The important question is how the century is ending. Again, the pessimists and the optimists are sharply divided. For some, it ends with increasingly bloody wars offering no hope of escape from a hundred years of suffering. Civilians, and above all children, are dying in Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Burma, Burundi, Chechnya, Colombia and Congo - and those are only the first three letters of the alphabet.
For others, however, the last 11 years of the century since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 have ushered in a new era of hope. With the end of the Cold War, there is now the real prospect that conflicts across the world may be resolved under the framework of international law, with the multinational co-operation in Kosovo offering a model for the enforcement of justice, and an International Criminal Court to try and to deter crimes against humanity.
As a young newspaper, The Independent of course falls more into the optimistic category than into the pessimistic. It is undeniable that there are many appalling wars still being fought, and it is true that some of them, such as that in Chechnya and the various conflicts in former Yugoslavia, were suppressed during the superpower balance of terror. But it is equally the case that what all the current conflicts have in common is that they are localised quarrels between ethnic groups, with only that in Kashmir having the capacity to destabilise a region and provoke a nuclear conflagration.
It is in a spirit of optimism, therefore, that we ask our readers to give generously to our Christmas appeal on behalf of the charity War Child. Pessimism is, in the end, the enemy of the children who are suffering in war zones around the world; if it is all hopeless and getting worse, what point is there in trivial acts of individual generosity, a drop of good in an ocean of wickedness? But if, on the other hand, there is hope that even some of the most intractable problems of the world might be eased, then well-targeted humanitarian aid can help to make the world a better place.
Readers of The Independent have responded with unstinting generosity in the last year to our appeals to help those made homeless by Hurricane Mitch in Central America and the earthquake in Turkey. In both cases, it was worth doing so because the prospect was of aid going to the right place and making a real and lasting difference to the lives of people there.
We believe that the same is true of War Child, a new charity set up only six years ago in response to the immediate needs of children in Bosnia. It is small and therefore flexible, and still retains the cutting edge of its freshness and energy. Without trying to do everything, it is involved in Bosnia, Kosovo, Pakistan and East Timor, and hopes to get to work in Chechnya. In all these places, as Natasha Walter writes today, it is the children who are the most helpless victims, and whose brutalisation causes the most lasting damage.
There is no need, as we approach the end of what Stephen Jay Gould called the "precisely arbitrary countdown" to the year 2000, for millennial visions, either of humanity descending into inevitable misery or of a promised land flowing with milk, honey and ethical foreign policies. But there is no harm, either, in pausing to take stock of an imperfect world, trying to identify those forces for good, and giving them a little push.