There are some moments in a nation’s history which are frozen forever. They may not be the worst catastrophes that have overwhelmed its people. Nor the most political. But they capture a society’s endless tragedy.
Pompeii comes to mind, its Roman confidence and imperial corruption suddenly overwhelmed by an act of God – so calamitous that for ever afterwards we can see its citizens’ ruin, even their bodies.
It needs an image, something which can focus our attention in a mere second on the folly which lies behind a human calamity. Lebanon has just provided that moment.
It’s not the numbers that matter in that context. Beirut’s suffering on Tuesday does not come close to a casual bloodbath in the country’s civil war – nor the often daily savagery of death in Syria for that matter.
Even if its total fatalities – from 10 to 60 to 78 last night and, quite possibly, into the hundreds today – are counted, it will scarcely register on the Richter scales of war. It was not, it seems, even a consequence of war, not in the direct sense that one of the world’s maddest leaders has suggested.
It’s the iconography that will be remembered – and what we all know this represents. In a land which can scarcely cope with a pandemic, exists under the shadow of conflict, faces starvation and awaits extinction. The twin clouds over Beirut, the one obscenely giving birth to the monstrous other, will never be erased.
The collected images of fire and thunder and apocalypse which the pools of videotape collected in Beirut are one with the mediaeval paintings which tried to capture, through imagination rather than technology, the terrors of pestilence, war, famine and death.
We all know the context, of course, the all-important “background” without which no suffering is complete: a bankrupt country which has been owned for generations by venal old families, crushed by its neighbours, the rich enslaving the poor, its society maintained by the very sectarianism which is destroying it.
Could there be a more symbolic reflection of its sins than the poisonous explosives so promiscuously stored in the very centre of its greatest metropolis and whose prime minister then says that “those responsible” – not him, not the government, be sure of this – will “pay the price”? Still they have not learned, have they?
And sure, we all know how this “story” will play out in the coming hours and days. The incipient Lebanese revolution of the young and the educated must surely now acquire new strength to overthrow Lebanon’s rulers, to hold them to account, to construct a new and non-confessional modern state from the wreckage of the French-created “republic” in which they were mercilessly born.
Well, tragedy on whatever scale is a bad substitute for political change. Emmanuel Macron’s immediate promise amid yesterday’s fires – that France will stand “always” by the crippled nation which it created in imperial hubris a hundred years ago – was one of the more piquant ironies of the last few hours, not least because France’s foreign minister had only days earlier washed his hands of the Lebanese economy.
Way back in the 1990s, when we were planning to create yet another new Middle East in the aftermath of Saddam’s anschluss of Kuwait, US military officers (three in my case in northern Iraq) began to talk to us of “compassion fatigue”. Outrageously, this meant that the west was in danger of walking away from human suffering.
There was just too much of it, you see, all these regional wars, year after year, and there would come a point when we might have to close the doors of generosity. Maybe the point came when the refugees of the region began to march in their hundreds of thousands to Europe, preferring our society to the version offered by Isis.
But let’s return to Lebanon, where western compassion might be very thin on the ground. Historical perspective can always be invoked to shield us from the ripple of explosions and then the towering mushroom cloud and the broken city. Pompeii, they said, cost only two thousand lives. And what about Beirut’s own terrible place in antiquity? In 551 AD, an earthquake shook Berytus, home of the Roman east Mediterranean imperial fleet, and destroyed the entire city, killing, according to the statistics of the time, 30,000 souls.
You can still see the Roman columns where they fell, lying prostrate today, scarcely half a mile from the site of yesterday’s explosion. We might even take some bleak note of the folly of Lebanon’s ancestors. When the tide receded, they walked on to the seabed to loot long-sunken ships – only to be engulfed in the subsequent tsunami.
But can any modern nation – and I use the word “modern” advisedly in Lebanon’s case – restore itself amid so foetid a combination of distress? Though largely spared – till now – the mass deaths of Covid-19, Lebanon confronts a pestilence with pitiful means of succour.
Its banks have stolen the savings of its people, its government proves itself unworthy of its name, let alone its constituents. Kahlil Gibran, the most scathing of its poets, urged us to “pity the nation whose statesman is a fox, whose philosopher is a juggler, and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking”.
Who can the Lebanese mimic now? Who will choose the next foxes? Armies have a tired reputation for stepping into the bespoke shoes of Arab potentates; Lebanon tried this once before in its history, with dubious results.
Today, we are encouraged to regard the monstrous explosion as a national tragedy – and thus worthy of a “day of mourning”, whatever that means – although I noted, among those I called in Lebanon in its aftermath, a few who pointed out that the site of the explosion, and most of the damage, appeared to be in the Christian sector of Beirut. Men and women of all faiths died yesterday. But this will be a special horror for one of the larger minorities in Lebanon.
In the past, after numerous wars, the world – the Americans, the French, Nato, the EU, even Iran – has signed up to put Lebanon together again. The Americans and French were suicide-bombed out of the country. But how can foreigners restore a nation which appears irrecoverable?
There is an opaqueness about the place, a lack of political responsibility which is endemic enough to have become fashionable. Not one major political murder in Lebanon – of presidents, prime minister or ex-prime minister, of members of parliament or political parties – has ever, in its history, been solved.
So here is one of the most educated nations in the region with the most talented and courageous – and generous and kindliest – of peoples, blessed by snows and mountains and Roman ruins and the finest food and the greatest intellect and a history of millennia. And yet it cannot run its currency, supply its electric power, cure its sick or protect its people.
How on earth could 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate be stored in a flimsy building for so many years after being removed from a Moldovan ship on its way to Mozambique in 2014 with no safety measures taken by those who decided to leave this vile material in the very centre of their own capital city?
And all we are left with is the towering inferno and its cancerous white shock wave, and then the second mushroom-shaped cloud (let us mention no other).
This is the substitute for Kahlil Gibran, the post-script of all wars. It contains the vacuum of fear afflicting all who live in the Middle East. And, briefly, most terrifyingly, the world saw it.
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