Ethiopian Air #409 Crashes near Beirut — The Coverage So Far by Joshua Hersh
The coverage of Ethiopian Air Flight 409, which crashed into the Mediterranean sea close to Beirut just minutes after takeoff, early Monday morning, has reached that inevitable point: the reaction to the reaction to the coverage, or, as I like to call it, the third stage of good grief. (more…)
The coverage of Ethiopian Air Flight 409, which crashed into the Mediterranean sea close to Beirut just minutes after takeoff, early Monday morning, has reached that inevitable point: the reaction to the reaction to the coverage, or, as I like to call it, the third stage of good grief.
The crash itself was an absolute tragedy, and a equal-opportunity one at that, in that it spared no one, not least the family members of the victims. Spend a few minutes perusing this Facebook page set up to memorialize the deceased, as I did last night, and you’ll soon find a few minutes have turned into an hour, and you are thoroughly despairing. The pictures are heart-wrenching: wedding photos, summertime snaps of boys grilling meats in happier times, the owner of a well-known local restaurant, a cheery twenty-year-old boy hoping to surprise his parents in Africa, somebody’s boss.
Conspicuously missing from the Facebook page are the Ethiopian victims — here we get on to the tricky stuff. Like the ongoing analysis of what happened to the plane itself, this dynamic, evident not just on Facebook, but in newspaper stories and even official reports, which listed Ethiopian passengers separately from Lebanese ones, has been the subject of a tide of speculation and sniping in the media, here and abroad. Most of it is fair: If it’s true that Ethiopian family members were prevented from identifying bodies at the government hospital, or shoved out of camera shots by TV crews, this is outrageous and shameful.
But if, in reaction to the coverage, some are seeing the revelation of Lebanon’s “racist underbelly”, I’m not so sure. Regarding things like the Facebook page, I would caution that this has an obvious, practical explanation (if an insidious one): most of the Ethiopian families here are domestic workers (most of the victims, too, so far as we know). They don’t have a lot of free time or access to the internet to post pictures on Facebook. And for the rest, I think the problem is deeper than just overt racism. The nature of the relationship between the domestic workers and the Lebanese — a grossly unequal one — and the long history of social segregation (forced more often than not), has led to a cultural gap: If, after a tragedy, dissociated people are meant to come together under their commonalities, then this is nearly impossible in a country where the domestic worker and employee share next to nothing except, now and then, a taxi.
The bigger issue then (for another time, and another post), is the broader dehumanization of darker-skinned domestic workers, clearly a massive problem here in Lebanon, but perhaps no more than in the US, or UK, where the stories of abuse are just as perfidious as here. But simply racism? I suspect something more gray is at play.
This note of caution is needed even more so in the ongoing evaluation of what happened to the plane itself. So far, we know nothing. Without the black box, we have only the premature determination, by President Michel Sleiman, that there was no indication of terrorism (based on what?); the immaterial declaration, by the Minister of Transportation, that the plane made a “fast and strange turn” shortly before hitting the sea (some might call this crashing), culminating in a strange analysis, in the Times of London, calling the debate between “storms and sabotage” a ponder-worthy “mystery” (evidence of neither = evidence of both, right?). The black box is everything. Without it, there is nothing to debate.
Or is there? Today, OTV, a local channel, is reporting that a rocket may have been fired at the plane, and notes that several Hezbollah officials were supposed to be on board, but cancelled at the last minute. (Wait, does that mean Hezbollah was the target or the culprit?)
And then there are the important ramifications of the fact that the plane may have been used by Ryanair in past years — has anyone considered the IRA angle yet?
Patrick Galey, a local British journalist who I’ve picked on a bit lately for no particular reason (he actually led some solid coverage of the incident in the Daily Star), notes that Naharnet (the source of some of the Hezbollah speculation) should be attended to with “a shovelful of salt.” When a plane drops out of the sky and lands in the Mediterranean, I would say this applies to all the coverage. And you’d better do with an ocean-full.
Follow Joshua Hersh on Twitter: @joshuahersh
Joshua Hersh is a writer who lives in Beirut. He was previously a fact-checker at the New Yorker, and his work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New Republic, the National (Abu Dhabi), and the New York Times.