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When the Unimaginable Happens, and It’s Right Outside Your Window

By CLYDE HABERMAN New York Times September 12, 2001

Do you get it now?

It is a question that many Israelis wanted to ask yesterday of America and the rest of the finger-pointing world. Not in a smart-alecky manner. Not to say, “We told you so.” It was simply a question for those who, at a safe remove from the terrorism that Israelis face every day, have damned Israel for taking admittedly harsh measures to keep its citizens alive.

“Suppose I had intelligence reports telling me that someone was going to hijack a Boeing 757 and crash it into the World Trade Center,” an Israeli official said yesterday. “And suppose I used an M-16 to kill him. According to the arguments being used against us, I’d be an assassin, illegally using American weapons.”

This official was referring to the international condemnation Israel has endured for killing certain Palestinians, people accused of not only masterminding anti-Israel terrorist acts in the past but planning more in the near future. The American criticism of Israel has been sotto voce. But it is there. And in this Black September, after the worst act of terrorism in history, the question arises from Israelis like this official:

Do you get it now?

“We are now going to see a very resolute, and possibly global, approach to dealing with terrorism,” Joseph Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst, said by phone from Tel Aviv. As for his own country, he said, “People will understand with how much reserve we have responded – and after this, criticism of the response will lower.”

That question – do you get it? – came almost instantly to mind yesterday to me, too, after having just spent two months reporting from Israel. It was asked on more levels than merely how to deal with those who kill Americans for having committed the unforgivable sin of being Americans.

You can’t avoid the question when, again, as on many occasions while working in Israel in the first half of the 1990’s, you have seen the human wreckage caused by the suicide bombs that go off with sickening frequency. You ask it because Jerusalem offers a glimpse of what New York may become. Some likened the assault on the trade center and the Pentagon to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. If the point was that we Americans may never be the same, the analogy is apt. Jerusalem points the way.

JUST three days ago, I wrote about the fear that now grips Israelis, how they listen for the sirens, how as the ambulances keep coming, they reach for cell phones. Frantically, they call to make sure that loved ones are all right. Often, they cannot get through because so many people are phoning at the same time. They try to hold the panic at bay.

All of that happened in New York yesterday.

Even without knowing who was behind this monstrous act, you could not shake off the televised images of crowds of Palestinians – not a handful of bloodthirsty extremists – chanting “God is great” and joyously handing out candy in celebration on the streets of Nablus in the West Bank. Same as when a bomb went off in Jerusalem and killed children and their mothers in a restaurant.

The funerals for yesterday’s victims will, you may be certain, become national events and, for many, occasions for political statements. Same as in Jerusalem.

In Israel, there is no such thing as six degrees of separation. In a country that small, two degrees is more like it. If you don’t know a bombing victim personally, you almost surely know someone who does. You may safely bet that an extraordinary number of New Yorkers will have the same relationship to someone whose life was cruelly extinguished yesterday in Lower Manhattan.

“It’s all very personal there, and now it’s all very personal here,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

More clearly than ever, Americans now understand that they may not assume any public place is safe. Same as in Jerusalem.

Remember the suicide bomber who killed 15 innocent people at a Sbarro’s pizza outlet in downtown Jerusalem last month? As timing would have it, that restaurant is supposed to reopen today. No doubt an armed guard will be posted at the entrance, as one is these days at almost every restaurant and outdoor cafe in central Jerusalem.

We certainly have no shortage of Sbarro outlets in New York.

Do you get it now?

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