At the end of the third season of The Wire, the fictional HBO series, a Baltimore drug gang led by Avon Barksdale is arming up to take revenge on a rival gang for the murder of his top lieutenant, Stringer Bell. Barksdale, however, knows that Stringer wasn't killed by the rival gang, but rather had fallen as part of a conspiracy of his own making and tries to explain to his top enforcer what really happened.
But the enforcer, Slim Charles, doesn't want to hear it. Knowing that the gang is in the other room, arming up to go to war over the murder and with a canny understanding of the tribal vengeance dynamic that's in play, Charles cuts off his boss.
"If it's a lie," he empathically tells Avon. "Then we fight on that lie."
The hard-nosed world of David Simon's Baltimore can go a long way to explaining the reaction on all sides to the conclusion of an international tribunal that Hezbollah operatives stalked and assassinated Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, in a massive 2005 truck bombing along Beirut's seaside that also killed more than 20 members of his entourage and innocent bystanders.
The killing of Hariri, one of the region's most prominent Sunni political and business figures, sparked a wave of domestic and international outrage directed at Hezbollah's key ally, Syria, which at the time dominated Lebanon's security and political apparatus. Using the momentum of a popular uprising that formed at least a momentary unification of major Lebanese factions -- minus Hezbollah, of course -- Syria was forced to relinquish its 30-year hold on Lebanon.
But the idea that Hezbollah, the strongest and most ruthlessly competent faction in Lebanon, not to mention a close ally of the Syrian regime, might have been involved was hardly mentioned for years after the killing. In retrospect, the prospect that the vaunted "Resistance" of Lebanon had a hand in killing a national symbol would have punctured the myth that Hezbollah had never turned its formidable arsenal on Lebanon. And the idea that only Hezbollah would attack Israel and its collaborator allies in the occupation of southern Lebanon was a critical myth to the survival of the state.
Yes, people wanted the truth when everyone was convinced that the hit was a heavy-handed Syrian attempt to rein in a growing demand for Lebanese freedom. That fit the narrative arc of Lebanese oppression at the hands of a Syrian regime that never shied away from overdoing the brutality when threatened, but it also didn't upset the careful balance of denial and self-delusion that has allowed this deeply troubled and fractious little country to stumble along despite massive internal divisions and malignant external actors.
When a series of media leaks first suggested that in fact Hezbollah might have been involved in the killings, the response from Hariri's political supporters was near panic. Rafiq's son and political heir, Saad, who actually took a brief turn as prime minister in the aftermath of his father's killing, alternated between suggestions that Hezbollah wasn't involved and calls that everyone should ignore the media leaks and let the tribunal do its job in peace. The Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, Rafiq's close friend and political ally, actually described the allegation of Hezbollah's involvement as dangerous and a potential threat to the survival of the state.
As I reported on these early allegations, I was struck by the sheer terror in the voices of Hariri's Sunni supporters of what it might mean if these claims turned out to be true. But even more telling was the reaction of my sources that were close to Hezbollah. For political supporters or Shiites who had grown up with the notion that the Party of God was a protector and liberator, their reaction was as it remains today: a steadfast denial followed by a specious claim that Israel must have been involved. But the closer the sources were to Hezbollah, the more interesting the reaction became.