September 18, 2003
Life With A Terror Twist
I was drinking a martini on the terrace of the King David Hotel when I started counting sirens. An ultra-Orthodox social worker had told me earlier in the week that that is what people often do here, count sirens. One siren is probably a heart attack. Two might be a fire. If you hear three, you had best turn on the news.
On Tuesday afternoon, a young man who ran a cafe on a crowded downtown street told me that he was just "waiting for the bang." When the day's first human bomb finally exploded close to 6 p.m. at a bus stop near Tel Aviv, one could feel a sense of relief intertwined with the sadness. It is difficult not to feel grateful when the bombs blow elsewhere. And the uncertainty of where and what time the strike will come is sometimes as unbearable as the news of the event itself. Many Israelis are embarrassed to find themselves just waiting for the inevitable explosion just so they can resume their normal daily routine.
After a major earthquake, Angelenos have been known to funnel their anxiety into sex. In the wake of Sept. 11, alcohol consumption shot up all over America. Here, the stress of imminent terrorism has become ritualized. Three years into the current intifada, Israelis have become accustomed to checking two forecasts every morning: one for weather, the other for terror. There had been more than 40 terror alerts last Tuesday when two suicide bombers killed 15 people. By the afternoon, there was a rumor circulating that four separate terrorists were on their way.
Tension. Release. Tension. Release. Israelis cannot commemorate one single day a year like Sept. 11., Aug. 19, May 27, Sept. 9, etc., etc. The dates, places, bus lines, the total dead -- they all begin to blur.
It is easy to understand why people are so tired here. Eager to unload their burden, Israelis talk incessantly about chance and near misses. "I was in that cafe just the other day," they'll say. Fewer and fewer city dwellers are willing to play the odds and frequent their favorite restaurants. Bus riders are either brave souls or too poor to buy a car. With tourism nearly extinct, video stores are among the few businesses that are thriving. Cell phones have become more indispensable than ever. On Tuesday night, as I walked down the hill in the direction of the day's second attack, I noticed that nearly everyone on the street was clinging to one; checking up on loved ones or listening to the latest news.
Fixated on the present, most Israelis I spoke to choose not to look too far into the future. They refuse to consider what it would be like to live like this for many more years. Too busy responding to everyday crises, two trauma psychologists I interviewed would not even speculate about the long-term psychological and emotional effects of living with this form of terror. No one would answer my inquiry as to whether rates of drinking, domestic violence or street crime have gone up or down. Instead, many Israelis -- from writers and artists to social scientists and cab drivers -- recall the Jewish past when they explain how they cope with the present. "Anxiety is the engine of this country," writer Igal Sarna told me. "Millions of Jews came to Israel having survived all kinds of catastrophes."
But with anger at the Palestinians mounting, others worry that Israeli society is betraying its roots and becoming too hard and desensitized for its own good.
Novelist Orly Castel-Bloom was the only person I met who imagined a future of never-ending suicide bombings. "How do you keep on smiling?" she said. Still, she misses her country deeply whenever she travels abroad. "I think I am addicted," she confessed.
To the surprise of many, a recent opinion survey found that a sizable majority of Israelis say they are satisfied with life in this country.
It turns out that Tuesday night's bombing occurred less than 400 yards from my room at the Inbal Hotel. Like everyone else nearby, I felt anxious, confused and had troubled sleeping. The next morning I visited the bombing site, which resembled a movie set more than a killing field. Workers had already scrubbed the floor, hauled away debris and were busy putting up wooden panels to cover shattered windows. Just two doors away, in an outdoor cafe, I saw three middle-aged women sitting in the sun, sharing breakfast and laughing. Except for a handful of spectators, people were going about their day as if nothing had happened.
My last meeting on Wednesday had been scheduled at a popular restaurant in central Tel Aviv. Like so many others here, I told myself that I was more likely to get hit by a car -- particularly by an Israeli driver -- than I was to be a victim of the next bomb attack. The food was tasteless, greasy and more than a little overpriced. But that didn't bother me. I was just relieved that I had been seated at a table near the back at a seat facing the front door.
Gregory Rodriguez is a Los Angeles-based senior fellow at the New America Foundation.