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It's Christian vs. Christian as the killing goes on in Lebanon

When I was in Beirut on a reporting assignment in 1982, the most commonly heard explanation of the civil war that was going into its eighth year then was that it was all the Israelis' fault. At the time, it seemed like an understandable enough thing for the Lebanese to believe. The Israelis, after all, were smashing Beirut daily with aerial bombing raids and heavy artillery. Thousands of people were getting killed, and thousands more were being left homeless. It was all part of some misbegotten attempt to drive out Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas.

And what were the Palestinians doing in Lebanon to begin with? They were there because the Israelis had driven them from their homes in the 1948 and 1967 Middle East wars.

The case against the Israelis was as open and shut as that, and you could hear it from just about any Lebanese you talked to, whether Christian or Moslem. Oh, there were a few Christians who welcomed the Israelis that year, but they belonged to factions that somehow figured these latest invaders would help them vanquish old enemies or settle old scores.

I think of this now, almost eight years later, wondering if any of those same Lebanese, assuming they're still alive, have come up with a new explanation for their troubles.

Because any way you slice it, it's hard to blame what's going on in Lebanon these days on the Israelis. This time, the Lebanese will have to start looking at themselves instead of some convenient outsider.

The latest of the horrors visited on Lebanon has been a three-week war among the country's Christians. As these mini-wars go, it's been especially ferocious, even by Lebanese standards.

In 19 days of fighting, more than 650 people have been killed and 2,300 or so wounded _ more dead and injured than came out of six months of fighting between the Christians and the Syrian army last year.

You've all seen the pictures or television film of hospitals, schools and apartment buildings being blasted into rubble by artillery and rocket fire. You've seen the faces of the refugees trudging out of the capital, many carrying all their belongings on their back. You've read about the hospital morgues having to burn piles of corpses because there was no electricity to run the refrigeration.

The reason for this latest misery seems to be little more than a blood feud between two stubborn men _ one named Michel Aoun and the other Samir Geagea. Aoun is an army general who claims to be president of the country. Geagea heads a private army known as the Lebanese Forces. But the salient facts here are that both are members of the Maronite sect of Christianity; both want to be in charge, and both are willing to sacrifice a lot of other peoples' lives to come out on top.

As of Monday, the two sides were observing a cease-fire in their mini-war. How long that cease-fire will last is anybody's guess. It could be over by the time you read this.

In any case, what's at stake here is the overall leadership of Lebanon's 600,000 or so Maronites and control of their enclave that runs from East Beirut north up the Mediterranean coast. With that leadership comes the responsibility of confronting the people the Christians see as their real enemies _ Lebanon's Shiite Moslems and their Syrian and Iranian backers.

I won't go into all of Lebanon's various religious and ethnic factions here. Suffice it to say that in a country with a bit more people than metropolitan Miami, Lebanon has 22 religious sects living side-by-side in what seems to be a perpetual state of mutual enmity. Most of these people are well armed and were doing horrible things to each other long before anybody ever dreamed of a modern state of Israel.

Keep in mind that Lebanon's Christians have been battling each other or the country's Moslems on and off for more than 1,200 years. The civil war now under way is probably no bloodier than one that went on for 20 years during the 19th century. In one skirmish, 11,000 Christians were massacred by members of the Druze offshoot of Islam in 1860.

The difference with this Lebanese war, of course, is that you're seeing it in the newspapers or on television almost every day. But this isn't Vietnam and, for the most part, the people dying aren't Americans, so our interest in Lebanon has its limits. Just like our interest in the starving people in Ethiopia has its limits.

It's not surprising. News, by definition, is something that's new, or at least appears to be. No matter how tragic, important or instructive it might be, if it happens too often or too long, it ceases to be news and threatens to become merely boring.

Twenty-seven years ago, a writer named Hannah Arendt wrote a book titled Eichmann in Jerusalem. It was about the Nazi war criminal who had just been put to death by the Israelis. Arendt wrote that the most remarkable thing about Eichmann was that this man who had sent millions to their death was essentially boring. There was really nothing remarkable, nothing demonic, about him at all. With Eichmann in mind, she coined the phrase, "the banality of evil."

Perhaps after watching and reading about its civil war for the past 15 years, we've come to a similar feeling about Lebanon.

Perhaps Lebanon, like starving people in Africa or the Nazi holocaust, has reached the point of sensory overload and we will just tune it out.

And while we remain tuned out, the killing goes on.