American Resilience in the Face of Evil

April 16th, 2013

Seeing the images from the Boston Marathon tragedy triggered for me a variety of emotions and memories.  Since the events yesterday, I’ve learned that the husband of a childhood friend had just passed the Finish Line before the blast and that a twelve-year-old child of one of this couples friends remains in the hospital being treated for her injuries. Sadly, such horrific events can come very close to home.

Each time one of these tragedies occurs, I’m drawn back to a trip I took to Israel and Egypt with the American Council of Young Political Leaders and what I learned there.

My trip to those countries happened in 1998.  From an historic perspective, it was probably one of the quietest times in Israel’s history.  Still, knowing Israel’s history of dealing with terrorist attacks and since we were Americans where such tragedies were thankfully foreign to us, we arrived in Jerusalem with some trepidation.

On our first evening in that city, we were invited to dine with two American diplomats and a small group of Israeli officials.  Our first questions to them were all about terrorism and clearly were designed to help us calm our collective fears about being there.  Finally, one of us asked a very direct question.

“What are the chances of us being in a terrorist attack while we’re here?”

The American diplomat answered, I suppose, since he best understood where we were coming from.

“When I came here, I worried about the same thing,” he told us, “What I was told and what I’ve come to learn is true is that you’re about as likely to be in a terrorist attack here as to be in an automobile accident in the United States.”

This was oddly comforting.  Every day we get in our cars and know that we could be involved in a crash, but we get in and drive anyway.  Fortunately, car accidents are fairly rare and fatalities thankfully even more so.  So, upon hearing this analysis, we never discussed any fear of terrorism again.

Still, watching Israeli society at the time, we couldn’t help but notice how different it was from our own.  The first thing I observed is that everyone had a cellphone and they were all constantly using it.  This was before cellphones were as common as they are now.  I recall one lunch we attended where I couldn’t help but notice that every single Israeli at every table in the restaurant seemed to be talking on the phone.

I found this so amusing (although now dining with my husband I’m quite used to it) that I asked one of our hosts about it.

“I guess to an American it seems rude,” he told me, “but everyone here does it and we see it as a good thing.  The minute anyone sees anything unusual or hears about any kind of attack, we can immediately alert others.”

That made a lot of sense, so afterwards whenever it happened, I tried to be less culturally sensitive to the practice and instead appreciate that it could actually be a very good thing.  I’m glad I did because now, of course, there are cellphones everywhere and not only are we talking on them but we have smartphones where we can snap photos and take videos.

At the end of the Israel part of our journey, I recall sitting on the tarmac at the airport leaving for Cairo feeling almost relieved.  We’d all made it through Israel without incident.  Landing in Cairo, however, it didn’t take long for us to realize that our fears had been quite misplaced.

After clearing customs, we were ushered into a van where a U.S. Embassy official was waiting for us.  In front of the van, there was an entire contingent of Egyptian military personnel there to “protect” us on our trip to the hotel.  After much conversation and clear bargaining, the Embassy official convinced our “escorts” to disperse.

Naturally, after witnessing all this, we had questions.

“You all came in on El Al Airlines and you’re Americans,” he explained, “That potentially makes you targets, but unfortunately what they don’t seem to understand is that driving around with a military escort like that probably makes you bigger targets.”

I really didn’t like what I was hearing.  I liked it even less when the Embassy officials briefed us the next day and left us with the distinct impression that, as Westerners, we were probably safer in Israel.

Fortunately, nothing untoward happened while we were there and I look back on the entire experience as one of the best I’ve ever had.  Still, I distinctly remember thinking as our plane left Cairo how utterly relieved and grateful I felt to be going to a country where I didn’t need to constantly worry about being a victim of terrorism. I felt sorry for people like the Israelis who’ve had to factor such possibilities into daily life.

Obviously, September 11th happened and all that has changed.  Now we have Boston, and we have yet to learn the details but clearly it’s another act of terrorism.

When events like Boston happen, I think the first inclination is to go into your house and hide.  I’m grateful that I met people in Israel who taught me that you don’t have to do that nor should you.

At times like today, we can and should be resilient.

If we show our collective resilience, in the end, we’ll win.