Part of the Bay Area News Group

five years of living with terror

By enelson
Monday, September 11th, 2006 at 2:59 pm in BART, Buses, Security.

Staff photo by Greg Tarczynski

BART dog - GREG TARCZYNSKI - Staff 9-10-06.jpg

Like so many others, I was changed by September 11. Not only did I have a new reason to fear flying, but I had to confront it head-on.

Barely six weeks after the attacks, my wife was riding rickety Russian-made jetliners over the Iran in pursuit of Al Qaeda smugglers on the Afghan border.

By June 2002, I was with my 13-year-old son and our pet boxer flying into an airport in Israel a short bike-ride from the West Bank.

In deference to Palestinian suicide

 bombers, we never once rode a public bus in three years in Israel. By the time we left in June 2005, it seemed almost silly, avoiding buses when we regularly went to cafés and bars in neighborhoods bombers had hit repeatedly.

On election eve, 2004, we watched George W. Bush win a second term as president on CNN at Mike’s Place, a Tel Aviv waterfront bar where, in April 2003, a British man blew himself up, killing a couple of musicians and a waitress.

The Israeli authorities were on alert the day of the bombing. Their intelligence knew an attack was planned, they just didn’t know where or exactly when.

Then, while my dog and I waited to board our connecting plane in London to return to California last summer, a second group of subway bombers hit the very Underground system that I had been riding the previous evening during my 28-hour layover.

We’ve been lucky these past five years. No one has blown up any buses, trains or cafés in Boston or Atlanta, Oakland or San Jose. No more planes have been flown into buildings.  Our way of life, for the most part, has survived.

Is that because our government has protected us? Experts will say “yes and no’’ to this question. Certainly we have taken a bite out of Al Qaeda. The experts will tell you that the best protection against attacks is intelligence. You need to find out where they plan to strike and stop them early in the process.

This is the same lesson the Israelis have learned, over and over again. Every week, it seemed, the government would announce that it had thwarted plans in their early stages. Informants, risking the wrath of militant executioners, would tip off the authorities to plans in progress. Checkpoints would snare bombers long before they reached their targets.

But all too often, one of those bombers would slip through the cracks. Once that happened, the odds of stopping an attack dropped.

The “eyes and ears’’ of transit riders touted by BART on Sunday are certainly helpful, if we are attacked by suspicious-looking terrorists, but they can only do so much after the other lines of defense have failed.

I once read about the heroic actions of the Israeli bus driver who pinned a suicide bomber – not someone most people would want to put their arms around – to the point where he couldn’t set off his explosives. That was news, because it hardly ever happened that way.

These attacks were tiny when compared to the carnage of 9/11. But they did something that 9/11 failed to do. They put a nation on edge. They made people afraid to get onto buses. They made people buy cars even when it was prohibitively expensive. They made parents worry about their teenagers’ trips to beach parties, and not for the reasons we worry. They made people look at each other with suspicion.

A friend of mine would never travel to Jerusalem, she said, because “you never know who’s who in the zoo.’’

To be sure, we Americans have been terrorized. We look at people with traditional Middle Eastern or Central Asian attire and wonder if we should call 911. Certainly their lives have been profoundly changed. America is not quite the Land of the Free that it was on Sept. 10, 2001.

But our lifestyle may have survived because the terrorists have not hit us where we live. No malls have been bombed. We aren’t searching bags or using metal detectors anyplace other than airports, courthouses or federal government buildings.

Israel was once like that, too.

Some may argue that we’re not occupying holy sites in the Middle East, that we’re on a different hemisphere.

I’d have to guess that the world looks a lot smaller than that to the guys out there fitting themselves with expolosives.

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