Fergal Keane: Maybe there are places where people just can't live together

'There is another unpalatable but compelling proposition: a lot of people enjoy the business of hatred'
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Any chance I am given I'll bore on about the benefits of tolerance and co-existence. Having witnessed the evidence of so much intolerance I'm emotionally unprepared to accept the notion that atavistic hatred renders some communities simply incapable of living with each other. Can it be that I am now in the early years of the new millennium about to turn my back on this assertion?

It has been a bad week on the tolerance front. Riots on the streets of Belfast, Macedonia sliding towards an ethnic civil war, the Middle East bubbling with hatred. And God only knows what fault lines are stirring in Africa. It brought to mind a conversation with a senior BBC executive some years back.

"Fergal, why don't you take the other view, do a series based on the proposition that some people simply can't live together?"

Given the viciousness erupting on the streets of north Belfast this week it is not an altogether impossible position to argue. For many of the 32 years of the Troubles the Catholic and Protestant communities who live side by side in Ardoyne have seemed incapable of living peacefully alongside one another (even with the help of a large "peace" wall) for several months of the year. The venom and hatred which have exploded along the sectarian interface are the end result of months, probably years of seething resentments. Resentment over what precisely? The Troubles? Both sides in Ardoyne have suffered badly. But neither will acknowledge the other's grievance, both demand a monopoly of victimhood. And so on it goes for generation after ruined generation.

Granted, we have had several years where there has been a relative absence of violence, ie the days of shooting and bombing are largely over. But driving my own child to school the other morning I heard Billy Hutchinson on Radio 4 – Billy who was one of the brave loyalists who embraced the peace process – engaged in a bitter exchange over the North Belfast violence. He sounded like an older version of Billy Hutchinson, a man defending tribal rights at a time when men of vision desperately need to rise above the tribe.

There is another unpalatable but compelling proposition: a lot of people enjoy the business of hatred. Hatred is fun. I am talking here about the killers and maimers and the inciters. They love the meaning it injects into lives devoid of meaning, they become intoxicated with the excitement and drama and revel in the power that comes with violence. War and rioting suspend reality, or rather they create a new reality in which the nobodies and outcasts get to drive the flaming chariot. You can argue all you wish about the economic and social problems that perpetuate conflict, but it means nothing if you aren't willing to face some unpleasant fundamentals about human nature. I remember watching the street boys become lords of life and death during the Rwandan genocide. So, strange as it may seem to put it this way, but they were having the time of their lives. And, given the same circumstances and background, every one of us would be capable of the same savagery.

There are scores of other communities around the world where tribal, religious, racial hatred bubbles along under apparently calm surfaces to explode periodically in terrible violence. Let's see how many I can come up with on the spur of the moment. Cyprus (where the presence of UN troops is all that prevents another war), Lebanon (where nothing has been resolved and the bitterness is palpable if smothered by the jangle of jewellery, the scent of Chanel and threat of a Syrian bullet), Bosnia and Kosovo where the West will be in permanent residence as peace enforcers for at least a decade, and now, of course, Macedonia.

I won't offer any more examples here: they are too many and too depressing. In the days of the Cold War the old hatreds were either kept in check with ruthless state power or were manipulated in the interests of the warring powers. Brute force and naked self interest were the foundations on which we built our vision of stability.

These days when we go in as "peacekeepers" there is never a peace to keep, nor is there any likelihood of a peace. We go instead as "war preventers". There is one hell of a difference. Only if you are willing to believe that peace is an absence of war might "prevention" be enough to satisfy you. But peace must be an active state, not an extended moment of quiet lived in the echo of a bloodthirsty roar. The relative peace in places like Bosnia is ensured by the presence of a threat. The message to the warlords and the mini-warlords and the street corner thugs who are the staple ingredients of ethnic war is very simple: behave or we will smite you and our swords are bigger and greater.

So they keep quiet(ish) and the nurture their hatreds and resentments in bars and in late-night kitchens. They don't count time in days but in decades, and they wait. To us the peace enforcers of K-For and S-For, the blue helmets in Cyprus and South Lebanon, seem a permanent fixture on the landscape but to the locals they are a blip; year in and year out the knives are kept clean and sharp, the only thing that never rusts is hatred. The paratroopers will go into Macedonia and the fire will be damped down. They will be replaced by other forces. So that what began as an intervention against Milosevic in Bosnia has expanded to become a vast military protectorate in southern Europe. We may be there for decades.

But has it come to a stage when the idealists, the evangelists for a multicultural society, must accept that there are large parts of the world where the dream is impossible? Do we just build a big wall where there is hatred and leave them to get on with it? The propagandists for millennial realpolitik look fondly to the days when all these matters were settled by force majeure. They would never admit it, but how they must pine for the days when you could solve your ethnic problem by deporting the unwanted population far away and create your own land without enemies.

As it happened, I spent yesterday morning attending a graduation ceremony at the American Community School in Surrey. There were children from 45 different nationalities and countries, Lebanon and Kosovo and South Africa among them. The school's motto is "Unity Through Diversity" and my task was to talk to the students about fighting sectarianism and ethnic division. The answer as the truly wise peacemakers know – and there are many of them working quietly in North Belfast just now and in Macedonia – is incremental change.

International peace-making is as much a victim of the age of the quick fix as any other aspect of modern life. We are too consumed with the photo opportunity on the White House lawn, the illusion of "breakthroughs" and the mythology of swords and ploughshares.

No, I don't for a moment accept the inevitability of eternal hatred between people in Ardoyne or between Albanians and Slavs or Hutus and Tutsis. Where we miss the boat with our interventions is in assuming that military power alone can turn people around; if we put half the cost and effort into education and boosting civil society in war-torn areas it might just vanquish the addictive vice of hatred.

The author is a BBC Special Correspondent