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August 6, 2020

I have never been to Beirut. But a city is the sum of its people, past and present. I have met many Lebanese people, so I feel a special grief for their capital city.

How is it that a people so gifted, vital and creative should be made to suffer as the Lebanese have over the past four decades? I have no answer. If you’re looking for reasons, you could do worse than read Kim Ghattas’ book Black Wave. which explores the disintegration of the Middle East since 1979.

I lived a short plane ride from the country in the Eighties. Saudi Arabia at that time was full of emigres, refugees from the civil war, who had the precious ability to speak in tongues. Not the gibberish that issues forth from evangelical Christians, but a magical mixture of French, English and Arabic that you will hear in a single sentence. Is that a metaphor for a trading nation that is able to speak the languages of many cultures? That’s the way I look at it.

I have no doubt that Beirut will recover from its latest body blow. Perhaps the trauma of the explosion will be enough to blow away the sclerotic political compromise that has so bedevilled the country since its birth. It needs a government that can get things done rather than tread fearfully through the minefield of competing factions. Failing that, will the city, as it has before, rise again through the efforts of its merchants, entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens?

If decent governance and regenerated infrastructure are silver linings that might be realised after the tragedy, there’s another potential good that might come out of it, even if it’s not directly connected to the latest disaster.

The many videos of the blast show an extraordinary explosion. Not surprising when you consider that 2,500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate blew up. A mere two tonnes of the stuff, in the hands of a terrorist group, are enough to destroy a large building. Current estimates are that the power of the blast was one fifth of the size of the Hiroshima bomb.

Could it be too much to hope that those who witnessed it, including governments all around the world, will be reminded of the destruction and human suffering that would be caused by a nuclear bomb, and make greater efforts to put new agreements in place that limit the risk of their use in war?

Be that as it may, this was a “where were you when…” moment, not just for the people of Lebanon, but for the rest of us who are paying attention from the safety of our undamaged homes. Until something else comes up to divert our gaze.

It’s almost inconceivable that such a grotesque man-made catastrophe should be a deliberate act rather than the result of systemic negligence. Naturally, though, the Lebanese will be looking for someone to blame. Conspiracy theories have already started drifting on the electronic breeze.

In one sense it doesn’t matter how it happened. Somewhere in the world there’s a dam that will break, a bridge that will collapse, a virus that will escape confinement, a fire that will destroy a tower block. Or perhaps another Chernobyl. What we sow we shall reap. Or, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, shit happens.

We are, after all, human. We are unique in being able to create great works of art and literature. We can fashion the physical elements into things never created by nature. We’re also capable of wreaking havoc and destruction like no other species.

The world is safer for humans that it was a hundred years ago, at least in some respects. Where international standards prevail, usually less accidents take place. Less planes fall out of the skies thanks to the process of learning though mistakes. Despite or perhaps because of Chernobyl, nuclear safety appears to have improved.

But over the past century, the potential for hugely destructive accidents has increased. Back then, it might have been a Titanic, a fire or a building collapse. Now it’s an airliner capable of carrying six hundred people, a city, or a whole area rendered unfit for habitation.

Lebanon, already thrice cursed by economic meltdown, coronavirus and rotten politics, will survive this latest disaster. If it is to survive and thrive, most of the solutions will have to come from its own people, if they are allowed to find them. Its gifts are the climate, the beauty of the country and the talents of its people. Its misfortune is its strategic location within the region, its proximity to Syria and Israel and the competing influences of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Those of us who don’t govern countries, run banks or lead development agencies can do little to help other than to lend our vocal support to our fellow-humans in their suffering, donate to relief agencies and keep them in our thoughts.

The last is important. How many of us still think of the millions of displaced Syrians, of Palestinians stewing in Gaza and Rohingya eking out desperate lives in Bangladeshi camps?

After all, if we think we’re immune to human negligence and iniquity, we don’t have to look far back in our own history to see their effects on us.

And today is the seventy-fifth anniversary of Hiroshima.

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