Fear binds N.Y., Israel

October 07, 2001|By Helen Schary Motro

KFAR SHMARIYAHU, Israel - The sight of my three daughters huddled together wearing gas masks during a missile attack in the Persian Gulf war was so unbearable that I soon packed them off to safety - to New York. Friends there received my girls with open arms.

This week, I am sending those very same friends something else across the Atlantic: gas masks.

Gas masks in New York?

The thought still seems surreal. But since I saw the photos of New York cops and rescue workers wearing them at Ground Zero, since I heard of the grounding of the crop dusting planes, since every rumor assumes instant credibility, the worst case scenario of poison gas becomes more a plausible possibility than a black fantasy.

New York is the hometown I went back to whenever I could to escape the terrorism pressure cooker of Israel. New York was the place where no air raid siren could ever wail. Where no one would dream of putting a bomb in a supermarket or on a bus. Where you could buy a slice without fear somebody might blow up the pizza parlor around you.

In New York I could relax from the perennial Israeli tension, from the knee-jerk habit of constantly listening to the news with an ear toward a new disaster. Where I could talk with people for an entire evening without inevitably rehashing "the Situation," as Israelis refer to the yearlong Intifada II.

My New York will never be my same New York.

Suddenly I find myself in the ironic position of being able to offer a little bit of help from here. An Israeli newspaper has been carrying big front-page ads by a supplier telling where gas masks, chemical protection suits and other emergency equipment can be purchased.

Since the Persian Gulf war in 1991, Israelis have been equipped by the army with gas masks, which are periodically updated. So to whom is this supplier selling? It is mostly shipping to the United States, orders placed by people here for Americans who cannot find any in stock where they are. I, too, got on their list.

There is a run as well in Israeli pharmacies for ciprofloxacin, the antibiotic that can serve as an antidote to anthrax exposure. Again, I heard the same story: People are buying it here to send to America.

For Israelis, onerous precautions are routine. All private homes and public buildings by law must include a concrete bomb shelter with a steel door. Although Israel has a stringent search-and-seizure law, nobody thinks to protest when halted for spot checks and asked to produce identifying documents. The law mandates a government identity card for all residents over 16.

People are accustomed to delays caused by emergency roadblocks or being forced to sit in traffic as a highway is suddenly blocked off and the police investigate a suspicious object. Even young children are taught to be observant for unattended bags and packages, to be suspicious of concealed bombs.

Before entering a movie theater, a supermarket, a bowling alley, the symphony hall, an art museum, a public swimming pool, a McDonald's, a railroad station, one automatically opens one's handbag for inspection. No passenger leaves Israel on any airline without an in-depth personal interview by security personnel before he or she is permitted to approach the ticket counter.

All of this is why I would go to New York to rest. To stride past Rockefeller Center without wondering if an old discarded briefcase in a wire trash bin might contain a bomb. To whiz over the George Washington Bridge, lit up like a string of diamonds, knowing that a traffic tie-up could at worst be the result of an accident. To walk around the reservoir in Central Park watching the sun turn the windows on Fifth Avenue to gold, never dreaming that armed guards might be called out to protect drinking water against poisoning.

New Yorkers have been called a lot of things. Naive was never one of them. But Sept. 11 proved the city, like the whole horrified world, had an excess of this quality.

Is it overreacting to send gas masks to New York, equipping those you love with what may protect them in the hopefully remote eventuality of further disaster? Or is it naive not to?

Helen Schary Motro is a lawyer and free-lance writer who divides her time between New York and Israel.

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