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Deadly merriment, the fallout from celebratory gunfire

Comments (30)
Tuesday, April 15, 2008 | 05:23 PM ET
By Nahlah Ayed

Lebanese are becoming so dangerously partisan and divided, the shooting here has already started. Mostly, they use Kalashnikovs. Though on the odd night, one could hear the distant thud of what could be a rocket-propelled grenade.

Pistols are also a popular option within some of the densely populated alleys of Beirut.

The good news — if there is any here — is that they're not shooting directly at each other, at least not yet. It's only a display of the staunchest kind of political support — and perhaps the strangest.


2990633.jpg
A pro-Palestinian gunman fires in the air at a refugee camp near Sidon, Lebanon (Mohammed Zaatari/Associated Press)

Lebanon's politicians have for many months now been fighting it out, albeit on television: They "converse" with each other through speeches and interviews, which normally appear on networks allied to their own parties. Ordinary citizens, including the most partisan among them, are left out of those conversations, mere spectators in a never-ending verbal tit-for-tat.

In recent months, however, as the rhetoric in these "conversations" has heated up, some of the more enthusiastic supporters have unilaterally decided to chime in.

A politician barely begins to speak when some of his most ardent supporters literally start shooting into the air in a show of fanatical support, a momentary celebration. But the devotees save their most fervent barrage for the end of the speech, a kind of punctuation to the politician's words that gives the blunt rhetoric a sharp edge and a pointed warning to the opposing side.

It also terrifies the rest of this country's people.

Bullets raining down

There is a semblance of order to this disturbingly wanton behaviour.

For example, if Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah appears on television, the sky lights up mostly in Beirut's southern suburbs. If it's majority leader Saad Hariri, or Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, you have to watch your head in Beirut's mostly Sunni Muslim neighbourhood of Tarik al-Jdeida.

The improbable parallel would be watching bullets fly in the riding of Okanagan-Coquihalla whenever MP Stockwell Day appeared on television.

All of this might actually be quite amusing if it were not so deadly. Last month, as Siniora addressed the nation, one of those bullets in the sky fell and hit a teenager just outside his home, piercing his skull and stopping in his neck. Ahmed al-Saheley fell into a coma and later died.

There have been other deaths, injuries and property damage since the lethal fad spread. So much so, the politicians themselves who prompt these wild volleys have roundly condemned the practice, pleading with their supporters to find some other way to express their joy.

"We've warned before about the danger of boasting with weapons, breaking the law," Siniora said after learning of the al-Saheley's death. He encouraged leaders to ask their supporters to use more peaceful and democratic means of expressing themselves, that all other ways only lead to "tragedy, sadness and loss."

Just a few hours later, security forces were notified that yet another youth, Hussein Solh, had died from a burst of gunfire that welcomed opposition politician Talal Arslan on the airwaves two weeks earlier.

Endemic to the Middle East

Celebratory gunfire is a phenomenon plaguing a number of regions, including parts of South America and South Asia. But in some places in the Middle East, it is endemic.

What is even more prevalent is the apparent belief that just because it's happy fire, it can't hurt anyone, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Iraq is a particularly terrible example. Those of us who have reported from there have often been deceived into suspecting a breaking news story on several late nights in Baghdad, when the quiet is suddenly pierced by what sounds and looks like a vicious firefight. Inevitably, we'd later find out that it was in fact a celebration of the Iraqi soccer team's latest win.

There are weightier occasions that prompt the trigger-happy to brandish their guns. Thousands of bullets were spent when Saddam was caught, and when he was executed.

When his sons were killed in a raid in the summer of 2003, gunshots rang for hours all over the country. What few people know is that in the hail of bullets on that day, at least 20 people were killed. According to some reports, the figure may have been as high as 33.

At the time, I found that shocking.

Since then, I've become more familiar with the dangers associated with this custom, used to celebrate anything from political achievement to weddings. But only in Lebanon does a mere television appearance prompt such deadly merriment.

It is a practice that is roundly criticized by ordinary Lebanese, who are jittery enough after living through more than 30 explosions in the past three years, in addition to the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006.

They simply don't need the added anxiety of having to dodge bullets on the streets.

That this practice flourished here could mean a number of things. It could, for example, be interpreted as a sign of trouble to come. Certainly plausible given the political stalemate that's set the stage for such behaviour.

But it definitely means there are people in Lebanon, in the minority to be sure, who lack political maturity, have little respect for authority and who have total disregard for other people's safety.

It also means there are far too many guns here.

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Comments (30)

Anthony

Ed Robinson: Are you implying that the child whose head was split by a plummeting 7.62 mm round was deserving of his fate because the rifle was fired by a person of the same race? Because no other explanation of your words comes to mind. Would you mind explaining your comment? Sounds like racism to me.

Come to think of it, CBC.ca editorial staff, perhaps you could explain why you decided Mr. Robinson's opinion was fit to post.

Now that I take a second look, there is a lot to which to object in these posts. JoeRJoe wants us to give them more shells. Nice. KM thinks we are somehow in a position to teach Lebanese people tolerance. Perhaps we should start by teaching it to Canadians.

Hey, I know! Since the CBC editorial staff seems to be tolerant of just about anything, why don't they head on over to Lebanon and open up a tolerance school? Just don't forget your kevlar umbrellas.

Posted April 28, 2008 04:06 AM

John

Ottawa

While I agree with what is said in this article I think the author has missed at least one point. Many of these idiots pull out their guns and fire off a few hundred rounds because of the present of the media. They want to show off for the cameras. I question how often it would happen if there were no cameras there to capture the shot (no pun intended). There is not a week that does not go by when the major print or TV outlets punctuate a story by showing one of these jack asses firing off his weapon like an ape beating his chest. May be if the press did not pay so much attention the epidemic could be toned down and some lives saved.

Posted April 22, 2008 03:31 PM

richard

I wish you could your facts straight if you want some credibility a falling bullet cannot pierce the skull.

Posted April 18, 2008 08:50 PM

Chris

Vancouver

It all started in prehistoric times, when people used to celebrate by throwing large rocks in the air when they were happy. The tried spears and arrows, but they just didn't go high enough for people to get out of the way. Then they invented guns. Who knew where the bullets came down. Didn't really matter, they didn't come down where you could see so out of site out of mind.
Now we know where they come down, so I assume we'll invent laser guns to shoot whenever we're happy. We won't have to change it until we start slicing sattelites and space shuttles in half.
Silly humans, if you want to hurl harmful things in the air whenever you are happy,m why not use your fists! No, you don't have to saw them off first.

Posted April 17, 2008 05:26 PM

Firas

Victoria

It's hard to apply canadian or western viewpoints on countries in the middle east because the history and conflicts are just not the same. In the case of Lebanon, we're talking about a country that went through 15 years of civil war followed by years of fighting with israel and internal disputes. Whoever doesn't have a machine gun in his house is considered as the "weird one" rather than the other way around. And of course, no one is willing to give away their guns because some parties believe that Israel will attack and the lebanese army is not capable of defending the country while other parties follow the "let them hand in theirs first" mentality.

The people are fully aware that the bullets go back down, they just make sure not to point the gun straight up and anything that happens after that is not their problem.

The solution to this problem is to have the political leaders be strict and serious when telling their followers not to celebrate using guns. Note that any action taken by security forces in lebanon for example will be viewed politically. If the cops arrest someone from party A who is celebrating with a gun, it will be seen as if the security system is biast againt party A which could result in catastrophic events.

To summarize, yes, this practice is beyond stupid. It is moronic and primitive but things aren't as simple as "don't they understand gravity", "the security forces should stop them" and "why do they have guns"...unfortunately.

Posted April 17, 2008 04:58 PM

YP

Ottawa

I like how Richard S. call gun owner "mindless" but then was wondering if bullets "burned up in the atmosphere". Gee I wonder who id mindless here?
I don't think bullets would come back at muzzle velocity as some have mentioned. Google "terminal velocity of a bullet for explanations.

Posted April 17, 2008 12:57 PM

Saint Inebrius

Toronto

It would be entertaining and funny in a sort of “Jackass: The Movie way” if it weren’t for the real life tragedy of it all. One has to wonder how utterly stupid and retarded some societies are for not only permitting this to happen, but also actually allowing it to take root within the culture in the first place.

Posted April 17, 2008 12:40 PM

Shawn

Ottawa

Excellent article by my favourite CBC foreign correspondent...

As a second generation child of Middle Eastern parents I find the practice of celebrating with guns disgusting and disturbing. We have to take into context the 'gun culture' of the region, in particular Lebanon and Iraq where unfortunately the militias are stronger than the state security forces.

Life is too precious to waste by falling bullets.

$

Posted April 17, 2008 09:05 AM

Richard Sherry

Calgary

Thanks for talking about this. I've always wondered if bullets shot straight up rain back down or burn up in the atmosphere. Now I know. It's a mindless means of celebration, but then, I think guns are mostly mindless by their very nature. And so are gun owners.

Posted April 17, 2008 01:09 AM

Jeff

edmonton

With such common and dreadful results of this practice. How can it still be tolerated at all....period. Imagine if someone in Canada died because of this, it would be all over the news for days. As someone who has never been to the middle east, and knows little of its customs and cultures, I am questioning... is life less precious or respected there that this is tolerated?

Posted April 17, 2008 01:01 AM

Nick

The governments should sell 'Celebration' rounds - Blanks. Under the slogan 'Keep the real bullets for the enemies'. Sell them at a low price!

It wouldn't prevent any of the crazies from killing each other intentionally, but it would prevent the crazies from killing other people unintentionally.

Posted April 16, 2008 11:37 PM

Incredulous

Australia

One almost wonders if this article is a joke when first coming across it. Doesn't such behaviour just further help to confirm that we all did just evolve from more primitive primates? *sigh*

Posted April 16, 2008 10:58 PM

David Constable

As the song says.."What goes up; must come down." Physics tells me that the terminal velocity prior to hitting the ground will equal the initial muzzle velocity upon firing.

When I was a kid, I used to wonder where all the bullets went when cowboys shot into the air - I figured then that they must come down... but where?

Now we know! Interesting habit!

How many of these people realise that the bullets return to earth? Maybe helmets should be issued, if strong enough ones could be found.

Posted April 16, 2008 07:48 PM

JPC

Regina

Once again, the issue is not guns, it's about the people who use them, in this case idiots...

Posted April 16, 2008 07:48 PM

Chris White

I'm actually glad to finally read a story about this, brining it to our attention. I've known this for years, in fact anyone with a basic understanding of gravity should have figured that out...what goes up must come down. I think calling this an epidemic is a brilliant description and getting at what this reveals to us about those who are doing these was even more profound...and frightening.

Posted April 16, 2008 07:16 PM

ed Robinson

Toronto

Darwinism at its finest.

Posted April 16, 2008 06:20 PM

Tarik

Ottawa

Very informative and revealing. I can't comprehend why anyone would want to fire into the air to celebrate. For one, it sounds like a waste of ammunition and no doubt what goes up must come down. I suspect this custom is somehow connected to testosterone.

Posted April 16, 2008 06:18 PM

docktergonzo

Kelowna

Guns and politics, it's a winning combination!

Posted April 16, 2008 04:19 PM

Ronald Potter

This is probably one of the very first real solid articles on the "deadly fallout" from celebratory gunfire.

We have seen it on TV is various parts of the world for more than half a century in so many volatile places around the world.

I'm glad that some of these idiots (and that is what they are), are heeding the deadly effects.

Posted April 16, 2008 01:37 PM

Alex

Edmonton

Guns don't kill people, gravity kills people.

Maybe celebratory gunfire would stop if you told these people that they are shooting at Allah.

Posted April 16, 2008 12:18 PM

Caine

Ottawa

Guns = Death

There is no other equation, regardless of what you may believe in...

Posted April 16, 2008 12:16 PM

Allan

Calgary

Someone should teach these guys how to clap.

Posted April 16, 2008 11:31 AM

Boubou

Montreal

How come these people have Kalashnikovs???

Posted April 16, 2008 11:30 AM

Tony C

Oakville

Just another reson why it is important for the United States to be that region. Celebratory gun fire iis another example of a region and it's customs so far behind most of the world that it is impossible to think of them fixing their problems on their own. Somebody has to lead the people of the middle east down the road to 21st century maturity and sanity. They can't seem to hold things together by themselves, America is their only hope.

Posted April 16, 2008 11:10 AM

david van dyk

This also happens in the United States. A few people die every year in Los Angeles when gang members celebrate the new year in this fashion.

Posted April 16, 2008 10:35 AM

Oliver

Ottawa

The problem isn't so much the small group of men firing heavy machine guns wildly in the air, but the passive acceptance by a majority of Lebanese who recognise the value of the gun in defending their homeland. As long as they continue to cherish the belief that power comes from the barrel of a gun then the gun will always be present. It is hard to put away the gun when after being so hardened by experience and conditioned by suffering like the Lebanese have been to so readily give it up.

Posted April 16, 2008 10:26 AM

Jack

Whitby

I've always wondered what happened to those bullets. What goes up must come down. This is the first report that has ever talked about it that I have seen. Curious way to celebrate, but then again, there are so many things that don't make sense going on in that region - just one more - DUCK!

Posted April 16, 2008 10:18 AM

JoeRJoe

calgary

Why not give them more shells

Posted April 16, 2008 08:40 AM

KEN HETHERINGTON

They need to have Alan Rock in charge over there. He'd start AK-47 registration and everybody would be safe.
What a guy!

Posted April 16, 2008 08:22 AM

KM

How can we teach them tolerance if they
can't even grasp something as simple as gravity? Do we need to drop pamphlets in arabic with the words "What comes up must come down" ?

This is what comes from growing up without the benefit of the Bugs bunny road runner hour.

Posted April 16, 2008 08:19 AM

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Nahlah AyedNahlah Ayed has been CBC Television's correspondent in Beirut since 2004. She joined the CBC in Nov. 2002, and moved to Jordan, then immediately to Iraq, for the lead-up to the war.

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