Dispatch From Beirut: The Absence of the Cedar Tree in the Global Iconography of Mourning

Many people in Lebanon have overlaid their Facebook profile pictures with a transparent flag of the French Republic, making use of a feature promptly provided by the social media platform, through which users could visually express their solidarity with France’s terrorism victims by displaying the country’s flag. While people in Lebanon and worldwide collectively mourn the victims of Paris, the 46 victims of the attacks against the so-called Paris of the East, the capital of the former French Mandate, Beirut, remain marginalized in public discourse. While ISIS’ bombings in a busy civilian area in southern Beirut one day before gained minor media attention, this disaster was quickly overshadowed by the mass coverage of ISIS’ bombings in Paris.

While crowded areas in both Paris and Beirut were both targets of the same evil, corporate media outlets and social media have since been filled with global manifestations of the Eiffel Towers as a symbol of peace or Western resistance against terrorism. There was no display of cedar trees, or any other symbol associated with Lebanon. Only those who survived the Paris attacks had the privilege to mark themselves as “safe” on Facebook. People in Beirut did not. There was no transmission of their survival.

From the Sydney Opera to Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, landmarks perceived as culturally significant quickly transformed in carriers of the French flag. The transnational mass ritual of active performance of solidarity by flying the French flag epitomizes a ceremonial re-affirmation of whiteness. People are identifying themselves with national symbols of the French republic and positioning their cultural place within the white, Western hemisphere, simultaneously implying that these three colors represent the antagonism to all forms of terrorism. This ceremony necessarily implies a presence of and exclusion of the ‘Other.’

Performed by people and propagated by corporate media, the mainstream stance of solidarity with France is also proclaimed by Western leaders. For Obama, who remained silently indifferent over the terrorist attacks in Beirut, the attack in Paris represented ” an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.” The US president immediately offers a military prospect: “We stand prepared and ready to provide whatever assistance that the government and the people of France need to respond.” UK prime minister Cameron, seemingly unaware of Beirut, affirms that his country stands united with France and suggests military interventions: “We will redouble our efforts to wipe out this poisonous extremist ideology and, together with the French and our allies around the world, stand up for all we believe in.” The French president plans a merciless increase in military efforts against ISIS. Western leaders already found a solution, i.e., the strengthening of Western military hegemony.

A Western community of solidarity based on mutual inclusion emerged quickly. Beirut was not part of it, neither was Baghdad which had been attacked by ISIS only hours before Paris. Likewise, the bombings in Ankara that claimed around 100 civilian lives some weeks before did not result in world-wide expressions of solidarity. Do these victims lives not matter? Are they not implied, when people hashtag #alllivesmatter on twitter?

The portrayal of victims and the dispersion of solidarity seem to be more about the Western ethnocentric self-fetishization. As Judith Butler observed, “forms of racism active at the level of perception tend to produce iconic versions of populations who are eminently grievable, and others whose loss is no loss, and who remain ungrievable” (Frames of War 24). Lebanese, Iraqi, Turkish lives are not placed into the white community of suffering, thus, their loss is not encountered with the same share of empathy as is the loss of a Westerner. Instead, populations identified as “Oriental,” Islamic, Arab, or sometimes Semitic in general, are rather categorized as perpetrators. Based on a cultural history of ethnocentric racism, white hegemony reproduces white hegemony through the construction and subsequent exclusion of the ‘Other’ who is deemed faceless. Ethno-national, cultural, and religious dichotomies are preferred over open dialogues within political and historical perspectives. Irrational terrorism is followed by irrational hysteria. As Ben Norton discusses, the imperialist West tries to dislocate the blame: “It’s always the foreigner’s, the non-Westerner’s, the Other’s fault; it’s never the fault of the enlightened West.” The West “points its blood-stained finger accusingly at the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims and tells them they are the inherently violent ones.”

While there is no place for cedar trees in a virtual world full of eiffel towers, human loss is human loss after all. Ignoring the victims outside of Europe’s frontiers can only be justified through white supremacist thought. Mourning is a human necessity, and the compassion and empathy that it entails should be extended transnationally. An actual grieving for all humanity, which is so frequently proclaimed, hashtagged, shared, and re-tweeted on- and offline would presuppose a recognition of the humanness of those whose access to audience is limited and who remain outside of Eurocentric exceptionalism. However, Lebanese people cannot – by definition – function as victims of terrorism in the Western imaginary. Why is the violence that Paris experienced referred to as ‘terrorism,’ when the violence that Beirut experienced (which ideologically and practically originates from the same source) is downplayed as “suicide bombings,” “deadly blasts in Shiite district,” simply “blasts,” or alliterated as “Beirut bombing“? Obviously, terrorism as a label used by the media is reserved to delineate a violence that only white people are allowed to experience. As the stereotype of the Hollywood-produced ‘terrorist’ resides in the Arab-Islamic world, it is no news that Muslims, Arabs, or Black people in general only appear as the perpetrators on TV screens and news front pages.

As Glen Greenwald has observed in detail, the notion ‘terrorism’ does not have objective meaning and instead serves as a Western definition for “violence committed by Muslims whom the West dislikes, no matter the cause or the target.” It is unimaginable for a significant share of the Western population that individuals in Beirut might feel terrorized at least in the same way as individuals in Paris do. (Even though, one might suggest Lebanon’s experience of terrorism to be severely damaging to the country’s internal structure given its ongoing political crisis and overall vulnerable security conditions.) The (un)conscious lack of empathy for othered populations, and the fundamental ignorance of their humanness is precisely why only #somelivesmatter in the West.