Attacks in Lebanon: The New York Times gets it right -- the targets were Christians

The recent multiple suicide attacks on a Christian town in Lebanon -- including a crowd preparing for a funeral -- have gotten well-deserved attention from mainstream media like the New York Times and the Associated Press. But the Times' eye is sharper than AP's.

On a single day, eight men fired shots and blew themselves up in Al Qaa for no apparent reason than the faith of most of the residents. The Times' report on the attack aptly conveys the dismay and desperation of the townspeople.

The story also spells out two dilemmas -- questions that also plague people in Europe, Turkey and the United States:

In many ways, the questions in Al Qaa echo those that followed attacks in Orlando, Fla.; Paris; and Istanbul: How can a community protect itself from a lone assailant or a small team of attackers with guns or bombs? And local leaders are struggling with the same issue facing Europe as it deals with its own influx of migrants: How to balance the desire to help with fears that the newcomers could harbor a threat?
"It is not easy for people, when their sons have died or are in critical condition, to differentiate between terrorists and refugees," the Rev. Elian Nasrallah, the Roman Catholic priest who oversees Al Qaa’s churches, said during an interview in his home. He had coordinated aid for refugees and would help lead the funeral for the town’s dead.

Although the shooting war is in Syria, across the border from Al Qaa's home in the Bekaa Valley, the fight has severely impacted the residents. As the Times reports, 20,000 refugees from the war have flooded into the area, overwhelming the local populace of 3,000.

The newspaper gives a taut, brutal narrative of the violence. It began early June 27 -- first striking one of the few Muslim resident families in Al Qaa, the paper notes.  A father and son saw a man in their garden; "When they confronted him, he blew himself up, wounding them both."

From there, it gets much worse:

The blast was so loud that some residents thought they were being bombed from the air. When neighbors and the town’s ambulance rushed to the site, another attacker targeted them, also blowing himself up. Then another, and another.
Soon, the ambulance was smashed, five residents were dead, and others were on their way to the hospital.
That evening, residents were outside the church preparing for the funerals of the five killed in the morning when they saw a stranger approaching. One of the residents shot him, and he blew up. Other attacks followed near the church, a security office and an army vehicle, wounding dozens.

I criticized the Times in June for writing a story on the killing of a Hindu priest in Bangladesh, then adding a mere sentence on the killing of a Christian grocer there. The insensitivity was especially glaring, coming a few months after the long-form feature in the New York Times Magazine on assassinations of secular Bangladeshi bloggers.

But this story out of Lebanon is so different, in focus and perceptiveness, it's almost like it's from a different newspaper. Its 1,200 words provide a vivid, searching microcosm of the ongoing jihad against Middle East Christians.

One difference may be the onsite reporting, rather than the now-common practice of phone talks or patchwork pasting from other accounts. The two writers quote six sources, including a priest, a Shiite cleric, a landlord, a town council member, and two refugees who expected to be thrown out of Al Qaa just for being Syrian.

It's a realistic fear, given the rising backlash across Lebanon:

But the blasts inflamed tempers in a country drowning in refugees. Some politicians have gone on television to call for the refugees to be sent home or to be detained in camps. The anger in Al Qaa, too, has focused on the Syrians.
"Now, people won’t accept that the situation continues like this," Mr. Nader said. "I welcomed you, and you hit the hand that I extended."
The price for some refugees in Al Qaa was swift. Residents told them that they had 72 hours to get out, and no Syrians appeared on the streets on Wednesday. A group of shacks where refugees had lived on the edge of town stood empty, the locks on their doors broken and chickens left behind pecking at the dust.

The Times piece is far clearer than the hard-news Associated Press report, which appears to blur the obvious focus of the attack

On the one hand, AP acknowledges that Al Qaa is one of two Christian towns in an otherwise Shiite region of Lebanon. On the other hand, AP says the region is also home to the Shiite Hezbollah, which "has sent thousands of its fighters to Syria to bolster President Bashar Assad's forces against the predominantly Sunni rebels trying to topple him." 

The latter ignores the fact that the eight killers didn’t hit a Shiite town -- they hit a Christian town, easily identifiable by its churches. And the second wave of attacks hit a funeral crowd, which was gathering outside a church. It doesn't take a crack reporter to realize whom was being targeted. As Rami Khouri of American University told Al-Jazeera television, why would the killers launch another attack after the first unsuccessful one, if the real goal were elsewhere?

But the Times doesn't write a mere sympathy piece. It also notes that, as often happens with such tragedies, some individuals in Al Qaa have taken matters into their own hands. The article tells of a group of Syrians who were beaten up by locals. It also says that some families were already packing, although they had nowhere to go.

Still, the newspaper doesn't blame all Christians or throw in some American cliché like "right-wing" or "nativist." Instead, it quotes the priest, Father Elian Nasrallah: "It is not easy for people, when their sons have died or are in critical condition, to differentiate between terrorists and refugees." 

To add weight to the comment, the article says Nasrallah was the town's coordinator for aid to the refugees -- and would help lead the funeral for the five men who died in the attacks.

Without getting heavy-handed, the Times offers Al Qaa's agony as a parable of the terrible choice facing the rest of us: how to welcome the needy while barring the killers. This article is first-rate reporting.

Thumb: Flag of Lebanon. Public domain picture. Posted by Tobias Jakobs, via Wikimedia.

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