February 12, 1998
The Panic Retreats
There has been a backlash against panic. Panic isnow "out." News stories about panic have become redundant, boring andsuspect, what with the overwhelming condemnation of the media forwhipping up the panic in the first place.
And there are just so many times the Israelipublic can get worried when U.S. officials warn Saddam Hussein yetagain that "time is running out." The Israeli blood pressure issomewhat higher than normal, but lower than it was a week ago, andstable -- for now.
A recent Israeli army poll of people lined up atgas-mask distribution centers found that the public is concerned andwants more information, but was reacting "normally," according toarmy psychologists who interpreted the results. Only one-third ofrespondents said that the Iraqi crisis was Israel's most pressingproblem; another third named the peace process; the remaining thirdcited the economy. Ninety-one percent said that they would stay homeif Israel were attacked; 7 percent said that they would movetemporarily to another part of the country; and 2 percent said thatthey would wait out the missiles abroad.
One development that clearly calmed people downwas the opening of dozens of additional gas-mask distribution centersaround the country. Israelis no longer had to wait hours in line, nolonger got hot under the collar and started shouting at each other,and, thus, no longer provided such a mediagenic display of frayednerves - i.e. "panic" - for TV cameras and reporters.
The Israeli media are used to getting slammed byright-wing politicians and the common folk, but now they were beingblasted by their own aristocrats -- star commentators in the pressand TV -- for their performance in the early days of the scare.Israel's leading print journalist, Nahum Barnea of Yediot Aharonot,noted that TV stations had aired interviews with a woman shriekingthat she was leaving the country, as well as shocking archivalfootage of Saddam's gas attacks on a Kurdish village.
Barnea concluded: "This was a cynical, twistedattempt to make a big noise and high ratings at the expense of thevital national interest and the public's nerves.... It turns out thatRabin was right when he said that had television been around duringthe War of Independence, we would have lost the war."
So the media were chastened. News editors,headline writers, cameramen, reporters and talk-show hosts feltcompelled to restrain themselves. "Calm is the order of the day.We're supposed to be calm, and we're supposed to calm the listenersdown. I'm calm; are you calm?" a radio talk-show co-host asked hispartner. "I'm calm," said the partner. Sarcastic, but calm.
Israeli government, military and healthauthorities repeated their soothing messages relentlessly. They madethree major points: 1) The chance of an Iraqi attack on Israel wasslim and close to none; 2) the home front was as prepared as possiblefor such an attack; and 3) even if anthrax-loaded missiles did landon Israel, people would be safe inside their gas masks and sealedrooms. The first point was credible. The second was, for the mostpart, credible. But the third was an insult to the intelligence. "Thegas mask [and sealed room] provide a satisfactory answer to chemicaland biological weapons," said Brig. Gen. Dr. Aryeh Eldad, head of theArmy Medical Corps.
If this was so, why was America preparing to go towar to destroy these weapons? Why worry so much about "weapons ofmass destruction" if gas masks and masking tape could neutralizethem?
In the unlikely event that anthrax, botulin orpoison gas did explode on Israel, it would be a catastrophe, andpeople know it, no matter what the "experts" tried to tellthem.
There were also some avoidable gaps in the homefront's preparedness. Most of the bomb shelters in schools were notsealed against gas or bacterial infiltration. "I'm worried, and Ihope the future doesn't give me reason to worry even more, " saidShai Lachman, chairman of the national Parents Association.
Retired Gen. Amram Mitzna, who was in charge ofthe army's Planning Division during the Gulf War (and is now mayor ofHaifa), said: "The main lesson from the mistakes of the Gulf War --that there must be coordination between all the relevant bodies, thearmy, police, fire department, Magen David Adom [ambulance service]and municipalities -- has not been learned to this day. They are allstill working separately."
Nevertheless, gas masks were being distributedsmoothly, and hundreds of thousands more were en route from Germanyand Holland. The United States was sending Israel large stocks ofantidotes to viruses such as anthrax. Best of all, Israel had a farsuperior arsenal of dirty weaponry than Saddam had, and Saddam knewit. Deterrence was Israel's best protection.
Yet the public, even without the media's goading,had been honestly overwrought, at least at first, and this messagehad gone out to hostile countries such as Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syriavia the foreign media.
There was an upside and a downside to this,military commentator Ron Ben-Yishai wrote in Yediot Aharonot. Enemycountries, knowing that the specter of nonconventional weaponry couldrattle the Israeli public, might be encouraged to develop theseweapons with even greater alacrity, Ben-Yishai suggested. But, on theother hand, Ben-Yishai continued, the enemy might be thinking: "It'snot worth tangling with a such a nervous people. Who knows how theIsraeli government might react?"
The panic was now subsiding. Panic can only besustained for a limited time; then it needs to take a rest. But ifthe time comes when Gulf War II is not a possibility in the comingweeks but a certainty in the coming days, the Israeli mood may revertto panic, or it may move to a deeper, more resolute calm. Stay tuned,but don't believe everything you hear, see, or even read.
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