explosion that killed 17 crewmen. Later came a less effective attack on the British embassy in Yemen, along with fears that a new terrorist jihad could threaten innocents around the world.
The waves reached America's financial markets, already unnerved by signs of weakness in the New Economy. Consumers and businesses coping with higher energy prices faced a winter of uncertainty about oil.
There were ripples as well for America's tight presidential race. Suddenly the stakes were higher than mangled syllables and exaggerated anecdotes. With the reminder that the world was indeed still a very dangerous place, did George Bush's passing performance on foreign policy in last week's debate now seem adequate enough? Does his reassuring team of Dick Cheney and Colin Powell trump Al Gore's expertise? How do people feel about Gore's rather expansive vision of national interests and the value of nation building now that the threats suddenly seem more vivid?
In the meantime, a pride of diplomats, crossing paths and wires in a dark version of a play with no plot, suspended their disjointed efforts for a grand Middle East settlement and settled, instead, for a hastily arranged meeting to stanch the bloodshed. Buried in the rubble was not just the peace process, it was also our dreamy view of what the world was becoming. Confronted again with pictures of flag-draped coffins and mutilated bodies, with the sounds of random gunfire and angry chants, the world had to readjust to the fact that not every problem is solvable, that the global tide of peace is not inexorable, and that progress does not inevitably make civilizations more civilized.
More of TIME's special report:
In the blink of an eye, the Holy Land descends from near peace to brutal madness. Now the struggle to rekindle hope
"We Are A Tough and Small People"
TIME talks with Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak
The Many Minds of Arafat
Faced with chaos all around, the Palestinian leader looks for a solution — and an enduring legacy
Watch Out for an October Surprise
Violence in the Middle East could damage George W. Bush's electoral chances