Paris, Beirut and Douma: A tale of three bombings

Much has been made and said and think-pieced on the fact that the terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 132 people and left over 350 injured received significantly more coverage in the Western press than the double suicide bombings days earlier in Beirut that killed 43 people and wounded 400 others.

One compelling answer has been: expectations. In Western Europe, it comes as a shock when “medieval” militants strap bombs to themselves and engage in wanton murder. When it happens over there, in the Orient, where the population is generally less pasty, it comes as little surprise. Well, that’s what they do, isn’t it? The Iraq phenomenon, in other words, where bombs going off in Baghdad is met with a shrug and a wire article on page 9.

That is not what they do in Lebanon, of course: Since the end of the civil war in 1990, it’s typically been what Israel has done there — blowing up Lebanese people — but not the Lebanese themselves or any outside non-state terrorists. The attacks that killed more than three dozen people were then a huge, devastating shock to people not used to such violence in their own neighborhoods.

Another aspect of the attacks that has been much commented upon has been the fact that when the media did cover the massacre in Beirut, it described the location of the bombings as a “stronghold” of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia. This description, critics, many Lebanese among them, created the perception that perhaps the target was something other than civilians — that the killed were not just, by and large, politically support of Hezbollah, but militants themselves who took up arms for the group.

Of course, the defensive editor might note, a “stronghold” can also be used to describe an area that staunchly supports a certain political party — when it comes to presidential politics, California is a Democratic stronghold, for instance, and that isn’t taken to mean that Californians are willing to take up arms for the Democratic Party (Republicans are another matter).

But that doesn’t quite cut it: Lebanon, being a part of the Middle East, is associated with violence, like the war being waged next door in Syria that has left more than a quarter-million people dead. Intent may matter in a courtroom, but when we use words what should be hyper-aware of is the effect and, intended or not, a stronghold in the Middle East will strike some as a legitimate military target.

About Syria, though, where millions have people have fled from routine violence to the relative safety of next-door Lebanon: Just two weeks ago there was a bombing there that, according to Doctors with Borders — a trusted source among the left when it comes to the U.S. bombing of its hospital in Afghanistan — at least 70 people were killed and another 550 injured in airstrikes and shelling on a marketplace in Douma.

“This was an extremely violent bombing,” said the director of a nearby hospital run by the group. “The wounds were worse than anything we’ve seen before, and there were large numbers of dead. We had to do many amputations.”

A total of 250 people required surgery to treat their wounds, the group said.

On a commentary posted by the watchdog group, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Jim Naureckas takes Vox’s Max Fisher to task for arguing that the media did a fair enough job trying to cover the attacks in Paris and Beirut. Naureckas notes that The New York Times covered Beirut on page 6 but ran three front-page stories on Paris the day after the attacks there — and six in total that day, and 15 more the the day after.

Beirut itself only seemed to get six dedicated stories, by my count, including wire articles that the Times republished, though the attacks there were mentioned in articles about Paris.

As for Douma? Neither the Times nor FAIR seem very interested in what happened there, despite a casualty count higher than either Beirut or Paris. The Times ran one first-day story to which the first four paragraphs were devoted to Douma and the final three about violence in other parts of Syria. It also ran an article from the AP, now unavailable on its website, about the bombings of hospitals in both Syria and Yemen. And that was it.

A search of “Douma” on FAIR’s website brings up no results.

What gives? The aforementioned Iraq phenomenon: We’re used to death in Syria, it’s what people do there, at least since the 2011 uprising was crushed in a heil of bullets and barrel bombs. For the media-skeptical left, the violence in places in like Douma is also inconvenient. The perpetrator of the October 31 attack was the Russian-armed government of Bashar al-Assad, which according to the United Nations “remains responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties.”

With much of the left stuck on a narrative that’s become increasingly untenable since Barack Obama’s “red line” on the use of chemical weapons was crossed in 2013 and the U.S. responded by bombing every group in Syria except those allied to the Syrian government, noting these attacks would be considered as aiding the imperialists’ cause — the one’s in Washington who perceive the collapse of the Assad regime as “the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests,” not the one’s in Russia who don’t bother with the rhetoric critical of a hereditary dictator.

Syrian lives matter, but only if their deaths serve the story many on the anti-imperialist left refuse to abandon, despite the 14-month U.S.-led air campaign in Syria targeting not Damascus, but places like the Islamic State “stronghold” of Raqqa. And no one objects to that language because, rather than glassy-eyed nuance, it’s been more convenient to cast Syrians not aligned with the Syrian government as terrorists, plus Russia and that government occasionally bomb Raqqa too, for sovereignty.

It is of course true, and people are right to point out, that the corporate press in the United States and Western Europe privilege certain victims over others, justifying deaths here and ignoring there — the sad thing is, to those of us who expected better, the bleeding-heart left does too.


About Charles Davis

A writer and producer with whose work has aired on television and radio and been published by outlets such as Al Jazeera, The Intercept, The Nation and The New Republic.
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