Lebanon’s Tragedy Is All Too Familiar

In some ways, at least, the negligence of the Trump administration actually exceeds that of the Lebanese government. An explosion, after all, is a sudden thing that happens all at once. There is no intervening once it begins.

A pandemic, by contrast, takes place over time. Each day thus offers a new opportunity either for negligence or for leadership. And each day since the pandemic arrived in this country, Trump has awakened with what amounts to a renewed commitment to negligence. Sometimes the commitment takes the form of denial. Sometimes it takes the form of blame-shifting. Sometimes it takes the form of conspiracy theorizing. Sometimes it takes the form of magical thinking.

There is no such thing as leadership during an explosion. There is such a thing as leadership during a pandemic. And there is also such a thing as its absence.

We should compare our government’s performance unfavorably with that of Lebanon’s for another reason too: Lebanon has excuses—a lot of them. It is a poor country. It is riven by sectarian divisions. It fought a horrible civil war not too long ago. It has been occupied by two of its neighbors. And it still has to deal with political forces such as Hezbollah and foreign meddling from Iran and Saudi Arabia. It has 1 million refugees from the Syrian conflict with whom to contend.

What exactly is our excuse?

“The people demand the fall of the regime,” protesters chant in Beirut. And maybe people would be demanding the fall of the regime here too had our catastrophe unfolded in a flash, had it sheared the faces off of buildings and buried children, instead of taking place in slow motion over great distances and involving ever-so-many people we don’t know in nursing homes and hospitals we will never visit.

Yes, democratic remedies are available here—an election coming up in less than three months—through which we can channel our rage. At least assuming the election goes off okay, we have a means of effecting the fall of the regime that the Lebanese, whose political system divides the people’s vote to ensure that every sect has a share of power, do not have. There is, at least in theory, a way for Americans to demand accountability of their leadership. And that is a crucial difference.

Yet even if we do that three months from now, and even if a Biden administration sweeps into office and acts decisively and effectively to get the pandemic under control, it will be a long time before the United States is in a position once again to lecture other countries about the relationship between responsible government and disaster preparedness, prevention, and management.

Because we too left thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate downtown.

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