Post-war barbarism in Lebanon

What had not been ravaged by war, was eaten up by greedy developers and impetuous consumers.
by Samir Khalaf

22 February 2019 | 15:20

Source: by Annahar

  • by Samir Khalaf
  • Source: Annahar
  • Last update: 22 February 2019 | 15:20

This photo shows a general view of the Lebanese capital Beirut. (AFP Photo)

Post-war interludes, particularly those marked by diffuse and protracted civil strife, anarchy and disorder, normally generate moods of restraint. People are more inclined to curb their conventional impulses and become more self-controlled in the interest of reappraising and redirecting their future options. Rather than freeing them from their prewar excesses, the war in Lebanon paradoxically induced the opposite reactions. It unleashed appetites and inflamed people with insatiable desires for acquisitiveness, lawlessness and unearned privileges.

Some of these excesses were so egregious that they assumed at times all the barbarous symptoms of the not-so-moral substitutes of war. They generated circumstances under which aggressive emotions could liberate themselves from conventional and civilized constraints.  Indeed, most of the conventional restraints which normally moderate people’s rapacious and impulsive behavior were neutralized. Boisterous and disorderly behavior were routinized.  Some, such as ravaging the country’s natural habitat, violation of zoning and building ordinances, embezzlement, fraud, corruption deficient civic and public consciousness – most visible in the preponderance of low crimes and misdemeanors – are all deeply embedded in the cultural ethos of laissez-faire, excessive economic liberalism and political clientelism.

For example, mercantilism and its concomitant bourgeois values were always given a free reign in Lebanon. The outcomes of such excessive commercialization were already painfully obvious in the prewar years. With staggering increases in land values, commercial traffic in real estate (particularly during the 1960s when the magnitude of urbanization and construction industry were at its peak) became one of the most lucrative sources of private wealth.  Hence, that ruthless plundering of the country’s scenic habitat and the dehumanization of its living space became so starkly visible.

With the absence of government authority, such excesses became more rampant. What had not been ravaged by war, was eaten up by greedy developers and impetuous consumers.  Hardly anything was spared. The once pristine coastline was littered with tawdry tourist attractions, kitsch reports and private marinas as much as by the proliferation of slums and other unlawful makeshifts shoddy tenements. The same ravenous defoliation blighted the already shrinking greenbelts, public parks and terraced orchards. Even sidewalks and private backyards were stripped and defiled. As a result, Beirut started to suffer. Perhaps, from one of the lowest rates of open space per capita in the world. The entire metropolitan area of the city claims no more than 600,000 square meters of open space. A United Nation’s report stipulates that each person requires an estimate of 40 square meters to qualify as a healthy environment. Beirut’s coefficient is as low as 0.8 per person.

Rampant commercialism, greed, and enfeebled state authority could not, on their own, have produced as much damage. These now are being exacerbated by the pathos of a ravenous postwar mentality. Victims racked for so long by the atrocities of human suffering become insensitive to these seemingly benign and inconsequential concerns or transgressions.  Obsessed with survival and harassed by all the futilities of an ugly and unfinished war, it is understandable how the moral and aesthetic restraints which normally control public behavior become dispensable virtues. They all seem much too remote when pitted against the postwar profligate mood overwhelming large portions of society. Victims of collective suffering normally have other rudimentary things on their mind. They rage with bitterness and long to make up for lost time and opportunity. The environment becomes an accessible surrogate target on which to vent their wrath. In a culture infused with a residue of unappeased hostility and mercantilism, violating the habitat is also very lucrative. Both greed and hostility find and expedient proxy victim. The abandon with which ordinary citizens litter and defile the environment and the total disregard they evince for safeguarding its ecological well-being was much too alarming. This was further exacerbated by a notoriously high incidence of excessive quarrying, deforestation, traffic congestion, reckless driving, air and noise pollution and hazardous motorways which violate minimum safety requirements, let alone the conventional etiquettes and proprieties of public driving.

The sharp increase in traffic violations and fatal car accidents in recent years attests to this.  Both the incidence of traffic violations and the impounding of seizing of cars for legal custody – because of forged papers or license plates, lack of inspection or proper registration – have been persistently increasing. From 21, 692 seized cars and 192,487 violations in 1993, the number has almost doubled by 1999. The incidence almost tripled by 2018.

Traffic accidents have also witnessed a corresponding increase. They were naturally low during the war years. For example, records of the Information Division of the Internal Security registered not more than six injuries and twenty deaths induced by collisions and car accidents in 1987. The figures increased intangibly to 21 and 56 in 1988.  From 1993 and on, however, and with the cessation of hostilities, the number of such casualties increased sharply and persistently. From 274 deaths and 2042 injuries in 1993, the incidence increased correspondingly to331 and 4210 in 1999. By 2018 the number of collisions increased to 3320. Likewise, injuries increased to 4383 and fatalities became 362.

Perhaps access to new highways and the recent introduction of radar and new technologies for monitoring roadways may, in part, account for this increase. Clearly though not all, particularly since the increase in violations and other manifestations of reckless driving were visible before such facilities became readily available.

This almost innate cultural disposition to violate or depart from normative expectations is apparent in the preponderance of ordinary infractions, misdemeanors and other breaches of public ordinance. These, too, have been persistently increasing: from about 10,000 in 1993, 14,000 in 1996 and 18,000 in 1999. Under the rubric of “ordinary violations,” the Internal Security normally include such offenses as the infringement of protective regulations safeguarding forests, public gardens, sand dunes, archaeological and touristic sites, building and zoning ordinances. Also, the transgressions of the rules governing hunting, fishing, quarrying, municipal and public health requirements are included. These like all other contraventions of public utilities, particularly water, electricity and telephones become readily abused proxy victims of deflected rage and hostility.

Recently the press is beginning to devote some attention to such violations, particularly flagrant instances of environmental abuse, corruption and misuse of public funds in high office. Much of the other “ordinary” violations, however, remain undetected. If caught, the fines are so meagre that violators are usually more than willing to defray the required penalties.

In such a free-for-all context, any concern for the aesthetic human or cultural dimensions of living space is bound to be dismissed as superfluous or guileless. As a result, it was of little concern whether our public spaces are ugly, whether they debase their inhabitants, whether they are aesthetically, spiritually or physically tolerable, or whether they provide people with opportunities for authentic individuality, privacy and edifying human encounters. What counts was that the unconditional access to land must satisfy two overriding claims: the insatiable appetite for profit among the bourgeoisie and the vengeful feeling of entitlements to unearned privileges among the disenfranchised.

By the time authorities step in to restrain or recover such violations, as was to happen repeatedly in the pre-war years, the efforts were always too little, too late. By then, officials could only confirm the infringements and incorporate them into the legitimate zoning ordinances.

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Dr. Samir Khalaf is a retired professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut and has been a director of the Centre for Behavioural Research at the university since 1994. He received his PhD in Sociology in 1964 from Princeton University.

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