Over the course of the past year, I have been subjected to some of the most aggressive trolling and personal attacks of my 15 year political career. In recent months, those vicious attacks on my character have taken a very dark turn.
First, some background: My mother is Jewish-American, my father was Lebanese. I grew up in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war and as the son of a Christian father, I was required to undergo military training by the Lebanese Forces. The mandatory training began when I was in high school and lasted for three years. It took place after school hours and during the summer. My schoolmates were also conscripted.
Even though I am a U.S. citizen by birth, I was forbidden from leaving Lebanon without written permission from the military. My father ultimately secured a waiver and I moved to my mother’s home city of New York. I’ve only been back to Beirut a handful of times since. The last visit was in the early nineties. I still find the memories traumatic.
As a child, I survived some of the most brutal urban warfare of the 20th century. I witnessed terrible things: bodies torn to shreds, car-bombed and bullet-riddled buildings, jets falling out of the sky. I lost friends and relatives. I spent countless nights in dank, candle-lit shelters as missiles rained down.
I was a few hundred yards away from the American embassy when a car bomb demolished it and I saw blood dripping down its shattered facade. I had many close brushes with death, as did my family.
In all my time in Lebanon, I never harmed a soul. But I learned the horrors of war up close and personal and it shaped the person I am today. I have survived intact by owning it all, by accepting everything I went through as a trial by fire, in the most literal sense of that phrase. It was an awakening to the cruelest aspects of human nature.
Coping with war is not easy and I’m eternally thankful that I’ve been able to build a successful life and career despite growing up in a living hell.
But never in my wildest imagination did I think there were individuals who, decades later, would mangle and contort my childhood pain to falsely accuse me of killing women and children. Even writing that phrase turns my stomach. But it is time for me to confront the individuals who would publicly accuse me of the most despicable acts imaginable without an iota of basis in fact or reality.
If you wonder what would possess someone to make such outrageous and libelous claims against me, it’s simple: They don’t like my politics. Imagine that: hundreds of people have taken it upon themselves to post hideous accusations about me because of my political positions. It is mind-boggling.
It is also the classic definition of defamation and I have methodically taken screenshots of every instance and reported the harassment to the appropriate social platforms. Furthermore, I have consulted with attorneys about appropriate legal action.
The genesis of these execrable assaults on my integrity goes back to 2015, when a handful of people on Twitter identified six tweets where I mentioned my military service out of over 20,000 tweets I’ve posted since I joined the platform. Each of those six tweets was made in the same context: arguing with rightwingers about terrorism, the military and their misguided definitions of “manhood.”
In one tweet about my service, I was arguing in favor of a mosque at Ground Zero. In another, I was speaking out in defense of Palestinian children. In yet another, I was directly asked if I had served in the military. I stated in my replies that as someone who was drafted into a sectarian militia, I had firsthand experience of war and terrorism. It was my rebuttal to those who talk big about dealing with war but have never lived it in person.
Somehow, that triggered a coordinated effort to connect me to the heinous Sabra and Shatila massacre, which I had condemned in a 2011 Mother Jones article by saying “the massacres and targeting of civilians by all sides was beyond despicable.”
During Lebanon’s sectarian war, all sides committed horrific atrocities, from Sabra and Shatila to Damour to thousands of kidnappings and murders based on religion alone. Civilian neighborhoods were shelled indiscriminately. Snipers shot people trying to buy a loaf of bread. It was evil made manifest and I still can’t believe my family and I survived it in one piece. It causes me profound sadness that so many of my fellow Lebanese, Christian and Muslim, were not so fortunate.
Claiming I was involved in atrocities when I was a child conscript who never harmed a soul is truly one of the ugliest things I’ve ever experienced in my life — and I’ve seen a lot of ugly things.
Imagine randomly targeting an American service member online and photoshopping pictures of their face next to slaughtered children. Imagine calling them a member of a “death squad” because someone, somewhere, committed an atrocity.
That’s what I’ve been dealing with on a daily basis. I have a family who can read those things about me. I have friends and colleagues who may not know the reality of my childhood. Ignoring the trolls hasn’t worked. It’s time for me to confront this monstrous (and illegal) effort to damage my reputation.
UPDATE (3/22/16): I’m deeply gratified by the outpouring of support. I can’t thank you all enough.
UPDATE (3/24/16): In the 48 hours since I posted this piece, I’ve received hundreds of supportive comments and emails from friends, colleagues, acquaintances and social media peers. I am humbled and deeply appreciative.
However, as a counterpoint to their gracious support, a number of anonymous online accounts have continued to defame me, believing they are protected by the cloak of anonymity and by the mob effect.
I also want to add further context after seeing the responses to my piece. The issue is not whether I was trained by the Lebanese Forces or whether I said so online. I did and I’ll continue to do so. It’s that people who don’t know me (and who I don’t know) have falsely and maliciously extrapolated from my mandatory conscription to falsely accuse me of unthinkable atrocities without an iota of evidence or basis in fact.
It is just about the worst thing one human could say of — or to — another.
The willingness, even the eagerness, of strangers to falsely accuse someone they don’t know of such terrible acts is staggering. Is that what a computer and a fake name does to people? Are they so needy of approval? Of attention? Are they that callous?
And is Twitter willing to let those vile accusations stand despite having them flagged repeatedly?
I’ve been open about my experiences in Lebanon. It’s one of the ways I cope with the bloodshed I witnessed. My website bio describes my background in detail. I’ve referenced my military training in debates about the Mideast, terrorism and war. That’s my right. It’s my life. I’m proud of having survived the horrors of war.
When someone I’m engaging online says I know nothing about terrorism and I respond by saying I faced it in person, that’s the truth. My family and friends were exposed to car bombs, snipers, kidnappers, residential shelling and more. We fought with every fiber of our being to survive, to escape alive. I’ll continue to tell my story and use my experiences to inform my point of view.
To take those tweets out of context and make an outlandish, untruthful and libelous inference that I was part of a “death squad” or that I harmed women and children, is beyond the pale. It is deeply immoral and offensive. It is intolerable. And it is illegal.
UPDATE (5/14/16): It has come to my attention that Vice published an article in February implying I’ve “killed” people. Again, this is a classic instance of defamation and I will pursue all legal means to protect myself against such malicious lies.
[This post was written in March 2016 in response to egregious and false accusations about my military training as a teenager in Lebanon. The title and portions of the text have been updated to reflect recent events.]