Ducking for cover - from ourselves

As a journalist and the mother of three young children, I have a rare edge on handling the barricade-ourselves-in-with-Home-Depot-supplies atmosphere that comes with a home front war on terror.

As the mother of three imaginative little boys I know when a whopper has been told to me. I also know when the guilty party is not feeling guilty, as when Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge issued his postpandemonium announcement last week wearing a "sorry I spooked you" smirk.

As a journalist who survived a number of Saddam Hussein's Scud attacks on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the 1990s, I have lived through the terror of having had an actual missile whiz by, careering over my hotel. When the missiles landed, everyone waited in gas masks with atropine needles, poised for the "all clear," or the "inject yourself now," television or radio announcement to be given.

In a nutshell, I have actually been in a place where HIGH ALERT is merited. The place where Mr. Ridge just tried to send all Americans is a state of HIGH PANIC. Big difference. As the president misquoted just a few months ago, "Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice ... well, we just can't get fooled again."

Let me tell you, panic - the place where hiding in plastic vaults with duct tape and Evian will save your family - is located deep in the heart of downtown Loopyland.

In Tel Aviv, pre-kids, when I was young and rash, I went to see the fear and the panic. One of the slavering media hordes, I went to report to my newspaper about how people were hunkering under tables and buying plastic sheeting.

That wasn't on the Israeli agenda.

Early one morning there, as mothers packed school lunches, a Scud whistled its way through suburbs outside Tel Aviv. A whole neighborhood was pulverized - roofs torn off, people injured - just by the vibration of the incoming missile.

Everyone in the nation watched their televisions and held their breath, waiting to hear the soothing voice of Benjamin Netanyahu announce if there was a chemical or biological payload on board.

He ticked down the list of neighborhoods giving the all clear.

Phew.

Families left the shelters, slipped packed lunches into backpacks, and handed them off to their children along with their gas masks.

Parents escorted their children onto the school buses and then walked away - as if nothing had just happened. I stood on a neighborhood street corner and watched them. Neighbors joked with one another and then smiled and trotted off for coffee.

Here in the United States last week, my 8-year-old son called me into the TV room to ask, "Mom, why is that guy gift wrapping his house in plastic?" He was watching CNN and seeing some fool sealing his entire house for the cameras. Pointing at the spectacle he said, "We're on high alert! Why aren't we wrapping our place?"

Then I was afraid - am I raising my sons in a country where people are that easily brought to heel, laid low, and led into a state of abject absurdity?

Folks, we have to kick it down a few emotional notches or we will not survive the alerts, let alone an actual attack.

That is what I learned in Israel on that morning all those years ago. I couldn't stand to see those children being put on school buses after the missile landed. I thought, Netanyahu said "all clear" to indicate that the bomb wasn't a chemical or biological weapon. He didn't say no more were on the way. What are these people thinking?

I ran up to one mother and asked, "Aren't you afraid? What if there's another attack?"

She gazed at me with a great deal of pity. "You're American. You don't understand how terror works. It is about changing the way you live, react, think, don't think. That's what they love to see, these people. If they make you crazy and stupid with fear they win. I am more afraid of losing my child to that."

I thought she was nuts. I thought that if I had a child and lived in Israel, I would have made my family live in a bomb shelter. But I was the nut.

Last week, in New Jersey, I sat down with my two older sons, ages 9 and 8. I showed them the photos I'd shot in Tel Aviv - parents and children carrying little brown cardboard boxes with black plastic shoulder straps. The boxes, casually slung over every little shoulder were decorated with stickers, glitter, drawings. Gasmask boxes.

"See, those are tools," I explained. "They're not afraid, because where they live that's what they need, just like their lunch box."

"Will our country get like that?" one son asked. I told him I didn't think so, but if it did, we would just deal with it.

"Are we going to war now?" the other wanted to know. I told him it was possible, but I hoped the people here would be wise enough to know that we shouldn't rush to war just because we were terrified that our lifestyles were changing.

The day after the Homeland Security "advisory," I had been unable to get through the crowds at the supermarket or the bank. Suburbia was paralyzed. I'm not saying that we shouldn't prepare ourselves by stocking some sensible items. I am merely suggesting we equip ourselves emotionally first.

The simple truth is that at the moment we are our own worst enemy.

Lisa Suhay is a freelance writer.

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