An American in Beirut: No 'Human Predisposition to Craziness' Found Here

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This is the ninth installment of an ongoing blog written by American Spencer Witte, a native New York resident who is studying and living in Beirut, Lebanon.

August 1, 2006

"The Place of Rats, Ants and Orcs in the Conflict Between Israel and Hezbollah"

Every year, the Witte family has a New Year's Eve party. Our doorbell begins ringing around 8 p.m. and old friends and neighbors file into our house. Guests have a few drinks, mix it up and reach for bite-sized hot dogs. Children — many of whom would probably rather be at home watching a movie — gather in a "kids' room." A few minutes before midnight, everyone gathers around the TV to watch Dick Clark ring in the New Year in Times Square. Middle-aged couples sneak kisses as the ball drops, and their children, having just emerged from the kids' room, turn red in the cheeks.

Happy New Year!

We might see some of these friends only once a year. In such cases, it falls on my parents to reintroduce me to these guests by saying such things as, "…and you remember Spencer. Spencer is interested in the Middle East and learning Arabic. He's hoping to study over there." At this point I usually get blank stares or awkward jokes like, "I hope you keep your head." Sometimes I even get outright disbelief. "Why would you want to do a thing like that? Don't you know they hate Americans?"

I get the same reaction from a lot of my high school friends and most of my college baseball teammates. At this point, I'm used to it, and I have sympathy for where it comes from. After all, if you haven't seen the Middle East firsthand, it's easy to assume life over here is one long, angry political rally, punctuated by targeted assassinations, explosions and kidnappings.

To be sure, there's some of that. It's just that, for the most part, I haven't seen any of it. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I'm a proud American. Short of wearing our flag on my forehead, I make no effort to hide my nationality when I'm in the Middle East. In fact, "Where are you from?" is usually the first question anyone asks me here. My answer, nearly 100 percent of the time, invokes a hearty, "You are welcome in our country," from whomever I happen to be talking to.

In my time spent in Lebanon and Syria, I've been offered home-cooked meals, invitations to weddings, a comfortable bed to spend a night or two, and free taxi rides to the other end of town, all simply because I am a guest and far from home.

If I talk long enough with anyone in Lebanon, Syria or even America, I invariably find things to disagree about. But that's all it is — one person, talking with another, agreeing on some matters and disagreeing on others. From my own experiences in the Middle East, American policies and American people are treated as two separate things.

Over the last several days I've received several hundred e-mails from people who are reading this blog. It certainly hasn't all been fan mail. Words like "human shields," "kidnapped soldiers," "innocent civilians," "katyusha rockets," "U.N. 1559" make appearances and become part of justifications for one action or another. These points can be debated. Heck, they should be debated. They need to be debated. It's healthy.

What should not be questioned, however, is the humanity of the people involved in this conflict. I've received a tiny and troubling minority of e-mails that refer to Hezbollah members, Muslims, Arabs, Israelis and Jews as "rats," "ants," and even "orcs," the monstrous foot soldiers from "The Lord of the Rings."

Pushing real people to the level of lowly animals and monsters contributes nothing to understanding the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. It does nothing to mask the reality that, whatever our political beliefs, humans make up both sides of this conflict and are being motivated to act on the basis of real circumstances and real ideas.

I disagree with many ideas that drive Hezbollah and further disagree with many of the actions that result from these ideas. Many Lebanese do likewise. But bombing beliefs out of existence and pushing ideas out of a country are difficult tasks, even if bombing the people who hold them and the weapons they carry is not.

Lebanon is a country of nearly 4 million people. On a daily basis, I'm finding out that there are at least that many opinions. But there is no human predisposition to craziness that I'm aware of. I was told that one existed in the Middle East, but I've yet to find it.


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Part I: "An American in Beirut: As War Approaches"

Part II: "Much Has Changed Since That Family Photo"

Part III: "The New Beirut Nightlife, Airstrikes as a Snooze Button"

Part IV: "People Leaving War-Torn South Ask, 'Which Way is Safety?'"

Park V: "How I Got Here and Why I Haven't Left Yet"

Part VI: "Lebanon on a 'Helpless Walk Through Time'"

Part VII: "War Doesn't Stop For the Weekend"

Part VIII: "We Hurt Each Other, Then We Do it Again"