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Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Fear Itself

Fear Itself (washingtonpost.com)
"But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die."

-- Genesis 2:17

ADAM AND EVE'S PUNISHMENT FOR GETTING TOO CURIOUS WAS BANISHMENT from the Garden of Eden. But that was the least of it. The Bible is unclear about whether the first couple were immortal before their expulsion, but in a way, it is immaterial. What matters is that, as their punishment, they learned that they would someday die. That's when their Hell on Earth began.

To enter the modern, stone-porticoed building on King David Street in Jerusalem, I needed to give my name and show ID to an armed man who stood outside with a walkie-talkie. He radioed the information to a woman inside, who checked the name against her manifest, and radioed back a clearance. Only then was I admitted.

"Welcome to Jerusalem," the guard said, deadpan. I was not sure if this was meant ironically or not. Probably not. This was my hotel.

Things are different in Jerusalem, different from anywhere you have ever been. Before entering a grocery store, or a bus station, or a movie theater, you are stopped and wanded, often questioned, and sometimes frisked. Many restaurants keep their doors locked and buzz their customers in. At Ben-Gurion International Airport, the X-ray machine is the size of a panel truck, and the inspection of a single laptop computer can take 15 minutes. Ordinary citizens walk the streets of Jerusalem carrying concealed pistols -- this is not only legal but encouraged, to maintain an omnipresent citizen militia. Soldiers on weekend leave stroll the street in civvies, but with assault rifles slung over their shoulders, like ugly, 15-pound handbags. This, too, is encouraged. Soldiers are also under orders to carry tourniquets, just in case. All of this is to make ordinary people feel safer, against the onslaught.

There is a Hebrew word, hamatzav, that is used to describe the state of dread that has swaddled Jerusalem like damp, clammy gauze since the Palestinian intifadas made merely living a daredevil act. Hamatzav literally means "the situation," and it seems to cover everything: the high security, the high anxiety, the high-stakes game of chicken. Palestinian militants believe they can make the Israelis so fearful, so desperate for peace of mind, that they will end their occupation and surrender more land than they ever bargained for. Israeli leaders believe their fierce reprisals will, in time, crush their attackers' will to kill. Both sides, of course, know fear: Plenty of innocent Palestinians have been killed in Israeli military actions -- for Palestinians, the act of living must also, at times, seem like a mortal risk. Each side accuses the other of terrorism. Each side describes its own actions as self-defense. And so it goes.

On my first night in the city, I walked from my hotel to the Western Wall, Jewish Jerusalem's holiest site, and there I met Ozer Bergman. It is hard to miss Bergman. He stands 7 feet tall -- 6-foot-5 of it is Ozer, and the rest is hat, a dramatic, thick cylinder of fur. It was sundown on the holy day of Shavuot, and Bergman, a Hasidic Jew, had come here to pray. He works for a research institute that translates the writings of Nachman of Breslov, a revered 19th-century rabbi.

"That's a full-time business?" I asked.

"In Jerusalem, it is," he said with a laugh.

I almost didn't approach him, anticipating a language problem. It turns out that Bergman is originally from Long Island. Devout Mets fan.

We were speaking outside the Western Wall's security gate, where Bergman was waiting in a crowd of hundreds to board the No. 2 bus, which carries the faithful to the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood where he lives. It's a mob scene, with an empty bus arriving every minute or two and leaving moments later, packed cheek by jowl.

Eight months before, one of these buses -- crowded just like these, on a similar day -- blew up, killing 23 people, many of them children. Many more were grievously injured. The suicide bomber, a father of young children, was black-bearded like Ozer and dressed to resemble a Hasid. He had boarded the bus, wedged himself in the middle of a crowd of riders, patiently waited until his bus passed another bus to assure maximum loss of life, and exploded.

Bergman is not afraid to take buses?

"Never!" he thundered. "I take buses all the time. My wife, too. It's my country, I will not let them push me around." Bergman, 48, said that if a Jew dies in a terrorist attack, he is in a state of martyrdom and is guaranteed the highest reaches of Heaven.

Isn't this more or less what the suicide bombers believe, about themselves?

There are ironies in this situation, Bergman conceded, that "sound obscene." But it doesn't matter, he said. Bergman believes what Rabbi Nachman taught: that God intends all things, good and bad, to happen for a reason -- that there is pain in the world but no evil, because whatever occurs is part of an eternal plan leading to a state of utopia for all mankind. It's all predetermined: "If you're number's up, your number's up," he said. But since it's all for good, in the end, there is no need for fear, and no reason to meet apparent misfortune with sadness or regret.

It was time to go. Bergman gently took the hand of his adult son, Nachman. Nachman Bergman wore a black suit, side locks that curled down from his temples, and the sweet, trusting eyes of the mentally retarded.

Hand in hand, father and son headed for the No. 2 bus.

"What's the point of truth or beauty or knowledge when the anthrax bombs are popping all around you? . . . People were ready to have their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life."

-- World Controller Mustapha Mond, explaining the origins of the dehumanized but anxiety-free dystopia in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World


WHAT IS THE TOLL OF TERRORISM, once terrorism has become not an occasional horror but a fact of everyday life? How do people adapt, and at what cost? Looking to the future, these are questions Americans might ask.

Everyone in Jerusalem deals with hamatzav in his or her own way, depending on one's personal threshold for danger, or one's personal calculus for safety. These are highly subjective matters.

Ilan Mizrahi is a freelance photographer who has covered the latest intifada since its inception. He negotiates the city on a minibike, fearlessly threading through traffic, and is often among the first on the scene when carnage occurs. In his travels, Mizrahi will pass a bus, if he must, but will not squeeze between two of them. With two buses, he feels, the odds of an explosion are doubled, elevated to the point that he is uncomfortable. That's his threshold.

In the late 1990s, Mizrahi said, his mother would frantically phone him as soon as word got out that there had been a suicide bombing. She wanted reassurance that he was safe. But within a few years, after bombings had become commonplace, she no longer called. One day, he arrived at the scene of a blast at a coffee shop, and realized that it was right below the bridal shop in which his mother worked. He went up there to get an overhead shot from her window. Oh, hi, she said. She said she'd gone downstairs, checked out the three bodies, made sure it was no one she knew, and then gone back to work.

Israel has assimilated terror, and institutionalized it. A bombing scene is cleaned up in hours, and one day later, there is often no sign it ever happened. Aleph Aleph Glass, once a small glazier company, is now a huge glazier company. It got the government contract for repairing windshields, and is very good at working very quickly. For the first few days after a terror attack, when people are afraid of public places, many restaurants will start offering takeout menus. Then, things return to normal.

I found myself remembering Terry Gilliam's macabre 1985 movie, "Brazil," about a dysfunctional society that has given itself over to fear. Government officials are forever assuring that the war on terrorism is going well. At one point, the characters are seated in a fancy restaurant and a terrorist bomb explodes. Obsequious waiters instantly swarm the scene, putting up room dividers, dragging away corpses and apologizing profusely to diners for the disturbance.

Mizrahi and I were seated in Moment, a cafe just a few blocks from the residence of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Two years before, on a Saturday night in March, this popular dining spot became a charnel house when a suicide bomber walked in -- right over there -- and blew himself up in the middle of a packed, young crowd. Eleven people died. Their names are inscribed on a stone tablet outside. Memorial tablets like that are all over Jerusalem, sometimes more than one on the same street corner.

"Our bill here will be one shekel higher," Mizrahi said, taking a forkful of salad, "because you're paying for that guy outside, sitting in the sun, waiting to explode to save your behind." He's talking about the security guard outside the door, a taciturn African Jew who has been a fixture at Moment since it was rebuilt. He'd frisked us as we entered. Not infrequently, when an attack is averted, it is done so by these security guards -- ubiquitous in Jerusalem -- who spot an attacker and bearhug him to the ground. Sometimes, if the guard can't immobilize the attacker's trigger hand in time, or if the bomb is rigged with a preset timing device, the two of them blow up together. Security guards are paid very well.

Mizrahi carries with him, in a little leather pouch, a thick metal machine nut he picked up from the street outside, part of the body-piercing shrapnel the bomber wore. The nut was deformed, the hole in the center now a squashed crescent. "Can you imagine," he asked, "the strength of the explosion that could cause that?"

Mizrahi is a regular patron at Moment; he was planning to be there at exactly the time of the bombing, but he had stayed at home for a while to watch a TV news report of another suicide attack. In Jerusalem, such almost-but stories are legion. There is a famous picture of the bartender at Moment a few seconds after the blast. He had ducked down behind the bar to get a glass, and in that instant the bomber detonated not 15 feet away. The bar shielded the bartender. In the photo, he has just stood up, and is staring in disbelief at the bloodbath around him.

We climbed on his minibike, and Mizrahi wove through the streets of Jerusalem, shouting over the engine: "See that, that's bus No. 13, the lucky one. It's never been hit. There's Netanyahu's house. Hey, we have a joke -- When a suicide bomber gets to Heaven he finds out it's not 72 virgins, it's a 72-year-old virgin."

Mizrahi is Jewish but of Kurdish and Spanish descent; with his copper skin he has the look of an Arab, and with his camera case he has the look of an Arab Carrying Something. He is stopped by security guards all the time, and submits good-naturedly. Actually, few people in Jerusalem resent these searches.

We parked and walked toward Zion Square on Jaffa Road, a commercial strip similar to one you'd find in any large city. Mizrahi was talking, and I was taking notes. His memory is encyclopedic.

"See the stone lion on that building, four stories up? Body parts hung there from the second bombing of the 18 bus in '96. Down the street, see the Sbarro sign? Fifteen dead, August 2001. It's closed now. They moved it, but no one goes there anymore. That falafel place to the left? It exploded the same day as that pub over there. See the flower shop?"

"Where?"

"There. One person died, 2002. Right here, there was a suicide gunman, firing on people. A friend of mine, a civilian with a long ponytail, pulled out a gun and wounded the guy. January 2002. The guy ran, but the police finished him off. See that man, with the yarmulke? He's got a gun in his pants pocket, see the lump there?

"A refrigerator was abandoned over there, across the street, and it exploded. Thirteen people died. That was a famous one, a long time ago, I was a kid. Right over here, three years ago, a guy parked his car, walked right over there into a crowd, and exploded. He left another bomb in the car, with a timer, so when people came to help the people injured from the first bomb, they were killed. Eleven died."

"A woman walked into that clothing store and blew up. See there . . ."

I asked him to slow down. I was having trouble getting it all down.

"Way down over there, at the vegetable market, 16 dead in 1997. Two bombers. That guy selling earrings from the stand in the street? His son died in a shooting attack."

Up to this point, we hadn't moved an inch. Mizrahi was just pivoting and pointing. Now, we started walking. We passed a bearded man wearing jeans, a tie-dyed T-shirt and a submachine gun. "See that bank machine?" Mizrahi continued. "Five girls were shot there, waiting in line. One was the daughter of my family doctor. She was just trying to get 20 shekels. People don't wait in lines much, anymore. You'll see them scattered around, keeping a distance from each other, less of a target."

Mizrahi stopped, smiled wryly and nodded toward a street kiosk with a tattered advertising poster. It was for the national lottery. It said, "Hapa'am yehiyeh lechah mazal." What does that mean, I asked.

"This time, you'll be lucky."

Mizrahi is an adrenaline junkie. He loves Jerusalem, wouldn't live anywhere else, least of all Washington, which he considers too boring for words. He moves effortlessly through his city with his camera, chronicling the madness, absorbing it all with an attitude between stoicism and bemusement. He is an Israeli patriot, but no moralist. He says if he were a Palestinian, living out there in the occupied territories, in a life without hope, he might well become a suicide bomber, too.

Mizrahi has photographed more than 20 bus bombings in the past eight years. His portfolio is, in a word, heartbreaking. He knows that the vast majority of buses don't blow up, but he won't ride one, and he recently got angry with his wife when she did. "I can't help it," he said. "I see a bus, I see death."

"We have to ride a bus now," I said.

"Okay," he said. Work is work.

IT HAD BEEN TWO MONTHS since the last suicide bombing, an eternity in Jerusalem time. In the meantime, Israel had carried out brazen assassinations of Hamas leaders Abdel Aziz Rantisi and Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the latter an elderly paraplegic in a wheelchair who was considered the father of the strategy of suicide bombing. No Palestinian reprisals yet. So this was not the best moment, perhaps, to be riding a bus.

Mizrahi photographed both bombings of the 18, which came a week apart, in 1996. While standing on the roof of a building shooting down on the carnage of the second explosion, he had to step over body parts. On the balcony below him, he saw the bomber's head.

Before you get on a bus on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem, you get the once-over from security guards who are posted at every bus shelter. These are tense young men in tan vests, with sunglasses and wires snaking down from ear microphones.

They fidgeted over Mizrahi, eyed me cursorily and let us aboard. The bus was packed. Jerusalem is a big city with no subway, expensive taxis, $3-a-gallon gas and bad traffic. Most everyone rides buses.

"I don't ride buses," said Assaf Gershoni.

Assaf Gershoni was our bus driver. He meant when he is off duty. Work is work.

A few minutes into the route, we passed a curious sculpture on the side of the road. It was a memorial, an enormous Star of David that appears to be made from scrap metal. It is. It is made from the twisted remains of the first No. 18 bus.

The people on the bus tend to be philosophical about their plight: What are you going to do? They will tell you their anxiety is reduced because of the guys in the tan vests outside, and because of the driver, whose judgment is, as far as they see it, the last line of defense.

This was interesting because at the bus stop, a tan vest had told us he'd never let his own relatives ride the buses. I asked Gershoni, the driver, if there's anything special he is trained to do if he thinks a bomber has just boarded his bus. Yes, he said. "When I see an Arab with a package, I say to myself, 'Please don't blow up, please don't blow up.' "

Anyway, this is not about what Israelis think as they ride a bus in Jerusalem. It is what an American thinks, on his first ride. An American watches every new person as he boards, prioritizing his concerns. Old woman, good. Old man, okay. Young, skinny person in tight clothes, no problem. Fat person: Is his flesh jiggling, or might it be something more rigid than protoplasm under that baggy shirt? Why is no one watching the back door? Someone could slip on, undetected, as a passenger gets off. No one is watching! Good, a soldier got on. But maybe that isn't good, maybe it makes us more of a target.

By minute 10, the American is pretty exhausted. But by minute 30, he's let down his guard a little. By minute 40, he has reached a state where he actually notices the pretty woman in shorts. Because, really, isn't that what life is about -- noticing the pretty woman in shorts? Isn't that what the human animal does? Life, as they say, goes on.

IN A PSYCHOLOGICAL EXPERIMENT IN THE 1980S, a group of municipal judges were asked to set bail for prisoners in mock criminal cases. Half of the judges were first asked to fill out a questionnaire about their own mortality. Those judges wound up setting much higher bails. Contemplating death toughened them. It reduced their compassion.

Mizrahi had one more place to show me before we said goodbye. French Hill is an upscale, Bethesda-like neighborhood in northeast Jerusalem. Attacks here are frequent; one of the most notorious occurred in March, when a drive-by shooting by Palestinians killed a 20-year-old jogger. The victim, apparently chosen at random, turned out to be the son of Elias Khoury, an Arab lawyer who had represented Yasser Arafat himself. Khoury had also lost his father in 1974 to a terrorist bombing near Zion Square -- the abandoned refrigerator that blew up, back when Mizrahi was a little boy. Nothing is ever over, in Jerusalem.

French Hill is a lick of land, a part of Jordan taken by Israel in the '67 war. It protrudes into the West Bank like a raised middle finger. Mizrahi led me to a corner patrolled by Israeli soldiers in camouflage gear, with assault weapons. I counted seven soldiers in the space of 60 feet. They were stopping everyone, even other soldiers, to demand ID. The center of the street was bisected by metal barriers. That is to slow up any suicide bombers trying to race toward the street corner from the Arab area. That delay will, with luck, buy enough time for the soldiers in the sniper's nest, up above us, to aim and fire.

This is not a war zone, exactly. It is a civilian bus stop.

The soldiers wore bulletproof vests. They were wary. The people waiting at the bus stop were wary. One Muslim woman, in a head scarf, was being detained by the soldiers because her papers were not in order. The woman was apoplectic, shouting that she was in Israel just to shop for new eyeglasses for her daughter. She commanded the embarrassed 10-year-old to show her scratched lenses to the soldiers, to the police, to the journalists, to random passersby. Over the soldiers' radio crackled a command, in Hebrew, to let the woman go. But the soldiers didn't. Twenty minutes had gone by, and it would be another 20 before they released her, so she'd learn from her mistake.

Never in my life had I felt so much ambient mistrust, fear and hatred in one place at one time.

And suddenly, seemingly from out of nowhere, a shaggy black dog showed up. She was Benji-sized, a little projectile of panting exuberance. She scampered up to everyone in turn, wagging her tail like mad, going person to person, saying howdy, ignoring no one, bursting with enthusiasm and slaphappy joy. For me, it broke the tension, and I found myself grinning. Then the dog wheeled around, raced back the way she had come and hopped into her cage on the back of a trailer on a military vehicle.

She'd been sniffing for bombs.

"The dread of evil is a much more forcible principle of human actions than the prospect of good . . . What worries you masters you."

-- John Locke


RICKI BERNSTEIN IS PEELING SWEET POTATOES. Her husband, David, is preparing the grill. Their extended family bounces in, one after another, gathering as is their custom for Shabbat dinner.

This is a family that never should have been. I know because I was at Ricki and David's wedding, 33 years ago in New York. She was 18, he was 19; out in the audience, my girlfriend and agreed it was a shame that these two good kids were marrying so young -- obviously, this union was doomed. Sensibly, my girlfriend and I waited longer. We're divorced now.

There is a Yiddish expression, bashert, which means that some things are "meant to be." It would be hard to find a closer family, anywhere, than the Bernsteins of Jerusalem. David -- "Bernie" to his friends -- is a history teacher and dean of a Jewish studies institute. Ricki is a therapist who specializes in the treatment of trauma -- a thriving, if dispiriting, business in this city.

They have four children, whose names suggest the cultural, spiritual and geographic journey that Ricki and Bernie have made since he and I were raising hell together on the NYU newspaper, 33 years ago. Their oldest, at 27, is Jessica. Daughter Ariel is 24. Their older son, Shai, is 21. Tani, the youngest child, is 17. Only Shai couldn't make it today; he is in the army. That would be the same Shai who used to lose fights with his older sisters, growing up. Now he's a member of a combat unit. All Israeli kids serve in the military.

One day not long ago, Ricki got a text message on her cell phone from Shai:

"It just said, 'I'm okay, I love you,' " she recalls. "It took me 20 minutes before I realized what that was about. It came on the news that two soldiers had been killed in an attack in Gaza. He was preparing me, telling me not to worry."

There is a skill to living in Jerusalem, a skill in taming personal terror.

"It's like a head game, a bargain you make with yourself," says Ricki. "It's a kind of denial you have to practice if you believe in living here."

"In my apartment," Jessica says, "the living room faces one of the main roads to the hospital. So I count sirens . . ."

"With a siren," Ricki interjects, "we all say to ourselves, 'It's just a woman in labor, it's just a woman in labor . . .' "

"If you hear one," says Jessica, "you brace yourself, because you don't want to hear two or more. One siren, just one, delivers a sense of relief."

How you respond depends often on what you have seen. Ariel rides city buses, as many as four a day, except in the few harrowing days after a terror attack, when, at her parents' insistence and with their money, she grudgingly takes taxis. Jessica won't ride city buses at all. In 1996, she was in a bus directly behind one of the No. 18s that blew up on Jaffa Road. She remembers it as a dull thud -- "it's not like an explosion in the movies."

"I hear about it from the dreams," Ricki says. She is talking about her clients who have been through a bombing, and the memories that plague their sleep. "There's a silence after a bomb, a deathly stillness. The birds have flown away, the air is sucked out of everything. Everyone is frozen. They can't speak.

"Then," she says, "it starts."

"It" is what happens afterward. Each person tends to carry away a specific image, a memory that haunts him. With Jessica, it is the cinders that floated down like sinister black rain. Levi Levine, Ariel's husband, was at the scene moments after Sbarro was bombed, in 2001, trying to help the victims. Many were beyond help.

"My mother takes care of babies," Levi says. "One day, afterward, I was with her, and one of the babies was asleep, and I had to ask her to move the baby's hand, because the baby's palm was in the same position as a baby's palm I saw in Sbarro." Shai was among the first at the scene at a Friday morning bombing of a supermarket in which three people died, including the teenage female bomber and a security guard who was trying to stop her. That afternoon, at home, Shai became nauseated when Ricki was cooking chicken.

"Olfactory triggers," Ricki says measuredly, "are very common."

It's all visceral. Some of it stays visceral, and needs help escaping. Disguising details to protect the privacy of the person involved, Ricki tells a story about a client of hers: The patient was a young man experiencing emotional problems, for no apparent reason. Ricki first interviewed the patient's mother, and asked for a routine mental health history. Were there any particular traumas in the boy's life? The mother ticked off the usual list: hospitalizations, divorces in the family, death of pets, that sort of thing. Nope, nothing special.

Meanwhile, the patient was delayed in arriving. The mother apologized, saying that he couldn't take the bus. "I almost didn't ask why," Ricki says. It turned out he wouldn't ride a bus because he had been personally affected not by one bus bombing but by four -- hearing one happen, losing a relative in another, and so forth.

"You raise your kids to think people are good, because the alternative is too terrible to bear," she says. "You don't want to live in a world like that, where there is evil lurking behind every smile. You don't want to believe in that. And then your children find out on their own."

One ordinary Israeli family. Seven people. Levi, Jessica and Shai have each been at the scene of a bombing. Ricki counsels victims. And Bernie? "Two students of mine were killed at the bombing of the cafeteria at the Hebrew University in 2002. A third one was sitting between them, and bent down to get something from a knapsack, and because of that, though she was wounded, she lived." Only Tani, the quiet, handsome boy with the soft eyes, seems not to have a story to tell.

I ask Bernie and Ricki: Why do you still live in this place?

"There has to be a Jewish homeland," Ricki says. "This is not a guaranteed thing. Someone has to do it, and we didn't want to be people who just send money to plant trees."

And so they live, partly in defiance, but mostly, they do what they must to keep their own tree flowering. Bernie, one of the gentlest men I've ever known, owns a pistol. He carries it when he is traveling with his students somewhere. The Israeli Ministry of Education requires armed escorts on class trips.

In the intractability of the current situation, the history teacher hears echoes of the past.

"The history of war," Bernie says, "shows us that there is always a demonization of the enemy. You don't know what to believe. In World War I, we were told that the Kaiser was murdering children. That was not true. In World War II, when the Allies said the Germans were killing civilians, it also sounded like propaganda. Now the Palestinians are being told outrageous things. They are being told by their leaders that the Jews are poisoning their wells. They don't know what to believe. They are deprived of a decent life, and they are whipped into a frenzy. I don't think most Palestinians are evil."

It is at this point that Tani speaks out. It turns out he does have a story to tell, after all.

"When I was in eighth grade I had a friend who lived in a settlement. He and another friend skipped school and took a hike down the valley near their home. A Palestinian shepherd killed them with bricks and stones, and dipped his hands in their blood, and wrote things in blood on the wall of a cave. They were beaten so badly they couldn't be identified by dental records. They needed DNA."

An ordinary Israeli family, preparing for Sabbath dinner.