By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
IN THE PARKING GARAGE OF THE JERUSALEM MALL ON A RECENT Tuesday, the Israeli army was giving out gas masks. The mall itself was functioning as normal: boys on cell phones, girls buying jeans, everyone walking past stores displaying off-the-shoulder shirts so hideous only Heidi Klum could pull them off. One floor down, at the garage's green level, metal barricades were set up to keep lines orderly, and a giant, square TV was showing an instructional video on how to put on a gas mask. "If you cannot breathe, raise your hand," said a sign.
Behind the TV, at two long sets of tables covered in tablecloths, soldiers (i.e., 18- to 22-year-olds in army uniforms) sat as though they were judging pies. They were distributing "protective kits," each containing a gas mask and a syringe filled with atropine, to counteract nerve gas.
The instructional video appeared to have been made with the entertainment of future generations in mind. Onscreen, a pudgy guy in a button-down shirt fiddled with the straps of a gas mask. Narration in Hebrew was accompanied by music seemingly lifted from an airplane seat-belt instructional video. The English subtitles were each a little gift: "A feeling of suffocation proves sealing." "Screw on drinking straw; take drinking nipple into mouth." "This is a one-time procedure."
In the video's final vignette, a woman appeared onscreen, zipping her baby into a clear plastic suit that started at his waist and enveloped his entire upper body, including his head. The baby looked horrified, like a reluctant astronaut. Somehow, he was calm by the time she picked him up and swung him around in slow motion as the music swelled.
Because this was Jerusalem, Muslims as well as Jews were there, although only a few of each, since it was during the working day. A woman in a head scarf watched with her kids next to a balding man in a yarmulke. No one seemed worried or frightened. The kids laughed every time someone on the screen put on a gas mask because the straps hung down from the sides of their head like dog ears. The balding guy watched for a while, then walked away, muttering in English, "Okay, I think I got it." A 22-year-old lieutenant with a ring in her eyebrow said, "Scared? Not really. In the first Gulf War we were in the sixth grade. Children remember it as a really good time because we had no school."
Israel, of course, wrote the book on being a nation of war/terrorism-ready citizens. In 1991, when Iraq fired 31 Scud missiles at Israel, everyone already had gas masks, and sealed rooms, and a sense of what to do if the sirens went off. For several days, the sirens did go off periodically, and people waited for hours at a stretch in bomb shelters and sealed rooms. After more than a month of intermittent bombing, 13 people were dead, 463 were injured, and $110 million worth of damage had been done.
Taking stock of the destruction, the country came to the painful realization that more people had been killed and hurt by safety precautions than by missiles. Two hundred fifty-five people injured themselves by needlessly injecting atropine, compared to 208 injured by debris from Scud damage. Of the dead, only two had been killed as a direct result of the missiles. Four had heart attacks, and seven suffocated, either because they didn't leave their sealed rooms in time or because they mishandled their gas masks.
Israel decided that gas masks and homemade sealed rooms weren't the best solution, and in any case weren't enough. After the first Gulf War, every new apartment was required by law to include a protected room with extra-thick cement walls and blast-resistant, fully sealable doors and windows. Some buildings were designed with bigger versions of these protected rooms, to accommodate everyone from a whole floor of a building at once. The Israel Defense Forces Web site offers suggestions on how to use these spaces in peacetime. "The shelter can be used as play room for the tenants, exercise room for youth club, office for the house committee, meeting room for the tenants, temporary synagogue, etc."
A gas mask has no peacetime use, of course. It's too unwieldy and specific to serve any non-war-related purpose. Or is it? A television ad for an art school here called Bezalel starts with a man's bare ass, black rubber straps running across his cheeks and around his waist. He turns around and is wearing a gas mask as a sort of bikini. The tag line: "If you dare, you'll get accepted. Bezalel." According to a spokeswoman, requests for applications to the school are way up.
USHERED IN WITHOUT NOTICE TO meet Norman Mailer moments before he was due to hold forth at the Skirball Cultural Center, I limply shook his hand and blurted something idiotic about being there to cover the event, not review his work. He looked a little crestfallen. Then he said eagerly, "Wanna have a press conference afterward?" as if proposing a rubber of bridge. "Four or five reporters? I prefer four or five." I asked why, and his blue eyes flashed. Well, twinkled. "I'm more generous that way." Aided by two canes, the Brawler in Chief — a beaming little old guy with short legs and a thatch of white hair — climbed to the podium with difficulty, announced that he was hard of hearing and treated his interviewer, Carol Muske-Dukes, with courtly respect. If anyone was spoiling for a fight, it seemed to be Muske-Dukes. Svelte and sexy and looking a good 15 years younger than her 57 years in black jeans, a glossy helmet of blond hair and a formfitting jacket open almost unto the Wonderbra, the noted L.A. poet and novelist bounded onstage like an upmarket Goldie Hawn, wished her guest a happy 80th birthday and let loose with a string of ambiguous accolades.