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Unconventional Fear

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL — I AM WRITING THIS PASSAGE WITH A STIFF neck. I just helped my upstairs neighbor carry a pair of diving cylinders up to his penthouse apartment, and this time my rich combat experience in moving furniture didn't help, and I must have made a wrong move. My neighbor bought the huge oxygen tanks because someone explained to him that in a chemical attack they could be opened up in a sealed room, and the compressed oxygen bursting out of them would increase the air pressure in the room and thus provide "extra protection," as my neighbor called it, against any possibility of toxic gases getting into the room. Perhaps it was the crick in my neck that triggered the cynicism on my part at hearing this wonderful idea, but I couldn't help but open his eyes to the fact that the café where we bump into each other some mornings was trashed in a suicide attack less than a year ago, and the one where I used to see him before that was also closed down due to a terror attack. So if he is really looking for some kind of "extra protection," he would do better to spend his money on an espresso machine. "So help me," said my neighbor almost apologetically, "if they were firing ordinary missiles, I wouldn't bother with this stuff at all. But this chemical shit scares the hell out of me."

My neighbor is not the only one scared by this chemical shit. Many of the people living in tough, scarred Israel look as if they are in the throes of an anxiety attack as they face the possibility of an unconventional attack on their country. A flourishing industry, which goes beyond oxygen tanks and offers everything from chemical toilets to Swiss protection for shelters, travel agencies marketing "crunch packages" to nearby Greece and Crete, and municipal governments leaking to the press contingency plans to evacuate entire cities in case of an unconventional attack, is merely a symptom of the high level of anxiety suffered by Israeli citizens. This anxiety, at least on paper, is a little surprising. If numerous Western countries are currently flirting with the fear of terrorism and a remote war, the citizens of Israel have been sharing their bed with this fear as part of an ongoing, exhausting relationship that has become entirely devoid of passion. How does a country — after dozens of terror attacks and hundreds of dead — still find the emotional energy for such a naive and virginal anxiety?

If we take a look at the numbers, this fear appears to be even more bizarre. In the previous Gulf War, to the best of my knowledge, five people were killed in Israel. Two died because they forgot to remove the cover on their gas masks and suffocated, two others died of a heart attack, and one — just one — died as a result of a direct missile hit. For the sake of comparison, in the past two years of the Intifada, some 700 Israelis have been killed. The danger of an unconventional attack per se — a danger that most experts view as unlikely — does not provide a satisfactory answer. A chemical warhead would not necessarily cause more casualties than a conventional warhead, and both together are not necessarily more dangerous than a Palestinian suicide terrorist carrying an explosive charge and a bunch of nails.

What the chemical missile does offer us is the possibility of a shiny new fear to replace the old, worn-out, stone-washed one — a threat that is focused on a clear and specific point in space and time instead of one that we have trouble remembering when it began, and even more trouble imagining when it will end. And so, after the daily grind has led all of us to a place where the horror and danger are just another chapter in our routine, the Gulf threat provides us with a fresh, unspoiled threat to which we can and may channel all of our repressed anxieties, yielding a catharsis of sorts following two and half years of pointless tragedy. And in the middle of such a collective emotional tempest, the thought that there is a serious likelihood that my stiff neck and I could be the only Israeli casualties in the coming war is of no consolation.

Etgar Keret is the author of The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and Other Stories.

This piece was translated from Hebrew by Rachel Avital.


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