Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Within hours after I posted the entry about the current mess in Iraq and in Chechnya, and the past mess in Lebanon, I ran into this 20-year-old story about a 1984 attack on the U.S. embassy in Beirut (The Guardian, "Suicide Bombers Kill 23 in Attack on Embassy," by David Hirst, Sept. 21, 1984).

A strange coincidence, but I'm a lot more amazed at how familiar this 20-year-old account is:

A suicide car-bomber struck at the US embassy in Beirut yesterday for the second time in 18 months, killing at least 23 people, including two US diplomats, and wounding scores of others. The attack, claimed by the Islamic Jihad organisation as part of a campaign to drive every American from Lebanese soil, wrecked the annexe to the embassy, which recently opened in a quiet suburb of Christian East Beirut. [...]

One report said that the guards killed the driver but, if so, he nonetheless managed to cover the 30 yards or so between the barrier and the building [...]

The vehicle - a station wagon with Dutch diplomatic plates - exploded a yard or so from it, gouging a crater two yards deep and six wide. Although the building did not collapse - as happened last time - its ground floor was devastated and its upper floors badly damaged. Cars in the embassy compound were incinerated, wreckage and human remains scattered 200 yards, and windows were broken up to a kilometre away.

Most of the dead and wounded were Lebanese. [...]

In a telephone message to Agence France Presse a caller identifying himself as a spokesman for the Islamic Jihad said: 'In the name of God Almighty, the Islamic Jihad organisation announces that it is responsible for blowing up a car packed with explosives which was driven by one of our suicide commandos into a housing compound for the employees of the US embassy in Beirut .

'This operation comes to prove that we will carry out our promise not to allow a single American to remain on Lebanese soil. When we say Lebanese soil we mean every inch of Lebanese territory.

'We also warn our Lebanese brothers and citizens to stay away from US installations and gathering points, especially the embassy. We are the strongest.'

The Islamic Jihad, none of whose members has ever made a public appearance, is generally assumed to be Shi'ite fundamentalist sect, with Iranian and possible Syrian connections.

It has carried out several suicide missions. It claimed responsibility for killing 63 people, 17 of them Americans, in the explosion which destroyed the US embassy in its original, seafront location in West Beirut in April last year, and for the slaughter of 242 US Marines in their quarters next to Beirut airport in November. [...]

The impression that I was reading something written today - some kind of a template, perhaps, in which one only needs to substitute the names and the figures - didn't leave me until the very last paragraph: it was then that I realized I still hadn't stumbled on the mention of al-Qaeda or the ubiquitous shorthand for all that's evil, "international terrorism." Instead, there was this:

Yesterday's exploit illustrates again that there is no foolproof precaution against the ultimate self-sacrifice of the car-bomb.

I decided to go back to Thomas Friedman's book and see if there was anything on David Hirst in it, the journalist who wrote this 20-year-old story. I was happy to find a rather amusing episode featuring him - I was happy because I feared he might have been killed at some point in his career, covering the war in Lebanon. I later checked Hirst's name on the web and found he was still out there, commenting extensively on the current situation in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.

Honestly, I don't have enough zeal in me to study his current work at all - after reading this 20-year-old Beirut piece, all this fighting, in the Middle East or elsewhere, seems neverending, unstoppable, pointless and, to use a pun, done to death. There probably exist the good guys and the bad guys - only twenty years later the difference between them blurs almost completely, and the only thing that continues to shock is how many lives have been wasted in vain.

So here's the amusing episode from Thomas Friedman's "From Beirut to Jerusalem":

Unfortunately, when reporters were left to probe to the limits of their own bravery, it meant inevitably that some went too far. During Israel's 1978 incursion into south Lebanon, up to the Litani River, David Hirst of The Manchester Guardian, Ned Temko of The Christian Science Monitor, and Doug Roberts of the Voice of America rode down from Beirut to observe the fighting. They were told by Palestinian guerrillas in Sidon that the PLO had just driven the Israeli army out of the nearby village of Hadatha. The three reporters decided to check out the story and found that actually the Israeli army had driven the Palestinians out of Hadatha and then vacated it. When Israeli gunners saw the three journalists drive in, they thought they were returning guerrillas and fired rounds at them on and off for eight hours. The next day the three "surrendered" to a unit of Israeli soldiers sitting on a nearby hilltop and were taken back to Israel for their own safety. As soon as they crossed the border, an Israel Radio reporter walked up to David Hirst and asked him how it felt to be rescued by the Israeli army.

"After they stopped shooting at us," answered David, "it was fine."

1 comment:

  1. I've been following your Backlog with interest as I knew nothing about the conflict in Chechnya.

    I was interested in your observation today about the line blurring between good guys and bad guys and also passage of time. I thought about how the former Soviet Union was in Afganistan and now the US is.

    Recently I watched a documentary called Death in Gaza on HBO. The reporters followed Israeli efforts to build a barrior in Gaza resulting in Palastinian homes being Buldozed down. It also followed Palastinian resistance including the use of very young boys to become martyrs. One of the film makers was killed during filming. I found it so troubling that I recorded it for a friend.

    There is a quality assurance tool called Why 5 Analysis. It is supposed to get at the root cause of a problem. You ask the question why, five times. Why did this happen. Then why did that happen, and so on five times. I never get past three times.

    This isn't exactly why 5, but I decided to watch the video again, and I ended up watching it three times. The fist time I felt that the Israelis were clearly in the wrong. The second time I was sort of unsure. The third time I was sort of thinking that the Palastinians were in the wrong.

    But clearly the innocent children and innocent people were the victims. Probably I need to watch the video two more times.