Most of Lebanon’s 6 million citizens were not directly harmed by Tuesday’s horrific blast in the capital, Beirut. Yet many responded as if they were. The causes for the disaster are so deep in society and government – a culture of corruption, negligence, and militarized sectarianism – that thousands of Lebanese rushed to aid the victims, clean the streets, and care for the nearly 300,000 homeless people. Their outpouring of compassion was a way to start a clamor to hold officials to account and also reform a broken democracy.
Nations often go into soul-searching mode after a large and preventable tragedy. The Soviet Union collapsed in part because of rising public mistrust after the Chernobyl nuclear accident. South Korea entered a period of reform after a 2014 ferry disaster killed 302 people, including 250 students. In Mexico, earthquakes in 1985 and in 2017 helped expose widespread corruption and led to major advances in democracy. In Romania, a tragic nightclub fire in 2015 led to anti-corruption reform.
In Lebanon, people already do not trust the official inquiry into why tons of an explosive chemical were left in a port warehouse for six years. Many are calling for an international investigation. French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut Thursday and said he delivered “home truths” to the country’s leaders.
The age of smartphones and social media may have altered how people view disasters. Information and images about an incident flow more widely and quickly. A consensus on responsibility and reform is easier to achieve. This is why China’s autocratic leaders so quickly suppressed information about the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan and the early mistakes in countering it.
Perhaps a good example of modern reactions to mass tragedy was the 2013 collapse of an eight-story building in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000. The international exposure of shoddy construction led to unusually swift reforms in safety standards.
The world is learning how to hold leaders to account and to demand basic reforms. In a study by law professor Denis Binder of Chapman University, criminal prosecutions after non-terrorist disasters increased by 317% in the first 16 years of this century compared with similar prosecutions for all of the 20th century. His study also found South Korea to be the most proactive in reforming itself after major incidents, such as the ferry sinking as well as collapses of bridges and buildings.
He says humanity has entered a “new culture of vigorous enforcement.” Is Lebanon now adopting this culture, one that rests on a foundation of equality, transparency, and freedom? If the quick embrace of the blast’s victims by the Lebanese is any sign, the country is on a path of reform.