Living Under the “Terrorism Tree”

by Naomi Ragen on February 16th, 2015

Each new wave of violence and hatred also evokes memories of past atrocities, so that even when the woman in the hijab with the knife is captured by the soldier before she can do any harm, the act sends shivers down our spines as it is added to the collection we keep in a large box close to our hearts, a box that we try to open and close quickly, before the demons can escape.

You’d think we’d be used to it by now, wouldn’t you? The unprovoked stabbings, cars running over people waiting for the train, shootings of would-be jihadis in the supermarket and the center of town. Especially for us in Jerusalem, who always live on the cusp of disaster, of the sudden outbreak of barely contained fanaticism. But as one Jerusalemite who has lived this way since leaving New York behind one cold winter’s day in 1971, I bear witness to the impossibility of ever believing this is a permanent situation. For Israelis, it will never be “the new normal.”

Every outbreak of terrorism is a new one, as if it has never happened before. Our senses, alert, become even more so. The casual native speech of Arab supermarket employees—many of whom have been inside our homes numerous times putting groceries on the kitchen table—nevertheless suddenly, and without warning, becomes menacing and incredibly loud. The big backpack of a soldier left in the carriage area on city buses—because it won’t fit anywhere else—evokes a chorus of “Whose bag is that?” from passengers, whose tones grow ever more frantic and hysterical with each passing second. And even though it takes less than five seconds for the sleepy private sitting up front to figure out it’s his bag that’s causing the ruckus, those seconds pass like little eternities.

Each new wave of violence and hatred also evokes memories of past atrocities, so that even when the woman in the hijab with the knife is captured by the soldier before she can do any harm, the act sends shivers down our spines as it is added to the collection we keep in a large box close to our hearts, a box that we try to open and close quickly, before the demons can escape.

Sometimes, this is possible. Sometimes, like on a recent Saturday night, as we get up from a delicious meal in a new French coffeehouse right off the Ben Yehuda pedestrian walkway, we are surrounded by surging crowds of revelers, most of them young and carefree, then surprisingly serenaded by a choir of Asian Israel-lovers, visitors from some far-off place, who sing with joy and without fear, their enthusiastic voices filled with goodwill. And we take the bus home, satisfied that the streets of Jerusalem are filled. Even so, we can’t help comparing it to Saturday nights not so long ago, when no one—ourselves included—would walk down Ben Yehuda Street at all because of all the human bombs waiting to go off. We can’t help using that as the barometer for the current state of the nation. And even when there are good signs, still we wonder: How many more incidents will it take? How many more random hit-and-runs or stabbings to empty the streets and lock us back into our fears? How many more will it take for terrorism to win?

I sometimes think our past hangs over us like a big tree, casting shade over even the brightest of days. I remember, years ago, having survived a terrorist attack, I told myself that to live with terrorism is to lie in bed and dread what lies beyond this hour, this minute, this second—but also to breathe more deeply and notice the sky, hear the click of coffee spoons, smell the fragrant, brewed cup. It is to taste each mouthful and take no second chance for granted.

To live with terrorism is to suspect each stranger, to cherish each friend, to love more deeply, hate more unforgivingly. It is to have no tolerance for the morally confused who waver, who say, “Yes, but on the other hand”—to have no tolerance for those who still claim nothing is black and white.

To live with terrorism is to see the dividing line, the demarcation between good and evil, like a white road marker: Never was anything more clear, more simple, more stark, than that which divides those who kill from those who are killed—the scum of the earth from innocent noncombatants.

To live with terrorism is to live more profoundly, in greater touch with truth, good, God, life, innocence, longing, fear, love, compassion, vengeance and hope. Such a life loses inevitability but gains depth. It loses the sense of freedom, safety, justice, logic and predictability, replacing them with clarity, despair, physical alertness and adaptability.

To live with terrorism is to live life always with a sense of imminent endings but never to lose hope that one day things will go back to being the same again day after day.

The longer we live in the shade of the terrorism tree, the more we begin to forget what normal life was like. Sometimes that just means that we live with greater intensity than most people, which is not the worst thing in the world. The worst thing would be to live without memory or without hope. For now, we live with both.

This article was originally published in the January-February 2015 issue of Moment.