The tragic murder of Myriam Achkar on 21st November in the town of Sahel Alma generated significant turmoil in Lebanon. While the family of the victim and her loved ones cannot be blamed for the flare up of emotions and the call for retribution in rather crude words, the reaction of the more removed public is worth a pause for reflection. As the story unraveled, both mainstream and social media commentaries were awash with bigoted and racist overtones. : At its heart the interpretation of the event as yet another symbol of the persecution of Christianity in a hostile environment. This permanent kink in the psyche of Arab Christian community has resurfaced recently in the wake of the Arab Spring but stretches back to the inception of Islam and the search for an Eastern identity that is simultaneously distinct and in tune with its Islamic surrounding.
I contrasted the social and official reaction (as distinct from the personal one) to the murder of Myriam with the aftermath of the slaughter of 62 adolescents on a Norwegian Island earlier this year. Following a meticulous and protracted process, Anders Brehing Breivik, the murderer at the heart of these events has only this week been found clinically insane by two Forensic Psychiatrists. More importantly they found that his actions could be blames on delusional beliefs emanating from a diagnosis of Paranoid Schizophrenia. Breivik is likely to spend the rest if his life in a secure psychiatric institution; an outcome that has not pleased everyone but as one bereaved parent insisted, the important point is that society will no longer be at risk from him.
The protection of others is an important function of well-established mental health services in European countries where specialists coordinate their work with other agencies, including law enforcement agencies and social services. It is of course fanciful to expect the development of such services in the Arab world, at least in the short term. But as shown in the Breivik case, the use of mental health expertise to help provide satisfactory answers following a crime that impact society beyond the immediate environment of the victim and the perpetrator can be a positive investment for the concerned authorities.
There is no evidence that Fathi Jaber Salateen, the Syrian who committed the gruesome murder in Sahel Alma was mentally ill in the clinical sense. In fact the event is shocking in its simplicity, in the sense that it appears to be the pure product of a criminal psychopathic mind. Myriam, a loving and loved 28 year old who happened to be at the wrong place and at the wrong time, was as such sacrificed to appease dysfunctional basic sexual instincts. What followed remains mostly speculation until details are further revealed.
But this is not the account reported by various media outlets, either for reasons of ignorance or ulterior motives. Instead the social and sectarian dimension was exploited ad nauseaum overshadowing the personal tragedy. This became a story of an innocent Christian girl killed by a Muslim Immigrant worker. The discrepancy between the real and perceived cultural and religious values of both victim and perpetrator were emphasized to explain the murder. A political solution was even sought for what is essentially a problem inherent to the human mind; the dysfunctional psyche independent of creed. Little context or analysis was provided for these types of murder, which are mostly advertised in the Christian West. For what it’s worth another chilling parallel could be drawn between this case and the murder of 25 year old Jo Yeates last Christmas in the English city of Bristol. The convicted murderer was no other than her neighbor, Vincent Tabak, a distinctively middle class Dutch architect who led an unremarkable crime-free existence.
The death of Myriam could not come at a worse time for the Lebanese authorities. For months, public paranoia has been at its peak fuelled by heightened local and regional political tension but also a genuine lack of security. In a desperate attempt to minimize public outcry, many in positions of responsibility made populist statements lumping together unrelated events and reaching erroneous conclusions. The measures suggested might reassure a traumatized community, but do little to prevent another Salateen from striking in Sahel Alma, or elsewhere when we least expect it.