My first reaction, when I read the bold Washington Post headline, was negative. I am not fond of religious labels, but this looked like a futile attempt to avoid one. It said: "Anti-Syrian Lawmaker Killed in Beirut Blast." The deck followed up with the obvious context: "Six Others Dead In Christian Area."
Using "anti-Syrian" seemed to play down the role of religion in the conflict. Yet what happens when you swing the other way?
Does it make you flinch to read a story about bombs, blood and terror and see the word "Christian" as an adjective? Do you still shudder when you read about "Muslim bombers" hitting another target, instead of a more specific label such as "Islamist" or a name, if possible, such as Al-Qaida?
As a rule, general labels are dangerous things when it comes to religion. Amen.
Yet Lebanon is one of those places where journalists have to use some kind of identifying labels. This particular report by Alia Ibrahim and Nora Boustany is an example of using them with care. I don't know how they could have been more careful in this minefield. I mean, try to follow all of the religious threads in these fact paragraphs:
Antoine Ghanem, 64, a member of the Christian Phalange party, was the eighth anti-Syrian figure killed in Lebanon in the past three years. Fifty-six people were injured in the blast, police said, which shook a Christian neighborhood during the evening rush hour.
... Lebanon's government has been all but paralyzed by a months-long standoff between its U.S.-backed government and opposition forces including the Shiite movement Hezbollah, which enjoys Syrian and Iranian support. Many Lebanese are on edge in anticipation of further conflict during the run-up to the presidential contest.
Ghanem's death brought the number of seats held by the anti-Syrian governing coalition down to 68 in a unicameral legislature of 128. The president, traditionally a Christian Maronite under Lebanon's power-sharing formula, is elected by an absolute majority of members of parliament, but a debate is underway over what constitutes the necessary quorum.
The assassination revived fears in Lebanon about more killings in coming weeks that would further erode the coalition's slim majority. "There's going to be more blood," said Wael Abou Faour, a member of parliament.
This is hard stuff. There is more to this than religious faith, of course, but it is impossible to cover the conflict while wishing away the religious history and the words that the participants use to explain their actions.
In the end, this was a story that made me shudder, in large part because I was glad that I did not have to write it. All reporters need to be this careful.