As a news-hungry people, Israelis constantly listen to the news. Who can blame us? Every half hour we listen to the radio. In between, we check numerous online news sites. Our Internet bookmarks let us quickly switch back and forth to see what is happening. Is it 3 in critical condition, or 4 killed? Was there another terrorist, now on the loose, or can we breathe just a little? We desperately rush to learn the very facts we really don’t want to know. The television news can be seen almost hourly from 5:00 in the evening until well after midnight, and in between we have the international news stations.
It seems like there was always a radio or a TV on somewhere. But dealing with terror in the 21st century has taken an even stranger twist. Now we have news headlines sent to us by email and even on the cellular phone. In the middle of work, at dinner with friends. A beep. A message. Sudden awareness. A shooting. An attack. So last night, as I sat in the pedestrian walkway in the center of Jerusalem eating dinner in a café, I watched a few people walk by. The few stores that were open, began closing as the evening wore on and hopes of other customers dwindled.
A young couple walked past the plastic windows hand in hand. An older couple strolled by. Six yeshiva boys dressed in black decided to fight the overwhelming silence in the square by doing a quick song and dance and then they wandered off and the silence returned. My friend’s phone beeped. He read the message: another Israeli wounded in a driveby shooting. A moment later, my phone beeped with the same message. We continued our meal; what else could we do? We tipped the waiter just a little more than was customary. Perhaps this was our gesture to make up for the empty tables and the stifling sense of desertion we felt in the air. What else can people do? Do I blame them for being afraid? Not at all.
Close to 35% of those recently surveyed have admitted that they have completely stopped going to public places. Another 30% have admitted to drastically reducing the number of times and places they go. We walked up and down the mall an extra time, knowing that it wouldn’t help these suffering stores or the overwhelming fear that despite our determination to overcome, somehow we aren’t quite keeping up the pace.
A man with a large bag. He’s too old, isn’t he? A woman with a backpack. It doesn’t really matter who carries the bag, the slightly uncomfortable feeling lingers. We wait for the phone to beep again.
Weeks ago, I was at one of Jerusalem’s largest intersections when they discovered an abandoned knapsack. Is it a bomb? Who can take a chance? As the police began closing down the intersection, the traffic light changed and I drove away. For long moments after, I realized that my ears were trained not on the surrounding traffic or the quiet radio that always drones on in the car. I was waiting for a boom.
Today, from my window I saw traffic halt in the middle of the road. Police, army. Cars line up as the robot bomb sapper slowly makes its way to the box. Surely that box in the middle of the highway innocently fell off the back of some truck. But what if it didn’t? Painstakingly slow, the automated robot moves into position. Police stop traffic on the other side of the highway as well. All is ready. The sapper advances and its front arm comes down and picks up an object, shakes it and drops it. Another object. Same routine. Silence around. More time passes. More movement from the little yellow robot. We are waiting for the boom.
All is safe. The snapper moves away and is slowly loaded back into the police van. Now a soldier slowly makes his way over to the object. He bends and moves things around. It’s hard to see from the distance, but still we wait for the boom. Only now we are dealing with a human life and so fear is added to the anticipation. The soldier leaves and as he walks away, he takes off his heavy helmet. It’s very hot but we only become aware of it as we imagine how he must have sweltered in the heat of the sun, alone in the middle of the highway. Was he afraid? Did he anticipate a boom? The police van drives up and picks up the debris left from the snapper. Traffic begins to move. There will be no boom and so we breathe.
This is life in Israel and this is how we deal with terrorism in the 21st century. A chain of coffee shops announces that they will no longer serve sit-down customers. Take your coffee and go. The risk, the responsibility, the fear is too great. You enter a café and you quickly estimate the safest place to sit. Near the front to get out, near the back away from the boom. You eat, you talk, and you wait for the boom that might happen each time a new person enters the restaurant.
We’ve learned the signs of a terrorist attack. One ambulance means someone is hurt; someone has fallen or broken a leg. Two ambulances makes our heads turn and we begin to wonder. When we see three ambulances shriek past us, we know. Not where, not when, not how many, but we know. All that is left are the details, the numbers. This time, there was a boom.
We can tell the difference between a bomb boom and a regular boom. We know when a friend calls, says hello and then hesitates. This is dealing with terrorism in the 21st century and we have become experts. When the guard smiles and passes me through, I tell him to be a little less trusting. And when my sister calls with tears in her voice, I tell her that tomorrow will be better.
My fourteen year old son comes to me whenever he hears a siren, asking if something has happened. And my six year old tells me there has been a “pe’gua,” a terrorist attack. His TV program has been interrupted and someone is talking in place of the cartoons and to him, this means an attack. He doesn’t really understand, but already he knows the dreaded word. Six years old, and already he knows to wait for the boom.