Last week in Beirut, as it has now been widely reported in the international media, Christopher Hitchens scrapped with members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, or SSNP, local party aligned with the regime in Damascus, after scribbling on a political poster. Some of the foreign press has suggested that the visiting writer did not understand the consequences of his actions in the volatile Lebanese arena, but that is unlikely.
Hitchens' political commitments, his advocacy for democratic forces around the world, have been shaped by his devotion to George Orwell, and the scene that ensued on Hamra Street that afternoon was indeed Orwellian in character: As the Anglo-American author remarked on the totalitarian nature of the political advertisement in question, a gang materialized almost immediately and set upon him. Thankfully, Hitchens sustained no lasting injuries, and by all accounts enjoyed the rest of his stay in Lebanon.
Hitchens came to Beirut as part of a delegation sponsored by the New Opinion Workshop. The trip was timed to correspond with the February 14 anniversary commemoration of Rafik al-Hariri's assassination, and introduced visiting journalists and bloggers to a number of the country's political and intellectual leaders. One afternoon was spent meeting staff at An-Nahar, where they showed the visiting group the offices of their murdered colleagues Samir Kassir and Gebran Tueni.
In other words, the Hitchens episode must be seen in a larger context. For instance, just two months ago, Omar Harqous, a Future News correspondent, was attacked in that same neighborhood and hospitalized. Before that, during the events of last May, the same party that beat Hitchens took the lead in trashing the offices of Future TV. The enemies of free speech in Lebanon have exacted a high price on all those who have dared to cross them.
The violence done to a visiting journalist in Hamra in broad daylight could not have illustrated this point more sharply. For all of Lebanon's many competing interests, its dozens of political parties and 18 religious sects, there are in the end two sides – one party believes in Lebanon's long tradition of co-existence and plurality, and the other party has targeted the champions of Lebanese democracy in a bloody campaign that pre-dates February 14.
As the Special Tribunal for the Hariri assassination and the subsequent series of political murders is due to begin in a few weeks time, Lebanon's pro-democracy forces and their friends in the international community have placed their faith in the rule of law. It has been more than four years now since the former prime minister was killed along with 22 others in the middle of the Lebanese capital, and if the region's strategic circumstances have shifted some during that time, the expectations are simply the same – for the end of the era of immunity for political crime, and thus a just conclusion to an Orwellian nightmare.