Posted on February 21, 2005 in Washington Watch

Rafiq Hariri was larger than life. He was a political giant and a visionary whose accomplishments reflected both qualities–they were enormous in size and far-reaching in consequence.

He also possessed a fierce will and a determination to focus his wealth and many talents in the pursuit of goals he set for himself and his country.

Hariri had critics, to be sure. Great men of vision always do. As he single-mindedly pursued the physical restoration and political and economic revitalization of Lebanon, he had to make a difficult transition from businessman to politician. Wending his way through the many mine-fields of Lebanese politics required that Hariri master new skills–and he did.

The terrorist blast that murdered Rafiq Hariri did more than kill him and kill and maim so many others, it also struck like a knife cutting deep into the heart of the fragile Lebanon that Hariri so loved.

There was a profound irony in the place where the assassins struck. The rebuilding of the heart of Beirut out to the sea had been central to Hariri’s dream of a restored Lebanon. And this is an element of Hariri’s vision and leadership that was unique in modern Lebanese politics. Lebanon’s war stole the childhood of a generation of young Lebanese. For many in this generation, Hariri had transcended the sectarian labels that plague the country’s politics. For the youth born into war, or for the generation born abroad who had heard only stories of Beirut’s splendor, Hariri had given them, for the first time in their lives, something to be proud of. The pictures of burned cars, dead and wounded, damaged buildings, and rubble helped the terrorists make a statement that they sought to kill not only the dreamer, but the dream itself.

I had been to Lebanon a number of times in the 1970s, beginning with my visit in 1971, before the long war. Although I did not return in the 1980s, I remained close in other ways. We formed a humanitarian group to rescue and heal Lebanon’s wounded children and we made an award-winning film of the horror that had transformed the glories of Beirut into a devastated war-zone.

When I returned in the early 1990s and saw first hand what I had only previously seen on film, I wept. It was difficult to absorb the magnitude of the destruction–the barbarity, the randomness, the sin of such wanton waste.

The historic center of the capitol lay in ruin, but the city and the country continued to move and grow around the ruins. A city and country, still divided, but sprawling to the north, south, and east, ignoring the city’s dead heart.

It was during this first return visit that I met Rafiq Hariri. As he discussed his plan to reconstruct Lebanon, which he always reminded me was “your country,” I sat appreciative but not fully comprehending. It was so grand in scope, so all-encompassing, so visionary, and, it appeared to me, so impossible.

With each successive visit, I saw the vision emerge, block by block. Beirut was coming back to life. Traces of war’s scars were being erased. Vitality was returning.

Some Lebanese complained that Hariri’s vision for Beirut was misdirected or too extravagant. But what he knew was that if the country was to be reborn, its heart had to beat again.

Each time I would see him, he spoke of the effort with pride. Because it was “my country” he wanted to share the progress and the plans that lay ahead.

On one occasion, I suggested that the effort, though a marvel, troubled me for one reason. Was it not dangerous, I asked, to erase all memories of war? Should they not, I offered, leave one devastated block or destroyed building as a stark reminder–as if to say “Remember and don’t let it happen again.” He did not agree.

Now the terrorists have brought back the horror and we’ve been reminded, in one bold stroke, what we had hoped to forget.

Hariri was right to constantly remind me, “It’s your country.” I obviously feel an affinity to the country of my parents. But his words should apply more directly to all the people of Lebanon. “It is your country.” There should be a resolve that emerges in the wake of this crime, not only to find and punish the murderers, but to deny them their goal of killing the dreamer’s vision of a restored, revitalized, and unified Lebanon.

Three generations ago, the great Lebanese American poet Kahlil Gibran wrote a simple verse with the repeating line “you have your Lebanon, I have mine.” In it, Gibran chided the politicians of his day who defined Lebanon by their intrigue and their vain boastings. To Gibran the real Lebanon was its prophets and poets, its beauty and the vitality of its daily life.

In this light, our Lebanon of today ought to be inspired by the vision of Rafiq Hariri–a nation free and united, vibrant and open, with its heart beating strong. So while the horrible vision of a black cloud over Beirut reminded many of the war they had hoped to forget, it also led to an outpouring of grief shared by Lebanese of all religions, sects, and political persuasions–a unity that many Lebanese have never before experienced.

The dreamer may have been killed, in the city he loved, but his dream will live. That is “our Lebanon.”

For comments or information, contact James Zogby

comments powered by Disqus