Falling celebratory bullets are a danger Lebanon must deal with

Sunday 23/07/2017
Added concerns. A file picture shows a Lebanese man firing into the air as people celebrate in the streets of the coastal city of Batroun the election of Michel Aoun as president. (AFP)

Beirut - There seem to be a mil­lion and one ways to die in Lebanon and many zealous individuals seem keen to help.

Death for the Lebanese can come from sectarian conflict, a roadside bomb intended for a politician, disease that is rampant due to the country’s failure to manage waste or the occasional stray bullet that descends from the skies like lethal rainfall after celebratory gunfire.

Despite the dangers and offi­cial warnings, falling bullets have claimed the lives of hundreds of men, women and children as Leba­non’s laws take second place in the minds of many to the country’s in­grained system of patronage and the lawlessness such clientelism inevitably fosters.

To outsiders, the time-honoured Lebanese tradition of firing weap­ons into the sky in celebration must appear utterly alien. However, most Lebanese will admit to feeling obliged to fire the occasional bullet to either celebrate, mourn or sim­ply express solidarity or frustration over any global or local affair.

The only snag in this archaic practice is that, with Newtonian predictability, what goes up must come down. Given the increasingly crowded conditions on streets be­low, falling bullets risk killing those standing in their path.

Instances of celebratory gunfire increase every year with the July announcement of the school ex­amination results, when proud par­ents celebrate either with fireworks or by ripping apart the tranquillity of the streets with celebratory gun­fire. Despite endless official warn­ings, this year tens of people have been seriously wounded, includ­ing a 7-year-old girl who has since slipped into a coma.

Successful prosecutions of gun-firing incidents are rare. Farouk al- Moghrabi, a Lebanese barrister and adviser to the minister of state for human rights, said the country’s law on firearms and ammunition clearly penalises anyone “who dis­charges their firearms in public and in a crowded space and is punish­able by jail time ranging from three months to three years or a fine or both and the confiscation of their weapon.”

However, this law, which was amended in 2016 to curb this fa­vourite Lebanese pastime, has found itself foundering due to in­grained patronage systems that fre­quently run counter to legal norms. It has “failed to act as a legal or even moral deterrent,” Moghrabi said. “These stray bullets have further exposed the government’s power­lessness to protect its people.”

While patronage systems and the interference they breed thrive across Lebanon’s religious spec­trum, concerns over opening sec­tarian wounds have deterred com­mentators from pointing out that the majority of those detained by the security services are typically Muslim and living in areas con­trolled by Hezbollah, to which they owe their patronage.

As often as not, the more power­ful the sponsor, the less the respect those living under its control ex­tend to the state and its systems of governance. In Lebanon, few were surprised to hear about a civil de­fence unit being forcibly prevented from entering a burning building in the southern village of Qana or that a Red Cross emergency response team was attacked in the town of Choueifat while on duty.

Volunteer first responder Ka­reem Issa Zreik said he experienc­es events such as these regularly. “Living here is risky enough and so I think we have a right to walk free­ly on our streets without having to also worry about bullets rain­ing down upon us. It’s insane we even have to make such a point,” he said.

“EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians) and firefighters, most of whom receive no pay, are public servants. Our only job is to make a bona fide attempt to make peo­ple’s lives easier in any way that we can. We are here to help. The job is already dangerous enough. With limited resources, it only becomes more dangerous. When we, first re­sponders, become the victims our­selves, who will be left to help you and your loved ones?”

While celebratory gunfire and assaults on firefighters might ap­pear unrelated, the underlying lack of logic closely ties the two. Most Lebanese cannot comprehend that many of the rules and regulations that govern modern life are there to protect rather than punish them. If pleading with people not to fire guns because it might kill their neighbour or that assaulting a fire­fighter whose only wish is to pro­tect them from harm is legitimate, then nothing beyond that point can make sense.