lonely tribes


Beirut, Sunday, August 4, 2002

This past Wednesday, the last day of July, and in a hot and humid morning, a mid-aged man came regularly to his work as clerk in an office and thus walked into --by 9.30am-- the Beirut offices of the Private School Teachers Mutual Fund. The only unusual thing in an otherwise routine and dull morning, was that same clerk, Ahmad Mansour, 45, pulling out two submachine guns concealed in his bag, and spraying his colleagues with bullets, thus killing eight of them immediately and wounding four others. Newspapers printed on their front pages colored photographs of two of the victims with their corpses lying on a balcony. In one such photograph, taken from a next door balcony or window in a cruel voyeuristic style, a mid-aged man is seen sitting on the edge of a balcony, his back to the wall and his face down and arms covered with blood. A women is lying on her back right in front of him, who must have received a fatal shot right on her neck. The two must have sought refuge on the balcony, hoping that the gunman --their "colleague"-- would not catch up. The photograph, printed in dark colors, is reminiscent of the tableaux of Edward Hopper: the loneliness of the place (the edge of a balcony), hence the loneliness of the persons themselves usually caught in a "gesture" that translates their self-absorption and profound boredom (even in the final moment of death), then all that voyeuristic look from the outside, which Hopper managed by means of invisible incognito eyes looking darkly through a glass, which in turn serves as a protective shell.

The killings took place the same day that a bomb exploded in a cafeteria at the Hebrew university in Jerusalem, thus killing and wounding over a hundred victims, including five Americans, an event that was quickly surpassed by a series of suicide-bombings, culminating with "bloody Sunday" (August 4). Having reported the Beirut killings and the cafeteria massacre on its front pages, the local Lebanese press did not even bother to ask --and only ask-- whether there were any "connections" between such forms of criminal behavior. To begin, Arabs in general have been reluctant to describe suicide-bombings as "criminal," while many perceive them as "heroic." Second, this past week carried several court rulings in Egypt and Syria in which a number of "dissidents" --to use that old Soviet term of the cold war era-- were sentenced from five to ten years in prison. Those "dissidents," whose political affiliations were either on the side of the Muslim Brothers, or else purely and simply "secular" and "liberal," with no association to a political party or organization, committed no other crime besides reminding the state of its duties as a protector of freedom and human rights. When the state --that cold monster, as Nietzsche described it-- becomes part of the conflicts and power-relations in "civil society" and is thus unable to distance itself from all internal "civil wars," the Palestinian suicide-bombings ought then to be perceived as a quintessential aspect of state-"politics" with nothing to offer but collective destruction.

Serial killers and random shooters are not that well known in Middle Eastern societies. Indeed, besides that the two categories are very different from one another, they do not point to much affiliations in terms of planning, motif and purpose. A serial killer is someone who pursues a longue durée task, with careful planning and the inner pleasure of having done so much without being caught. More importantly, the whole idea of acting "serially," and having encountered all victims on a one-by-one basis, is what finally matters. That "encounter" achieves the status of a sexual liaison, only to end up in a sacrifice through a ritualized death. (As Jacques Lacan once noted with his sense of humor, that since phallic penetration can only proceed one-by-one, the Don Giovanni and Casanova western mythologies of manly prowess can only be "serial" in scope and planning --drowning by numbers.)

By contrast, random shooters are of a different nature altogether. The emphasis here is both on randomness and the instantaneous nature of the act, or, if you wish, its gratuitous nature. The killer usually selects his (or her --even though my memory fails to recapture a woman in that role) victims in the most banal of all public (and seldom, private) places, only to proceed at a random shooting by killing as many as possible. The random and anonymous nature of such acts has by and large associated them with modern or post-modern societies, in particular those of Europe, and even more so, North America, and the United States in particular. The fact that in such societies individuals live and produce as individuals, dissociated from religion, family and regional backgrounds, creates what the late sociologist David Riesman has aptly labeled, back in the 1950s, as "the lonely crowd." The fact of being part of a crowd, and yet "alone" has become the best clichéd description of modernism. Yet, not all random shooters target anonymous victims. Indeed, there has been many cases in the US, and more recently Germany, where kids at school targeted fellow students, faculty and staff, and others coming to work specifically to begin a random shooting of colleagues and administrators. Two particular events point, in my view, to the essence of such acts despite all their varieties and motives. The first goes back to the spring of this year, during the French presidential campaign, where voters --in a typical post-modern gesture-- had to shift in the span of a couple of weeks from sixteen possible candidates with Le Pen in the top second, to a massive re-election of Chirac in the second round. It was during that campaign that a lonely gunman shot at one in the morning in a cold breezy night members of the municipal council of the suburb of Nanterre outside Paris. He then committed suicide 48 hours later by throwing himself out of a window while being interrogated in the palace of justice in Paris. The police later found his journal in which his alienation from all the rest, and the permanent feeling of belittlement and of being "no one" predominated, hence that explicit wish of his to become "someone." The second episode goes back to Quebec, May 8, 1984. That day Denis Lortie rushed to Quebec's national assembly and gunned down everyone he could meet on his way, and then while relaxing at the sight of all those dead bodies, he said: "Le gouvernement du Québec avait le visage de mon père" ("the government of Quebec had the face of my father").

I brought those two episodes to underscore the fact that crimes are "invented" at two levels. First, that of "filiation" and "genealogy": the criminal, like any other person, "belongs" somewhere and his or her primary "belonging" is that of the family and kin --the figure of the father and/or mother. The crime itself therefore only attempts to transgress that order of filiation --an order which the individual tends to transpose outside the family --in the professional milieu, among friends and colleagues, and in politics, government and all state symbols. A society without filiation would be on the verge of anarchy --and that's precisely what fascinates a criminal mind. The second level is that of belittlement and empowerment as remedy through the criminal act itself. The former is a morbid feeling that inhabits many souls in modern societies, and to which the criminal act brings a challenge to that social order of things. In short, the criminal act could be looked upon as a transgression on both counts.

Wherever serial crimes or mass shootings take place, a public opinion questions the large availability of guns among the civil population, in particular among kids and students, the non-vigilance of the police and security forces, the deteriorating economic conditions within large segments of the urban population, the failure of incarceration in general and the rehabilitative model in particular, the sick minds of many of those people out there who cannot but seize the opportunity and shoot at anyone passing by. Every society has its own share of publicly kept secrets, and those tend to be the most valuable form of reproduction of knowledge. If for each crime a plethora of explanatory reasons are associated with the act, it is because the crime profoundly challenges the social order, and that's precisely what needs to be masked from public discourse.

To my knowledge, both serial killings and anonymous random shootings are radically new creatures for the Middle East at large and for the Arabs in particular. There were only two serial killings reported in recent years. One was in Yemen a couple of years ago in what became known as "the butcher of San'a" and in which the alleged culprit, a Sudanese man who was employed at the morgue of the faculty of medicine of San'a, used to seduce his young female victims at the morgue itself, then rape them and kill them. As it turned out, the morgue's equipment was more than enough to conceal those bodies all around. The Sudanese man was eventually brought to trial, found guilty, and publicly hanged in the presence of many Yemeni officials. The closed nature of Yemeni society made it even easier for the serial killer to keep up with close to two dozens victims in a row prior to being caught.

In Iran a couple of years ago a number of prostitutes and young girls were found dead "serially" (if I recall correctly it was in the city of Mashhad), and, again, someone was caught, a "regular" head of a family, a young man who used to go back home after each murder and kiss his kids goodnight before going to bed. Again, here, the closed nature of Iranian society, and the status of prostitution in particular gave the culprit an easy time.

Random shooting, however, has thus far remained practically inexistent --if not politically incorrect. During the fifteen-year Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), mass murders did take place, but those were mostly political, or else, when the casualties were regular civilians, they were targeted precisely for their confessional identity. Even one the last major ones --that of the massacre of Palestinian civilians in 1982 in the camps of Sabra and Shatila-- looks in hindsight romantic compared to the systematic ethnic cleansing practiced by Bosnians and Serbs in the 1990s. The recent attempt to reopen the Sabra and Shatila case in a courtroom in Brussels by holding the current Israeli prime minister responsible of the massacre --hence throwing the crime on "outside" and "alien" forces-- only points, once more, to the unwillingness to perceive private and political crimes as an essential aspect of the modus operandi of each society, an event which, as Durkheim was the first to perceive, poses a challenge to the "collective consciousness" of society.

To go back to our original case, and regarding the clerk Ahmad Mansour, the press had reported much of what needs to be known. He was 45 years old, and a Shi'i from a village south of the city of Sidon, and associated with the Amal militia (also a parliamentary block since the end of the civil war). He has been working for some 25 years at the Private School Teachers Mutual Fund where he shot eight of his coworkers that Wednesday morning. He was apparently engaged in a financial dispute with the fund's administration. He thus applied for a loan worth $12,000 from his compensation fund, which he was supposed to receive after his retirement. Even though the fund's administration granted him the loan, he nevertheless secretly asked for his compensation from the National Social Security Fund and bought a car. Therefore, the administration of the teacher's fund asked him to return the loan it had given him. But he came back and killed them all. In the southern village of Loubieh, Mansour's son 'Ali, 18, said his father had been taking tranquilizers and other medication, while sources close to the family said Mansour had indeed sold a Mercedes several days ago, an indication that perhaps the thought of returning the loan must have seriously crossed his mind.

Having killed some of his coworkers, Ahmad Mansour left quietly the building, smoked a cigarette, and gave himself up to the police without any resistance. It was also reported that he had told the police that he "regrets" not having killed all those whom he had in mind: a couple more were apparently on his short-list, but were either not present that day, or he simply missed them. The man who was therefore on tranquilizers the weeks and days before suddenly looked quiet and calm, and in total control of himself, with an advertised sense of self-satisfaction.

That was as far as the local press could go. But while attempting to avoid all kinds of incendiarisms, it managed to miss what the people of the street thought was the pièce-de-résistance of the whole episode, namely that all eight victims were Christians. Even though that was common knowledge, the few in the media that dared making it public got punished. So how revealing is that fact? Does it make sense to say --a refrain from the civil war-- that it's all "confessional politics"? Since the civil war was over by the early 1990s (thanks to the pax syriana), the general prevailing perception is that the root of the problem lies within the so-called "confessional political system" --that division of political and institutional power "equitably" between the various confessional groups. Such a division had even been consecrated back in the 1940s through a gentlemen's "oral pact." (There's a lot to say about the "oral" nature of that pact, which would be too long to explain here.) There has therefore always been this naïve perception amongst intellectuals in particular that "the abolition of confessionalism in politics" is a necessary pre-requisite for a modern democratic society.

Such an "abolition," however, assuming it means anything, is pure nonsense. Confessionalism is a form of life, as Wittgenstein would say, which affects everything we do on a daily basis. To abolish "political confessionalism" means therefore --assuming such statements make sense-- implies abolishing society and all its normative values. It would be like asking the Swiss and Italians to forgo their linguistic and/or regional differences. Now that privately-motivated random shooting has entered into the annals of the Lebanese criminal system, it will, like everything else, be colored with confessionalism, which means, for all practical purposes, that the killer will not shoot "randomly" --the American way-- but will target his victims more carefully, probably by selecting them based on kin and religion --or what anthropologically is referred to as the nisba. So a killing of that kind is neither motivated nor "caused" by confessional life --it simply receives a confessional coloring.

In effect, if we accept that the essence of crime lies deeply into a perverse desire to abolish the order of filiation, and which the individual receives from his or her family, kin and clan, our killer here saw in his Christian co-workers a representation of the "authority" he had internalized, and being on average middle-class and wealthier and more educated than the common lot, Christians tend to be represented as the promoters of individualistic capitalism, a decadent morality, and an abusive political system, in which they historically had more than their fair share. It is therefore neither that surprising, nor immoral, that a killer like Ahmad Mansour left his killing field comfortably well, at home with himself, with an urgent desire to smoke, and strongly regretting the couple co-workers that he missed. Americans were appalled at the sight of Timothy McVeigh in total control of himself and not feeling sorry for any of his victims or their families. That authority figure inside them, and which had tortured them for so long, has been symbolically abolished through their criminal act. Even a lethal injection will not make them suffer.



copyright © 2002 zouhair ghazzal