Sam Menassa

In Lebanon, ‘Love of Life’ Reinforces a Culture of Death

The third anniversary of the Beirut port blast was uneventful and failed to rise to the occasion. This was evident in both the turnout and the speeches and testimonies that were delivered. Most of them were mundane and monotonous, rehashing the same talking points, providing an assessment of the crisis, and denouncing the regime. This is not to belittle the relentless efforts that the victims’ families have exerted over the past three years, through the media, their persistent demands for justice, and their unyielding drive to uncover the truth and prosecute those responsible.

Another striking negative aspect of the occasion was that it reflected waning public enthusiasm for doing their duty to the victims’ families, especially since the investigation has been stalled for three years now. This is largely reflective of the way in which the Lebanese have typically responded to the series of crimes the country has witnessed over the years, all of which remain unsolved.

The reactions to the series of assassinations that rocked the country over the past few decades, from the killing of Marouf Saad in Sidon just a month before the civil war broke, to Lokman Slim’s assassination last year, are all infuriating. Indeed, the responses to these crimes seem to suggest that the citizens of Lebanon have become accustomed to disregarding accountability, allowing the perpetrator to remain free, and settling for mere complaints, condemnation, and insults hurled at officials.

It’s said that wars, especially civil wars, hinder accountability for assassinations and facilitate impunity. This argument could explain the impunity for crimes committed during the civil war, including the assassinations of a President, Prime Minister, a Grand Mufti, and several other religious and political figures. But what about the crimes committed after the war ended, especially those committed since 2005? These include the earthshaking assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and those with him on his convoy, and the subsequent series of killings that culminated in the port blast, the largest non-nuclear explosion in the world that hit a third of the capital. The answer is simple: the Lebanese have been domesticated and are now conditioned to accept ignorance of who was responsible.

We can add to what our colleague Hazem Saghieh wrote on these pages about the binary choice between “either justice or resistance,” that the Lebanese have come to prefer the illusion of stability over justice and accountability. This inclination is justified by resilience, adaptability at times, and a love for life that contrast with a culture of death and personal and sectarian interests at others. The endurance of this approach or mindset might help explain the persistence of the war, be it active or latent, for over four decades, allowing all kinds of killers and criminals to go on committing their crimes time and again.

The anniversary of the port explosion opens both old and new wounds. It reflects the fact that the majority of Lebanon’s citizens have given up on accountability in favor of fleeing stability and short-term interests. This mindset was glaringly obvious over the summer, as the tourism sector was visibly reinvigorated as thousands of expatriates and Lebanese working overseas flocked to parties and concerts. While these events are meant to showcase the joys of life, they come off as provocative and tone-deaf.

The media also did its part to push in this direction. To observers both near and far, the impression it conveyed was that the country was thriving. The entire country seemed to be reduced to the coastal city of Batroun, the mountainous Faqra, and a few streets in the capital. A woman, perhaps a political activist, summed up this state of affairs very nicely as she spoke to a television broadcaster about the reconstruction of some areas in the capital after the blast. She stated that revitalizing these neighborhoods after their restoration, which allowed for the reopening of their cafes, restaurants, and hotel, allows Lebanese youths to remain in their homeland and creates a bulwark against migration.

No sane person could deny the importance of these spaces, especially in a country like Lebanon, where both domestic and international tourism plays a role in the economy. They also help portray an image of a Lebanon that is open to the world and a global tourist hub. Nonetheless, this sentiment also reflects a detachment from the grim reality of the country’s bankruptcy, the evisceration of citizens’ bank depositors, and the lack of infrastructure, electricity, and water, as well as the fealty of Lebanon’s industrial and agricultural sectors, and the decline in education, healthcare, and other services, which at the very least, are now lagging behind those of our Arab neighbors. This does not even touch upon the deterioration of the political situation, the hegemony of militias, foreign influence over decision-making, constitutional and public institutions collapsing one after another, the country’s rampant corruption, and the systematic obstruction of justice.

Our objective is not to promote the culture of Hezbollah, which is relentlessly pushing for a major shift in Lebanon; indeed, Mohammed Raad, the head of the party’s parliamentary bloc, once openly called for changing the image of Lebanon from that of a country of hotels and nightclubs to a “Lebanon of resistance.” However, it’s not tenable or prudent to sweep the dirt under the rug either. We cannot ignore the crisis, especially its political and security implications. We cannot keep papering over it with seasonal and temporary festivities and nightlife, which could easily collapse at the slightest local or regional security or political incident.

The infighting in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp and its aftermath, which included Gulf countries calling on their citizens to leave Lebanon and prohibiting them from traveling to it, and the events that followed the accident of a Hezbollah-owned truck loaded with weapons and ammunition in the town of Kahaleh near Beirut, which cost the lives of two citizens, are two cases in point.

The Gulf stance could be interpreted in many ways. However, it is probably a political message to all Lebanese political factions. “Enough.” The Gulf will only return to Lebanon if it witnesses genuine political changes.

The Lebanese tragedy that has been ongoing since the 70s goes beyond the country’s rulers and officials to encompass individuals and communities. Despite their gravity, the events that we have witnessed have not prompted the Lebanese to change the equation, as the public has not pressured the political factions and those in power to do so.

The problem now is that the Lebanese have become accustomed to impunity because of their prioritization of personal interests, swift gains, selfishness, individualism, sectarianism, and regionalism. The prevailing atmosphere is one of fragmentation, schisms, denial, and lies. One of its manifestations, which has become repugnant, is the claim that Lebanese are clinging to their love of life, when in reality, they are actually promoting a culture of death.