Making Peace With Terror

Lessons in coping from those who live where death is a way of life

Cover Story

September 16, 2001|By Michael Ollove | By Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

In the Northern Ireland town of Omagh, a group of citizens gathered around a small garden Friday to memorialize the victims of Tuesday's devastating attacks in the United States.

Michael Gallagher stepped forward and placed on the soil an American flag that had hung in his son Adrian's room since 1991.

The garden itself was created to commemorate another tragedy, a 1998 car bombing not far from this spot that had killed 29 people and injured hundreds more. One of the dead was 21-year-old Adrian, who had driven into the bustling shopping district that Saturday to buy a pair of jeans and boots.

The attack, attributed to a splinter group of the Irish Republican Army, was the worst episode of political violence of nearly continuous bloodshed over three decades.

Northern Ireland is like so many other troubled spots around the world, where graveside services for the victims of terrorist acts are recurrent sights. In Israel, in Northern Ireland, in Turkey, political violence is a daily reality -- if not the actual deed, then the ever-present possibility of it.

Tuesday's assaults in New York and Washington dwarfed all previous terrorist attacks anywhere in the world. It still seems implausible that terrorist strikes will become a regular occurrence in American life.

But in many other countries, political violence is as frequent as rain showers, enough to fundamentally change the way residents of those places live.

It is not that life comes to a halt because of the constant risk of a pipe bomb exploding or a suicide attack. Normal life does go on. "You do what people everywhere do," said Ellen Shankman, an American-born Israeli lawyer. "You go to work, have a family, live a creative and joyous life."

That does not mean that they don't accommodate themselves to the possibilities of peril. "We just learn to live with the tension," said Lee Berlman, a 69-year-old Israeli tour guide who grew up in the United States but has lived in Israel for 35 years.

Little adjustments

Residents in such places make countless compromises to limit their exposure.

"You go to the market a little earlier because there aren't that many people then, so they may not be tempted to set off the bomb then," said Berlman. "You take the long way around to go from Galilee to Jerusalem. The short, prettier way is to take the Jordan Valley Road, but they shoot people on the Jordan Valley Road. So, I go the long way even though it adds an hour in both directions."

Few Americans look underneath their cars for bombs, but Gallagher, who also lost a younger brother in 1984 to the Northern Ireland "troubles," does so every day. In so many ways, his life and psyche are contorted by the violence that scars his country.

"You don't set up appointments with people you don't know by prior arrangement. You don't take the same routes. You stay away from windows. You're aware of being approached by people you don't know. You are frightened when strangers come to your house."

Until Adrian's death, father and son ran a car-repair shop in Omagh. Since then, Gallagher has devoted himself to an Omagh anti-terrorist organization, which he chairs. "There's no difference between Arab terrorists and Irish terrorists, between Christian terrorists and Muslim terrorists," he says.

Many Americans who have lived overseas are familiar with the adjustments people make in places frequently traumatized by terrorism. Timi Gerson, who works for an anti-free trade organization in Washington, was an exchange student in Bogota, Colombia, in 1997 when violence and kidnapping were endemic. She learned that as a woman, it was dangerous to go out alone or to take taxis. She became accustomed to the sight of soldiers with submachine guns and bulletproof shields.

Although the Colombians took many precautions, Gerson said, she was struck by how blase they were about the recurring violence. She recounted how she was finishing a meal at a cafe in the coastal town of Cardenas when a bomb detonated in a building directly across the street. Glass from the explosion rained down on her.

Nearly as shocking, though, was the response of her host family when she returned to Bogota and told them what had happened. "Their reaction was: 'Oh Timi, that's horrible. We're so sorry that happened to you. And please pass the peas.'

"They get so desensitized and apathetic to it. It's not that they don't care. They just realize there's nothing they can do about it."

She believes the vibrancy and creativity she recognized in Colombians was an outgrowth of their appreciation that they could be visited by tragedy at any time. Life seemed more precious to Colombians because of the danger.

But she also noticed Colombians had an aversion to politics, fearing to do anything that could be seen as provocative. That's why her Colombian boyfriend wanted Timi to stop her work for a women's rights organization. He thought she was risking being kidnapped.

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