Saturday, September 29, 2001

The Occidental Tourist - Dangerous Burba-lings from

One rarely has to wait long to enjoy those moments when blue chip publications print the worst sort of hogwash. Such was the case last week when the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal Web site published a commentary by one Elisabetta Burba, an Italian lady who, we were warned, is a journalist.

Under the title "Whooping it Up: In Beirut, even Christians celebrated the atrocity," Burba wrote of her experiences in Lebanon, where she was visiting during the homicidal September 11 attacks against New York and Washington. Her argument, as the title suggests and as she wrote, was that "the offspring of [the] great [Phoenician] civilization were celebrating a terrorist outrage. And I am not talking about destitute people. Those who were cheering belonged to the elite of the Paris of the Middle East."

One can instantly spot the usual affliction of tourists visiting Lebanon, namely a fondness for obsolete clichés. Perhaps Burba hadn’t heard, but a 15-year war and over 100,000 deaths pretty much did in Beirut’s "Paris of the Middle East" reputation. But there is much more in her essay: In addition to the clichés, there is flimsy evidence, reliance on hearsay, and awe-inspiring laziness.

First, flimsy evidence. Our journalist has just heard news of the U.S. attacks: "[We] went into an America-style café in the Hamra district…rated as one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world…The café’s sophisticated clientele was celebrating, laughing, cheering and making jokes, as waiters served hamburgers and Diet Pepsi. Nobody looked shocked or moved. They were excited, very excited."

Forget for the moment that Burba’s guidebook prose merely recycles the pre-civil war description of a no-longer-opulent Hamra. It is her insistence that people were rejoicing at the attacks that is especially unconvincing. Couldn’t it be that they were laughing for some other reason? Burba doesn’t speak Arabic, so she wouldn’t know. Did failing to silently grieve for the U.S. victims mean the café’s patrons endorsed their collective murder? Alas, people, as Burba’s subsequent sightseeing in Lebanon showed, do go on functioning as before.

Then there is hearsay. Burba has a tendency to believe whatever she’s told, particularly when it squares with her preconceptions. Still reeling from her traumatic encounter with the happy throngs in Hamra, she asks "some moderate Arabs" if those approving of the attacks are a minority. The person answering spoke for many, Burba supinely explains, when he remarked: "Ninety percent of the Arab world believes that Americans got what they deserved."

But the high point of Burba’s laziness comes one evening when she is "in the Christian northern part of Beirut [and hears] some loud noises." Ever the intrepid reporter, Burba asks what the sounds are. Someone responds: "Probably they are celebrating the attacks." Burba is dumbfounded: "You mean the Maronite Christians are also celebrating?" "Yes," comes the answer, "they also feel betrayed by the Americans." Burba, naturally, swallows this hook, line, and sinker.

How both passages got by Opinion Journal's editors is astonishing. This isn’t news. It’s not even propaganda. What we have here is the chambermaid exchanging gossip with the milkman. One need not even bother picking the passages apart, they are so poor, their assumptions so shaky, the author’s gullibility, or bad faith, so pervasive. But then Burba’s article is a veritable forest of such commentary. One can devote an evening listing her errors, and invite friends in to participate.

At this stage, two warnings are in order. The point here is not to target a dreadful piece of writing, nor even chastise Opinion Journal for publishing something so simplistic, but to engage in self-defense. There is a sincere belief in the U.S. that the Lebanese were fully behind the air attacks. When the attitude in Washington is "You are against us if you are not with us," irresponsible pieces like Burba’s are downright dangerous.

There is also the matter of distributing collective responsibility. Undoubtedly, there were people in Lebanon happy with the mass murders in Washington and New York. There were even a few in the U.S. who applauded them -- and that's not even including such serial cretins as Jerry Falwell, who interpreted the attacks as divine intervention to punish the extravagances of sinful Americans. However, extending such alleged approval to Lebanese society as a whole is not only a no-no in serious journalism, it is factually wrong.

Many Lebanese watched with horror what took place on September 11, and they did so because many of them knew, or feared they knew, people in and around the World Trade Center. There were ceremonies in Beirut to honor the victims, and the U.S. embassy welcomed many people presenting their condolences. There are countless Lebanese living in the U.S., and countless others here who await -- and who will now have to wait for much longer -- a chance to follow them.

I assume that Burba knew she wouldn’t have much of a story if she described the nuances in Lebanese reaction to the attacks. She knew Opinion Journal would likely not run a piece that banally argued how divided an Arab society could be over the horrendous loss of life in the U.S.

Good for you Signora Burba. Though you used fraudulent means, you sold your piece. Bravissima!

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