Explainer: The deadly explosions that devastated Beirut

August 7, 2020

On Tuesday, two massive explosions occurred at the port of Beirut, killing at least 135 and injuring thousands. 

The blasts occurred near highly-populated areas and tourist sites, damaging nearby landmarks, businesses, and homes, including Baabda Palace, the official residence of the Lebanese President. At least three hospitals were also damaged by the blast. Beirut’s governor says up to 300,000 people had been left homeless in the aftermath of the explosion.

While experts are yet to determine the official yield of the explosion, it is likely to be comparable to the Halifax Explosion of 1917, when a cargo ship carrying high explosives collided with another ship, resulting in the largest human-caused explosion prior to the atomic bomb.

The United States Geological Survey reported that the explosion registered a 3.3 magnitude, equivalent to a minor earthquake. Windows were blown out up to 15 miles away and reports suggest it was heard as far away as Cyprus, 150 miles away into the Mediterranean.

Where is Beirut?

Beirut is the capital and largest city of Lebanon, a country which is bordered by Syria to the north and east and Israel to the south, with Cyprus to the west across the Mediterranean Sea. Beirut lies on the coast, on a peninsula that extends westward into the Mediterranean Sea.

Beirut is one of the oldest cities in existence. The first historical mention of Beirut is found in the ancient Egyptian Tell el Amarna letters dating from the 15th century B.C., around the time of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt (based on an early dating of that event). The city is one of the most religiously diverse in the Middle East. Although a slight majority are Muslim, about 4-in-10 people in Beirut identify as Christian. 

What caused the blast?

Initial reports blamed an outside attack or fire at a warehouse for firecrackers near the port. But Lebannese Prime Minister Hassan Diab blamed the explosion on 2,750 metric tons (about 6.06 million pounds) of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at a port warehouse for the past six years “without preventive measures.”

Ammonium nitrate is a crystal-like white solid which is made in large industrial quantities. The primary use for the material is as a source of nitrogen for fertiliser and to create explosions for mining. Because it is cheap to produce and can cause large blasts, ammonium nitrate has also been used by armies and terrorist groups around the world as an explosive.

Although relatively safe to handle, a large amount of material left unattended for long periods of time can begin to decay and become unstable. “The real problem is that over time it will absorb little bits of moisture and it eventually turns into an enormous rock,” says Andrea Sella, professor of chemistry at University College London. This makes it more dangerous, Sella told the BBC, because it means if there is a shock, it will spread much more easily. 

Why did the explosions produce a mushroom cloud if the blast wasn’t nuclear?

Mushroom clouds are mushroom-shaped clouds of debris, smoke, and usually condensed water vapor resulting. Although associated in the popular imagination with atomic and nuclear weapons, they can result from any explosion large enough to create a supersonic shockwave, which causes air to expand and cool rapidly, producing water in the form of a cloud. 

Experts note that the Beirut explosion lacked two hallmarks of a nuclear detonation: a “blinding white flash” and a thermal pulse, a surge of heat that burns human skin and produces fires within the blast radius.

Have there been similar explosions of ammonium nitrate in the past?

In 1947, a French ship docked in the port of Texas City, Texas, was carrying about 2,200 tons of ammonium nitrate when it exploded. The result, known as the Texas City disaster, was the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history and one of the largest nonnuclear explosions. The blast created subsequent fires and explosions in other ships and nearby oil-storage facilities, resulting in the death of 581 people, including all but one member of the Texas City Fire Department.

In 1995, domestic terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols used about 4,800 pounds of ammonium nitrate-based fertilizer in a bomb used to destroy a federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The Oklahoma City bombing resulted in the deaths of 168, and injured almost 700 others. 

More recently, twin explosions in the port of Tianjin, northern China, in 2015 killed more than 100 people, injured hundreds more, and wiped out large swaths of the surrounding city. Ammonium nitrate was one of the hazardous chemicals being stored at a warehouse where the blast occurred.

What is being done to help the people of Beirut?

Many evangelical ministries in Lebanon have been working to help the people of Beirut, reports Christianity Today. International Christian ministries are also mobilizing to provide help. For example, World Vision teams are in the area assessing the needs of the most vulnerable children, and a disaster response team from Samaritan’s Purse is preparing to deploy to determine how best to help the people of Lebanon. 

Numerous other international groups, such as the Red Cross, United Nations, and World Health Organization, have begun to help the local authorities respond to the tragedy. Foreign governments have also begun to provide assistance. Australia, France, and Russia have all extended offers of humanitarian medical assistance, as have Middle Eastern neighbors including Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE. President Trump has also said the United States “stands ready to assist” though no specifics were provided. 

As ABC News reports, Lebanon is currently in a position of severe financial difficulty, with the strain on the country’s healthcare system already exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Christians should be praying for the people of Lebanon and for churches in the area as they seek to minister to a hurting community.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24