Randomness of the Beirut Explosion

If someone had said to me a month ago that Beirut would be hit with the worst explosion in its history, I would have guessed (in descending order):

  • Civil war broke out between Lebanon’s various militarized factions.
  • Terrorism, perhaps as a protest against the government from an opposing faction.
  • An accident occurred with Hezbollah’s arms/explosives caches.
  • War broke out with Israel.
  • War broke out with Syria.

Nevertheless, at this point in the investigation, it seems that the explosion was essentially caused by a combination of two factors:

First and foremost, an overly relaxed, perhaps corrupt bureaucracy did not dispose of a huge amount of explosive ammonium nitrate that had been confiscated and left sitting in a warehouse for years. This powder keg, however, required a spark, which leads to the second factor: During repairs on a nearby warehouse, a spark lit what was inside (officials say it was fireworks), leading to a fire, which spread to the warehouse with the explosive material, igniting the powder keg.

Here is what this reminds me of: In his Black Swan (p. 180–181), Nassim Taleb, a Lebanese-American mathematical statistician, tells about his discussion with a gambling casino that was doing a risk assessment. To demonstrate that the greatest risks lie in the unexpected, he asked them what were the things that caused them to lose the most money in the past years. Here was their list:

  1. A tiger attacked its trainer/owner, ending a very popular attraction and leading to a large insurance settlement.
  2. A disgruntled former employee tried to blow up the building.
  3. An office worker didn’t send in required government forms, leading to a major fine.
  4. A manager’s daughter was kidnapped, and the account was dipped into to pay ransom.

Like with the casino, and like with Corona, the Beirut explosion shows how the unexpected has the greatest influence. And yet, we should not overlook the other side of this coin: Unexpected does not mean inevitable.

As noted above, the people working in the port did expect it, and reported the problem multiple times over a period of years.

If the bureaucracy had functioned well, and disposed of the material properly, we never would have heard of ammonium nitrate in the port of Beirut. Ironically, said government workers would not have been thanked or given a raise for a job well done if they had. And yet, since they did not do their job properly, over a hundred people were killed, thousands are wounded and now homeless, and much of the city is destroyed.

This is the rub when thinking about how to create good governance. How do we incentivize good work and taking risks seriously in a world in which it takes a massive explosion for the average person, not to mention the people in power, to pay attention?

About the Author
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the editor of TheTorah.com and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.